Marta Echavarria is a founder of EcoDecision, an environmental business promotion firm based in Ecuador and Colombia.

Tuesday, 16 Jan 2001

QUITO, Ecuador

Here I am, an environmental manager who has worked with private Latin American companies for over 13 years, sitting on the other side of the table. Since November, I have been actively involved in a group opposing the northern route of a proposed oil pipeline to be built this year through northwest Ecuador. My husband and I have established a farm near Mindo, a town in the area that is recognized in Ecuador, and more and more internationally, as a special ecotourist destination. The construction of this pipeline, as with any development project in general — and oil development in particular — brings grave consequences to the area.

Will bird heaven become bird hell in Mindo?

Photo: BirdLife International.

Two routes have been proposed and approved by the Ecuadorian government to pump heavy crude oil from the Amazon to Ecuador’s Pacific coast. The so-called northern route is proposed by OCP Ltd., a multinational consortium including Occidental Petroleum (U.S.), Kerr-McGee Energy (U.S.), Agip Oil (Italy), Alberta Energy Corporation (Canada), Repsol-YPF (Spain/Argentina), and Techint (Argentina). Chase Manhattan Corporation (U.S.) is providing financing. Constructing a pipeline along this route would destroy unique habitat that harbors over 450 species of birds (5 percent of the world’s total), imperil a host of endangered plants and animals, and undermine the livelihoods of local residents dependent on ecotourism.

The committee for the least-impact route, as our group has decided to call itself (for lack of a better name), recognizes that Ecuador needs the revenues that the proposed oil pipeline will generate, but this is not a case of having to choose between the environment and economic development. The government has also approved a southern route, which follows the path of an existing pipeline and passes primarily through previously deforested areas, thus causing far less environmental impact. Unfortunately, the company that proposed this southern route, Williams Brothers (U.S.), has decided not to continue with the process.

Today, a small group of committee members held a four-hour meeting to review a presentation we are preparing to give to the local provincial government on Wednesday and, hopefully, on Thursday, to the minister of mines. After the president of the country, the minister is the top decision-maker in this process, as designated in a special presidential decree.

The content of the presentation aims to address the gaps we have detected in various presentations by representatives from ENTRIX, the consultant firm in charge of the environmental evaluation. OCP Ltd. argues that it has evaluated all aspects of the routes and, after careful analysis, found the northern route to be the least damaging. Yet, its evaluation is selective, to say the least, and we are not allowed access to the documentation. At the same time, ENTRIX releases bits of information to the public in order to justify its position. For example, it argues that only 3.5 kilometers of primary forest will be affected, so what is the problem?! I’ve heard this figure in private and public circles, and it is accepted as a given.

What a frustration — especially when I think about my own experience with environmental impact statements. In general, I find them to be a requisite that companies are made to fulfill, and that the consultants producing the statements write what the client wants to hear. There are inherent limitations in this process. In addition, the authorities usually lack the capacity and political will to be environmentally strict. This is especially true in this case, where the environmental evaluation has been made a responsibility of the ministry of mines, rather than put in the hands of the ministry of the environment.