Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 169-172.

Cloudforest Tree-Sit Journal

The way up to the Guarumos mountain ridge was steep, but we managed to find our way using the hastily drawn map somebody from Action for Life had given us. Part of the rainforest nearest the road had been cleared for grazing, but as we climbed higher the trees closed in around us again. To our left we could hear the sound of a waterfall tumbling down; to the other side lay the oil consortium's access road, a vile scar on the face of the mountain.

Otherwise everything was extremely peaceful, and it certainly didn't cross my mind that within five days I would be banged up in the municipal slammer.

The Mindo rain forest is a relatively small area located just north of Quito, independent of the Amazon system. It takes its name from the nearby village of Mindo, where locals decided several years ago that they would stop clearing land and instead develop ecotourism. Not that they harboured any false illusions about the saintliness of this industry, but they had to make a living somehow. The forest is one of the most important biodiversity hotspots for bird species in Latin America, and a gold medal was won here 2 years ago for the greatest number of species spotted in a single day, anywhere in the world. The number of orchid species also runs into several hundreds and there is an exceptional range of different wildlife, including big cats and spectacled bears.

When we reached the tree camp we were greeted by locals from Action for Life, who gave us a tour of the various treesit platforms and then brought us out along the ridge. This organisation was set up by Mindo inhabitants when the OCP consortium (Kerr McGee, Alberta Energy, Occidental, Agip, Repsol YPF and Techint) announced their plans to run a major oil pipeline through the rain forest, along the back of the Guarumos ridge. There were several reasons why this apparently wonderful idea didn't appeal to the locals very much. The region is seismically unstable, with a number of active volcanoes nearby. The old pipeline, which follows a different route around Quito, has leaked like a sieve since its construction in the 1970s. Villagers say they have been assured by the OCP that modern technology would limit potential leaks to only a few thousand barrels. Small comfort indeed! To build the pipeline they also need a strip of land 30 metres wide. However the Guarumos ridge narrows in places to only 30 centimetres (12 inches), with a sheer drop on either side. The consortium would presumably have to blast away half the mountain before they could even begin to work.

I spent several afternoons out on the ridge, sitting completely alone in the middle of dense cloud, simply communing. The sensation of being embraced by a living entity was too much even for a hardbitten cynic like myself. The ground underfoot was rich humus that crumbled away when you walked on it, and there was growth everywhere. The endless cycle of decay and rebirth was immediately palpable. What was utterly incredible was that it was all going to be swept away within a few weeks or months, using bulldozers and dynamite.

The rest of the time was taken up drinking coffee under the main tarp, chatting with the locals and other foreign visitors. Most of the Mindo people were down in the village, preparing for Easter and the big influx of tourists it would bring. The foreign contingent was large, with people from Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, Colombia, the US, Germany and France.

The cops came on Monday morning, sixty of them from the Special Operations Commando, They were armed to the teeth and also fully kitted out with climbing gear. Most of us were on our way down when we ran into them; I actually made it to the road before an unfriendly-looking fellow brandishing a semi-automatic rifle invited me to step onto a coach. We were never formally charged and in legal terms the whole operation was more of a "disappearance" than an arrest.

Five people had remained in the camp but they decided not to occupy the platforms. There was not enough time to chain themselves to the trees and crucially the mobile phone had been allowed to run flat so that it was impossible to alert the village. A number of people are killed most years in popular clashes with the security forces so resistance in such isolated conditions could have proved extremely dangerous. It never occurred to anybody to criticise them for backing down.

Our first night in prison was a lonely and rather frightening affair, particularly for those of us who had seen the film "Midnight Express". Latin American prisons can be as horrific as the authorities choose to make them, but fortunately the prison guards had decided to treat us with deference. The male foreigners were housed on the third floor with a dozen other prisoners on drug charges, considered to be the gentlest of the inmates. The cells measured about 60ft by 20ft and ours had wonderful views of the city. The two Ecuadorians spent their first night on level two, where there were about a hundred housed in a cell built for forty. They were brought up to our cell the following day, along with three more men from Mindo who had simply gone to the protest camp to see if the police had left anything at all behind. The women were put into the quieter female section; there was a high wall just in front of their window but they did have a television to watch.

By Tuesday the situation had changed completely. The women of Mindo had hijacked a number of OCP trucks and were blocking the road through for all pipeline traffic. Ecological Action in Quito had also got moving and we were hitting the number three or four spot on national news bulletins. Some of the radio programmes were absolutely behind us, while we heard that the TV coverage was a bit more twisted. Nothing new in that, since Latin American television tends to be about as truthful as an in-house training video for fast food workers. One presenter hinted darkly that we were all in the pay of the subversive organisation known as the International Green Party!

That night the foreigners were taken to the police commissioner's office for a farcical deportation hearing, where we were handed a charge sheet (finally!) informing us that we were accused of violating our visas by engaging in a political act, as well as a lot of other nonsense the OCP had strung together. Big carnival-style protests had greeted us on our arrival, completely fazing our armed police escort, and chants continued to drift up to us from the street below as we sat around smoking until late into the night, waiting for the cops to type out our submissions. Even though it was all a foregone conclusion, the police commissioner (a regular villain straight from a Batman strip) announced that he would inform us of his decision the next day, and that he would also be holding a press conference.

In the end we heard from the radio that we had now been officially deported, and that we would be kept in prison until we had a plane ticket back to our own countries. Nothing was said about the five from Mindo who continued to be held without charge, and whose situation was the most worrying of all. The cops were late for their own press conference, so Ecological Action took over the microphones and staged their own event in front of the cameras.

During this time we got a lot of support from fellow prisoners, from the local green movement, and some of us also had partners on the outside. Visitors were able to get right into the cells, and they brought us huge amounts of food, cigarettes, razors, etc. We shared these out around everybody in the cell. Every day people climbed the hill beside the jail and waved banners at us, banging drums and chanting. When this happened it felt as if the bars were being torn away. Needless to say it really riled the screws.

"Reasons to be cheerful..."

"Until now it was impossible to transform the Amazon. It was too vast. But now it can be done."
- David McGrath, Amazonian Studies Professor.

Even though the Brazilian rainforest is currently being destroyed at the rate of 2 million hectares (8000 square miles) a year, 'only' 14% of it has been lost over the last century. This may all be about to change, as what the World Wide Fund for Nature calls the "final and definitive assault" on the Amazonian rainforest gets underway. A gigantic new £29 billion development programme called 'Avanca Brasil' (Advance Brazil) may be the death knell. It plans 6,200 miles of new or improved 'superhighways', dams, power lines, mines, gas and oil fields, waterways, ports, logging concessions and other developments. The roads and waterways will make it much cheaper for Brazil's grain producers to export to European markets, and will open up the Amazon to soya farming. New roads in the Amazon also bring a flood of settlers - either the rich, who engage in land speculation, or Brazil's desperate landless poor, who dream of a new life on the frontier. Whatever the motivation, the end result is the same: deeper and deeper incursions into the forest.

The likely impact of Advance Brazil was put into context by a team of scientists who had spent five uplifting years modelling Amazonian deforestation rates. Their terrifying conclusion was that by 2020 as little as 5% could remain in intact condition, with as much as 42% totally denuded or heavily degraded. The rainforest would start to dry out, with a massively increased risk of fire and thus further loss of forest cover, followed by possible desertification. Not surprisingly, these findings were hotly contested by the Brazilian government. So the scientists went back over their data with a fine tooth comb - and they discovered to their horror that if anything their forecasts were too conservative...

CAP: Avon Ladies of the Amazon

The next step was a habeas corpus appeal to the Mayor of Quito, but since Easter was already upon us we couldn't do anything till the following Monday. Most of the foreigners voluntarily left the country since the lawyer had informed us that the deportation itself could not be appealed, only our imprisonment. Some of us stuck around as we felt it was symbolically important for a few foreigners to accompany the Ecuadorians in the Town Hall hearing. I spent Easter Sunday climbing around on the bunks and bars like a demented monkey, while a gang of nuns handed out bread and sang psalms at us. I'm not religious, but at least their presence meant the guards couldn't apply the usual dose of tear gas on the guys in the exercise yard below.

Monday. A full week after our arrest, and somebody forgot to put my name on the habeas corpus list. Andrea the German had also been inexplicably left off it. For a couple of hours I sat in the cell feeling completely gutted, while my new friends in the narco community tried to console me. Then suddenly a phone call came through and we were rushed across the city in a taxi.

The habeas corpus event was a complete victory for us in every sense, lots of media, hundreds of people supporting us inside and outside the building, our lawyers really rapping, and finally freedom later that afternoon. We emerged from the jail into a sea of friends and supporters, only to be bundled into cars and driven to a safe destination a few miles away. No chances were being taken. In the end we converged on a flat high up over the city, where an entire crate of beer was waiting for us and a middle-aged couple served us coffee out of a silver pot.

Next day Immigration gave us back our passports and said we were free to stay. Most of us felt it wiser to leave. The psychological pressure had been enormous, and at one point I just burst into tears in the middle of the street. The Ecuadorians were obviously extremely relieved as they had been threatened with all sorts of interminable sentences, but they also realised they would need to lie low for a while. The Germans in particular were very pleased as their Embassy had bullied them constantly while they were inside. We wondered if this had anything to do with the fact that West LB Bank, one of the banks financing the pipeline, is part-owned by the State of North Rhine-Westfalia. In fact, only the Italian consul showed any interest in speaking out against the most obvious injustices of our "trial".

Then we heard the OCP were busy bringing fresh charges of sabotage against us. Since then Action for Life has bought a patch of the forest and made an attempt to re-establish the camp. They were again evicted - this time from their own property - by the "Special OCP Police Group" and imprisoned without charge for 24 hours. There were fresh arrests after a protest in Quito, and it took another habeas corpus hearing to free them. US Redwood squatter Julia Butterfly was deported for taking part in the protest (they were so desperate to get her out of the country, the police car taking her to the airport crashed while speeding!). Work on the pipeline goes on behind closed doors, as it were.

In all of this, certain factors must not be forgotten. Ecuador has a huge foreign debt, and 40% of its national budget goes to servicing the interest on it. This means that the government is little more than a puppet dancing on the end of IMF strings. If the country is governed by an authoritarian and highly repressive elite, it is probably because popular democracy is not in the interests of the Northern countries that consume Ecuador's raw materials. Ecuadorians have a history of being downtrodden both by foreign and local oppressors, and this will most likely continue as long as the petroleum industry dominates world politics.

As for the tree camp, was it worth it? Yes, definitely, even though it collapsed at the first sign of attack. It did provide a vital focus for resistance to the pipeline, and the resulting campaign against the consortium and their financial backers (West LB, Citibank, BBVA...) has surely meant victory for the pipeline can only come with heavy political costs attached. At the very least, future campaigns will have a strong base to build on..

CAP: The spectacled bear is the only bear species in South America and is endemic to the Andes. It is a flagship species for the Tropical Andes hotspot - the richest and most diverse in the world. It is still hunted for food and for sport in many parts of its range.

Do or Die DTP/web team: