Oil Pipeline Said to Threaten Eco-Tourism in Ecuador

Mindo, Ecuador - Benjamin Mora isn't terribly worried about the fate of the black-breasted puffleg hummingbird that's been spotted in the dark-green ridgeline that shadows his village of Mindo. What concerns him is his wallet.

Every year, thousands of tourists flock to this steamy valley on the edge of the Andes in hopes of spotting the endangered bird and its feathered ilk, and that allows Mora to keep the three small tables at his tiny restaurant filled year around.

"People from all over the world come here to look at the birds, and we depend on that tourism to live," says Mora. "If something happens up there on the mountain that scares the tourists away, we won't have anything."

That "something" rattling Mora's nerves is the proposed pipeline to carry crude oil on the thin Cruz Loma ridge at 10,500 feet. The ribbon of cloud forest along the ridge is thought to be the home of the critically endangered puffleg hummingbird.

A multinational consortium called OCP Ecuador, led by Canada's Alberta Energy and Argentine-Spanish giant Repsol-YPF, won the contract to build the $1.1 billion line that will run the approximately 300 miles from the Amazon to Pacific export docks.

But it's the stretch of buried pipeline that would run along the two-mile ridge that is raising environmentalists' hackles. Mindo has one of Ecuador's few intact Andean cloud forests, and it is brimming with rare and unique animals. Within a 20-mile radius of the town, about 450 bird species can be found.

Of those, 45 species are considered vulnerable and 10 are considered "globally threatened" by Bird Life International, a Britist conservation group that works closely with the U.S. Audubon Society. A Bird Life study has determined that the ridge along Cruz Loma is "probably vital for the long-term survival of the [puffleg] species."

The richness of the hundreds of miles of pristine cloud forest protected by the government and private conservationists make it one of the top birding sanctuaries in the hemisphere.

The company has already chopped down trees along Cruz Loma to survey the line, sent public relations teams to Mindo to rally community support, and prepared a draft of its environmental study that does not present options, critics say.

"The study they asked me to review appeared to be merely an environmental justification of the route they wanted all along," said U.S. ornithologist Paul Greenfield, who has been studying the region's birds for more than 20 years and whose Birds of Ecuador field guide will be released by Cornell University Press in June. "We found serious deficiencies in the focus of the study."

Although OCP Ecuador refused repeated requests to discuss the subject, the company handling the study, ENTRIX, stands behind its assessment. It claims four routes have been studied, and Mindo is the safest.

OCP has offered to fund projects to preserve the area and points to a $100 million insurance policy against environmental damage.

Community relations got off to a bad start months back when OCP partner Techinct cut down trees on private reserves during its survey. Although they settled those cases out of court, the Environment Ministry was forced to haul them before a judge to fine them $13,800 for felling trees in a federally protected forest.

If a government commission approves the route, OCP will have to figure out how to bury the pipe along the sheer ridge that is no more than 10 feet wide in some parts.

Company engineers have admitted they will need between 13 and 23 feet to lay the pipe.

"We know how important this pipeline is for the economy of the country," concedes Greenfield. "It needs to be built, but there is a way to do this so everyone comes out looking good, and this isn't it."

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