Ecuador: Oil Pipeline Project Under Fire

Publisher Name: 
OneWorld US

Environmental activist groups from two continents have vowed to step up their fight against a foreign-financed pipeline project that would transport oil from the Ecuadorian Amazon to the Pacific after completing a 10-day tour along the 300-mile route.

Speaking at a press conference at the conclusion of their trip, representatives from Greenpeace-Germany, Ecuador's Accion Ecologica, and Italy's Campaign for Reform of the World Bank said their visit will increase pressure on German and Italian banks to withdraw their backing for the project.

"All along the route, we saw extensive destruction of primary forests," said Michaela Braun of Greenpeace-Germany. "In Germany, a project with such destructive environmental and social impacts could never be implemented."

Her remarks capped a week of growing agitation both in Ecuador and in Europe against the project, known as the Oleoducto de Crudo Pesado (OCP, or Crude Oil Pipeline), which, according to its backers, will double Ecuador's oil exports when it is completed.

In Ecuador, environmental activists have intensified their six-week effort to block construction crews which are supposed to clear the pipeline's path through the Mindo Namibillo Cloudforest Reserve, one of the world's most pristine bird sanctuaries, by increasing their ranks at the entrance to the Reserve. Protestors there have chained themselves to trees and built platforms at the tree tops for "tree-sitters."

At the same time, Ecuador's environment minister has called for new studies to examine the geology of an area over which the pipeline is supposed to be laid, while workers involved in the OCP's construction in Sucumbios province have gone out on strike over salaries. Local governments along the project's path are also demanding compensation for damages that the oil pipeline is expected to cause.

The controversy over the project's US$900 million financing, led by Westdeutsche Landesbank (WestLB), has heated up in Germany as a result of two hearings over the past month by a parliamentary committee of the state of North Rhine Westphalia, which owns 43 percent of the WestLB.

North Rhine's environment minister, a member of the Green Party, has strongly denounced the project and called on the bank to withdraw from it. The Social Democratic president of the state, Wolfgang Clement, has also indicated reservations about the project.

And the state's finance minister, Peter Steinbrueck -- the project's major champion in the government to date and the target of a Greenpeace demonstration in Duesseldorf Monday -- has now promised to visit Ecuador, a sign which, according to Braun speaking in Quito Wednesday, "hopefully means that the government of North Rhine Westphalia is ready to assume its responsibilities regarding the world's last primary forests."

In recent weeks, protests have spread to Italy where the Banco Nazionale de Lavoro, which is participating in the WestLB-led consortium, has become a target of environmental groups, as has Agip, Italy's major oil company which, along with companies from Canada, Spain, and the United States, are investing in the OCP.

Adding to this pressure is the recent disclosure of an internal North Rhine finance-ministry document obtained by Greenpeace that criticized the environmental impact statement submitted to the banks by the OCP's management, as well as letters sent last month by the top environmental official at the World Bank to WestLB, the OCP management, and the German government warning that the project may pose "serious environmental risks" to a key biodiversity conservation project funded by the Bank.

In a subsequent letter to the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio, the Bank expressed its "profound concern" over the project and distanced itself from comments by the OCP and WestLB that suggested that it met the Bank's own environmental standards.

"Basically, the OCP is under fire from all sides," said Kevin Koenig of California-based Amazon Watch, which has led the anti-OCP campaign in the U.S..

While the Ecuadorian government of President Gustavo Noboa insists that the project is vital for the country's embattled economy, local and international environmental groups and indigenous communities situated close to the pipeline path have argued that its construction will draw settlers who clear more forests, threatening both the indigenous population and fragile ecologies.

Greenpeace and other activist groups say they intend to make the OCP a major focus of an upcoming international summit on forests to be held in The Hague April 7-9. The meeting is supposed to decide on a comprehensive program to ensure protection of the world's remaining primary forests.

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