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Jul 20, 2002 | 02:27 GMT

3 mins read

Activist's PR Victory Means More Problems for OCP

Summary

The deportation of a high-profile American activist from Ecuador is turning into a public relations victory for environmental groups. More protests against a major oil pipeline, the Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados, will cause problems for the companies backing the project, but Quito will ensure the project's completion.

Analysis

Ecuadorian police forcibly deported well-known environmental activist Julia "Butterfly" Hill to the United States July 18, Spain's EFE News Service reports. Hill and seven Ecuadorian activists were arrested July 16 outside the Quito headquarters of Occidental Petroleum, where they were protesting the construction of the Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados (OCP) in northern Ecuador.

Hill's arrest and deportation have made global headlines — generating
valuable publicity for the environmental and indigenous rights issues connected to the OCP that will encourage other nongovernmental organizations to take up the cause. Demonstrations will continue to focus on Occidental, the main U.S. player in the OCP consortium, but also will impact other partners, including Repsol-YPF, Perez Companc, Kerr-McGee, AGIP and Techint.

The protests should not threaten the pipeline's completion, however.
Quito badly needs the revenues the OCP will generate and already has displayed a willingness to take action against demonstrators. Nevertheless, further protests certainly will cause headaches for the companies involved: They could spark construction delays and may force the consortium to fork out more than the $16 million it already has pledged to offset public opposition.

The 313-mile, $1.1 billion pipeline promises to double Ecuador's production capacity to 800,000 bpd. With payments on $16 billion in foreign debt eating up one-quarter of the annual budget, the OCP — which will bring low-quality crude from fields in the Amazon to the Pacific port of Esmeraldas — was a deal that Quito couldn't refuse.

Nevertheless, it took 12 years for the OCP-Ecuador consortium to gain approval to build the line, mainly because of negative public opinion of the oil industry in Ecuador and opposition by local groups. To grease the wheels, the consortium pledged $16 million for charity and infrastructure programs in the impoverished northeast jungle, which is home to most of Ecuador's oil deposits.

The OCP also caught the attention of foreign activists and NGOs, which already had links to Ecuador's indigenous groups. Enter Julia Hill, who made her name camping out atop a California redwood tree for two years and now heads the Circle of Life Foundation. She apparently has joined an international campaign to prevent pipeline construction from harming ecologically sensitive areas, such as Ecuador's tropical forest.

U.S.-based Amazon Watch appears to be Hill's closest ally in the protest. The San Francisco Chronicle reported July 19 that the group asked Occidental to intercede for Hill after her arrest. Amazon Watch also issued almost daily press releases concerning Hill's activities in Ecuador, including her July 15 occupation — along with members of the local Mindo community — of a pipeline construction site. Hill has vowed to continue the fight, and the recent publicity should help her do that.

NGOs determine victory largely by the amount of publicity that a particular action generates. By this measure, Hill's arrest was a boon for herself, Amazon Watch and others opposed to the OCP. The publicity likely will embolden other NGOs to press their environmental and indigenous issues in northern Ecuador. This means more pressure and negative publicity for the OCP consortium, which members may attempt to overcome with new environmental and financial concessions.

The project itself should be safe, however. Quito clearly has shown its willingness to step in and halt protests concerning the OCP: It is simply too valuable for the central government to abandon.

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