Ecuador: Farmers Accuse Logging Firm of Harassment

Publisher Name: 
Inter Press Service

QUITO -- The logging firm Botrosa, one of whose partners is Ecuador's Trade Minister Roberto Pea Durini, has been charged in court for harassing peasant farmers and environmentalists in the northwestern province of Esmeraldas, near
the Colombian border.

Local farmers went to court in the city of Quinind to charge
that they were arbitrarily detained and tortured by police and
security guards on the Botrosa payroll, who reportedly threatened
to kill them if they didn't leave the land they farmed.

The 350 members of the 'Ecuador Libre' Cooperative, their
families, and environmental activists are protesting Botrosa's
occupation and deforestation of land claimed by the cooperative of
small farmers.

Ricardo Buitrn, an activist with the local non-governmental
organisation Ecological Action, one of the groups defending the
cooperative's right to the land in dispute, was forced to flee the
country when he received death threats, and after an arrest
warrant was issued for him on charges of slander and instigating
peasant farmers to occupy land.

The National Agrarian Institute (INDA) awarded the property in
question, formerly public land, to Botrosa. But the cooperative
maintains that the property, known as El Pambilar, forms part of
the forestland legally protected by the Environment Ministry.

Ecological Action and other environmental and human rights
groups filed a complaint with the People's Defender in Esmeraldas
for abuses against local residents and activists, and for the
allegedly illegal manner in which the land was granted to the
logging company.

The groups underline that INDA's mandate only permits it to
distribute land to small farmers, as part of the land reform
programme, and not to ''large logging companies, to allow them to
deforest a protected area.''

The managing director of Botrosa, Mauricio Tern, says the
firm, one of the biggest logging companies in the Andean region,
had 12,000 hectares of legally acquired native forests, and that
it had re-planted another 9,000 hectares of forest in the past 22
years.

But the cooperative points out that its members moved onto the
land over 30 years ago, when the area was first settled, long
before Botrosa's arrival.

They also say that since they have working and living on the
land, very little deforestation has occurred, but that ''once the
big logging interests came in, the forest started to run out.''

The peasant farmers pledge not to use the land for extracting
wood, but for ''sustainable production, as we have done up to
now.''

Although the confrontation between the farming cooperative and
Botrosa dates back 15 years, it flared up this year when several
farmers and their families were violently evicted by police and
the logging firm's guards.

Small farmers Laurence Vega, 34, and Porfirio Reyes, 44, told
IPS that a few months ago, a large group of police and Botrosa
guards suddenly showed up, knocked down and set fire to their
wooden houses, destroyed their few belongings, and warned the
families against ever returning.

Floresmilo Villalta, 60, said some farmers were tied to posts
and forced to eat dirt by armed men who told them it was ''the
land they laid claim to.'' Later, the armed men shot at the ground
around the farmers' feet, forcing them to flee.

A young farmer, Javier Intriago, said he hoped authorities
would do something, and help him and the other families return to
the land they had been farming for years.

Intriago recalled a previous attempt to kick the community off
the land in 1987, when he was three years old. However, the
families were eventually able to return.

But Botrosa spokesman Marcelo Merino said the company bought
the land legally, and claimed the police had merely been carrying
out legal orders.

People's Defender Claudio Mueckay asked the Environment
Ministry to commission its Forestry Office to inspect the disputed
area and verify whether it formed part of Ecuador's protected
forestland.

But an inspection of the area by representatives of the
Environment Ministry, human rights and environmental groups and
the logging company was abruptly called off in June.

''The inspection was not carried out because the company
refused to authorise the entry of the Environment Ministry
technicians,'' said Forestry Director Hans Thiel.

Beln Vsconez, with the Ecumenical Human Rights Commission
(CEDHU), said the company argued that a group of people had
invaded and occupied the land, and that their presence did not
allow the firm ''to guarantee the safety of those participating in
the mission.''

Company executives also protested that the presence of CEDHU
representatives ''distorted the technical nature of the
inspection,'' and turned it into ''a farce at Botrosa's expense.''
In addition, they said they were in the middle of negotiations
with members of the cooperative.

But an agreement ''was never reached, and the differences have
deepened, without the Environment Ministry taking a hand in the
matter,'' complained Buitrn.

The activists explained that in order for INDA to recuperate
the land handed over to Botrosa and to allow the peasant farmers
to remain there, the Environment Ministry would have to declare
that the property is part of the nation's legally protected
forestland.

Although Environment Minister Rodolfo Rendn told the local
press that the area was indeed protected forestland belonging to
the Ecuadorean state, no official communique to that extent has
yet been issued, because an inspection -- like the one called off
in June -- would first have to be carried out.

The representatives of Ecological Action complained that in the
past few weeks they had received telephone threats and had become
the targets of stepped-up harassment.

''We will not pull out of the province of Esmeraldas,'' reads a
recent statement by Ecological Action. ''We will continue to
support the farmers, until the Environment Ministry takes a hand
in the matter and clarifies that the El Pambilar property does not
belong to Botrosa, but forms part of the state's protected
forests.''

The group also called for an international hearing to verify
''how much forestland INDA has illegally handed over to logging
companies, as it did with Botrosa.''

An estimated 3.4 million trees of native species are felled
annually in Ecuador. The country's Amazon jungle to the east and
the coastal area of Esmeraldas, which provide around 88 percent of
the trees logged in this Andean nation, are being devastated.

Of the roughly 5,000 species of trees growing in Ecuador,
around 100 are used by the logging industry, which accounts for
3.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), making it the seventh
largest sector of the national economy.

From 1995 to 1998, 857,000 tonnes of wood products like boards,
beams, doors, laths and furniture were exported, for 354 million
dollars.

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
  • 116 Human Rights