On 27 February this year in Ecuador — a day of national celebration — children in schools around the country were swearing to defend their country and kiss their national flag. But in Proyecto Educativo Raíces — a school in the capital, Quito — the students pledged allegiance to defend their environment, not their country. Twenty-two then acted on their pledge by travelling two-and-a-half hours northwest of Quito to join the tree-sitters of Mindo. From 2 January this year, the tree-sitters lived on 10 platforms: wooden planks hammered together and roped to the branches in the tree canopy of the Mindo-Nambillo Reserve, nestled within a cloud forest in the Andes. Protesters from Europe, the US and nearby Colombia have been sitting with members of the local community of Mindo in an attempt to block a 500-kilometre oil pipeline from cutting through the Reserve and damaging its fragile environment. With human bodies perched high in their branches, the trees were protected from being cut down to clear the space that the pipeline needed if it were to proceed.
The children from Proyecto Educativo Raíces, aged from 9 to 11 years, spent just one night on the tree platforms. As Patricia Granda, an environmental defender with Acción Ecologica, led them away from the protest site the next day, the children talked exuberantly about the rich biodiversity they had seen — home to over 450 bird species, 10 per cent of them endangered. The eldest girl questioned why the military were there. When Patricia told her that they were guarding the area for a private project, the girl said: ‘They cannot call this private? this is for everyone.’
Not according to oil-trade rules. The pipeline, known as the OCP (Oleoducto de Crudo Presado), is controlled by an international consortium that includes Occidental Petroleum, a company with a poor (some say heinous) environmental and human-rights track-record in Colombia. The Ecuador Government’s own experience with pipelines inspires no confidence either. In the past four years, a total of 145,000 barrels of oil have been spilled from a state-owned pipeline causing significant groundwater and soil contamination. As the OCP will pass through a landslide- and earthquake-prone area, accidents are feared to be inevitable. Nevertheless, following pressure from the International Monetary Fund, Ecuador’s President Noboa approved the project despite international and local opposition.
This opposition has continued. In February this year, protesters in two regions of the country occupied 60 oil wells and 5 refineries, halting all construction on the pipeline. Soldiers were deployed to stop these protesters — shooting into crowds, wounding many, and spraying teargas from helicopters, asphyxiating at least one child.
There have been no deaths yet in the Mindo Cloud Forest. There the tree-sitters protested peacefully in the canopy for up to 10 days a shift — 5 to 10 people at a time. They were armed with nothing more than the tents, candles, food and clothes they had walked in with. They descended from the trees when necessary to keep watch, cook or undertake the 40-minute walk for water. That is, until the Special Forces forcibly evicted them on 25 March.
At the time of writing 17 of these protestors were still in detention.Chris Richards