Thirty years ago, as petroleum finds were being developed in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the local political elite used potential oil exports as collateral for bank loans. This ultimately led to the highest per capita debt in South America, and, in the fall of 1999, Ecuador became the first country to default on Brady Bonds. Named after Reagan/Bush Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, these are financial instruments collateralized by zero percent US Treasury bonds and designed to avoid national bankruptcies.
Desperate to maintain the support of the international financial community, President Jamil Mahuad “dollarized” the economy, substituting the US dollar for the national currency, while attempting to privatize the national petroleum company. But the main strategy involved an ambitious project to help feed the US gasoline addiction: a two-foot diameter tube filled with petroleum. The goal was to pump 500,000 barrels per day up 12,000 feet, out of the Amazon basin, over the Andes mountains, and down the steep western slope to the Pacific port of Esmeraldas.
In a corruption-tainted deal, six international oil companies – Alberta Energy (Canada), Kerr McGee (USA), Occidental Petroleum (USA), AGIP (Italy), Perez Companc (Argentina), Repsol-YPF (Spain) and Techint (Argentina) – known as OCP Ltd. (Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados – Heavy Oil Pipeline) received permission to construct the pipeline in June 2001. Banks from Germany, the US, and Italy provided the financing. On paper, the project was to cost $1.1 billion. But the actual price, including the loss of primary jungle, indigenous homelands, and protected habitats, is incalculable.
Since then, however, Ecuadorians and pipeline opponents from Los Angeles to London, Barcelona and Warsaw have been resisting the scheme.
In the Northern Ecuadorian Amazon, oil production over the last three decades has produced toxic runoff and spills that have destroyed 2.5 million acres of jungle. The pipeline will make matters even worse, subjecting national parks, wildlife reserves, and the roadless indigenous region of southeast Ecuador to exploitation. Parks and preserves will be polluted and cut down. Resources that have sustained the indigenous Shuar and Achuar people for centuries will disappear, destroying their culture if not their lives.
On the Pacific side, rather than following the path of Ecuador’s existing pipeline, the OCP will pass through the Northwest of Pichincha Province. From 1973 to 1975, I worked there as a Peace Corps volunteer with a government agency, promoting a land reform project along a road being built between Quito and the coast. In the intervening years, almost all the pristine jungle that once covered this area has been cut down.
In the 1980s, the people of Mindo, located at the eastern end of this region, realized they were losing their wilderness. To save what was left, they created the 47,000-acre Mindo-Nambillo Preserve, reaching from Mindo up over the ridges of Mount Pichincha. This pristine area encompasses a highly bio-diverse cloud forest with 450 species of birds. Birdlife International calls it the most important bird sanctuary in Latin America.
But the OCP route crosses the slopes of the volcanically active Mount Pichincha to the spine of the Mindo-Nambillo Preserve. From there it follows the Guarumos Ridge for miles, through the dense cloud forest of the preserve, until it drops back down to the road headed toward the coast. When people in the region learned about this plan, virtually everyone including Mayor Marco Calle said no. Those who knew about the old pipeline, which had leaked 145,000 gallons of oil over the past three years, feared not only for the bird preserve, but also for the health of their land and water supplies.
In response, the OCP consortium turned on the money machine, while the Ecuadorian government sent in the troops. After the mayor received $900,000, ostensibly for a potable water system, his opposition to the pipeline vanished. “What could I do?” he explained. “It was a national project. They signed the contract without asking us. Sure, there was opposition, but we have to get on with our lives.”
Horrified by this capitulation, youthful wilderness guides and eco-tourist entrepreneurs in Mindo formed Acci-n por la Vida (Action for Life) and soon became the central force in an international coalition to block the OCP. The strategy was to challenge the publicly-owned Westdeutsche Landesbank, which initiated the financing. According to bank policy, its projects must follow World Bank environmental guidelines, which supposedly don’t permit the destruction of natural habitats in existing protected areas. Since huge D-9 tractors and hundreds of workers were poised to denude a 100-foot swath through the heart of the Mindo-Nambillo Preserve, installing an oil pipeline on a seismically active mountain and potentially spilling thousands of gallons of petroleum down two pristine watersheds, the project clearly didn’t meet the guidelines.
Nevertheless, the OCP managed to convince the bank that this wasn’t a problem. Undeterred, Acci-n por la Vida’s next step was to buy land on the Guarumos Ridge, directly in the pipeline’s path. They also created tree-sits, and Julia Butterfly joined them.
The government responded by sending in the military. “They kidnapped us right off our own property,” recalls Jenny Patino, a young and effective spokesperson for the group. Protesters were jailed in Quito, and Julia Butterfly was deported. The government subsequently used the police to prevent these landowners from returning to their property.
By the time I visited last November, Acci-n por la Vida had filed a lawsuit. But as their case languished in the Ecuadorian judicial system, OCP crews continued to plow through the jungle. Frustrated by the failure to defend their beloved forest, members of the group sat around a table at Cesar Fiallos’ hotel in Mindo and came up with another plan to subvert OCP’s financing.
Guioseppe de Marzo, a leader of the Italian Green Party, was in town. Three people volunteered to guide him past the armed guards to the top of Guarumos Ridge. If he was deported, they hoped the outrage in Italy would lead the Italian bank to withdraw its financing.
Arriving at Cesar Fiallos’ inn two days before the planned action on Guarumos Ridge, I found de Marzo sitting alone at a table. Ill from tourista, he struggled to get some food down, hoping to strengthen himself for the climb. The next morning, Fiallos left for Quito to rally student support.
That night, a dozen journalists from Brazil, Germany, Peru, Italy, Colombia, the US, and Ecuador showed up. Most were connected to Indymedia, an activist news network that has spread around the world since the 1999 protests against the WTO in Seattle.
At four the next morning, de Marzo was guided to the top of the ridge. Three hours later, members of Acci-n por la Vida, along with the international activists, went to the OCP’s gated and heavily armed roadway to stop the police from taking de Marzo and his guides back to Quito.
Soon the arrests began. But busloads of students arrived by the time the first prisoner, Fiallos’ brother, was brought down. After the crowd blocked the gate, the police let their prisoner go.
Next, Ecuadorian soldiers showed up. Still, the people from Mindo stood firm. When a hooded truck, possibly carrying the other three prisoners, descended the muddy hill, Patino and her compatriots leaned against the closed gate. But the soldiers and police wedged it open enough for a vehicle to pass. In desperation, Patino and two other women dropped to the ground and refused to move. The truck stopped. Unable to overcome such determination, it backed up and disappeared into the jungle. Pushing the gate closed, the protesters celebrated.
At days’ end, however, hundreds of workers streamed down the road and opened the gate. And under cover of darkness, a police truck sped by with the prisoners.
By this time, I was hungry, cold, tired, and feeling a little of my own tourista illness. On the ride back to Mindo I found myself stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder, in the back of an enclosed, exhaust-filled van with more than a dozen activists and a dog. Bumping down the rough, jungle road, I would have been sick had it not been for the enthusiasm that surrounded me. Everyone was singing, first in Spanish, then in English, Portuguese, German, and Italian. Buoyed by the vitality of a movement determined to defy a commercial empire and block its destructive plan, my spirit soared.