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Ecuador: Farmers Accuse Logging Firm of Harassment

by Kintto LucasInter Press Service
October 2nd, 2000

QUITO -- The logging firm Botrosa, one of whose partners is Ecuador's Trade Minister Roberto Pea Durini, has been charged in court for harassing peasant farmers and environmentalists in the northwestern province of Esmeraldas, near the Colombian border.

Local farmers went to court in the city of Quinind to charge that they were arbitrarily detained and tortured by police and security guards on the Botrosa payroll, who reportedly threatened to kill them if they didn't leave the land they farmed.

The 350 members of the 'Ecuador Libre' Cooperative, their families, and environmental activists are protesting Botrosa's occupation and deforestation of land claimed by the cooperative of small farmers.

Ricardo Buitrn, an activist with the local non-governmental organisation Ecological Action, one of the groups defending the cooperative's right to the land in dispute, was forced to flee the country when he received death threats, and after an arrest warrant was issued for him on charges of slander and instigating peasant farmers to occupy land.

The National Agrarian Institute (INDA) awarded the property in question, formerly public land, to Botrosa. But the cooperative maintains that the property, known as El Pambilar, forms part of the forestland legally protected by the Environment Ministry.

Ecological Action and other environmental and human rights groups filed a complaint with the People's Defender in Esmeraldas for abuses against local residents and activists, and for the allegedly illegal manner in which the land was granted to the logging company.

The groups underline that INDA's mandate only permits it to distribute land to small farmers, as part of the land reform programme, and not to ''large logging companies, to allow them to deforest a protected area.''

The managing director of Botrosa, Mauricio Tern, says the firm, one of the biggest logging companies in the Andean region, had 12,000 hectares of legally acquired native forests, and that it had re-planted another 9,000 hectares of forest in the past 22 years.

But the cooperative points out that its members moved onto the land over 30 years ago, when the area was first settled, long before Botrosa's arrival.

They also say that since they have working and living on the land, very little deforestation has occurred, but that ''once the big logging interests came in, the forest started to run out.''

The peasant farmers pledge not to use the land for extracting wood, but for ''sustainable production, as we have done up to now.''

Although the confrontation between the farming cooperative and Botrosa dates back 15 years, it flared up this year when several farmers and their families were violently evicted by police and the logging firm's guards.

Small farmers Laurence Vega, 34, and Porfirio Reyes, 44, told IPS that a few months ago, a large group of police and Botrosa guards suddenly showed up, knocked down and set fire to their wooden houses, destroyed their few belongings, and warned the families against ever returning.

Floresmilo Villalta, 60, said some farmers were tied to posts and forced to eat dirt by armed men who told them it was ''the land they laid claim to.'' Later, the armed men shot at the ground around the farmers' feet, forcing them to flee.

A young farmer, Javier Intriago, said he hoped authorities would do something, and help him and the other families return to the land they had been farming for years.

Intriago recalled a previous attempt to kick the community off the land in 1987, when he was three years old. However, the families were eventually able to return.

But Botrosa spokesman Marcelo Merino said the company bought the land legally, and claimed the police had merely been carrying out legal orders.

People's Defender Claudio Mueckay asked the Environment Ministry to commission its Forestry Office to inspect the disputed area and verify whether it formed part of Ecuador's protected forestland.

But an inspection of the area by representatives of the Environment Ministry, human rights and environmental groups and the logging company was abruptly called off in June.

''The inspection was not carried out because the company refused to authorise the entry of the Environment Ministry technicians,'' said Forestry Director Hans Thiel.

Beln Vsconez, with the Ecumenical Human Rights Commission (CEDHU), said the company argued that a group of people had invaded and occupied the land, and that their presence did not allow the firm ''to guarantee the safety of those participating in the mission.''

Company executives also protested that the presence of CEDHU representatives ''distorted the technical nature of the inspection,'' and turned it into ''a farce at Botrosa's expense.'' In addition, they said they were in the middle of negotiations with members of the cooperative.

But an agreement ''was never reached, and the differences have deepened, without the Environment Ministry taking a hand in the matter,'' complained Buitrn.

The activists explained that in order for INDA to recuperate the land handed over to Botrosa and to allow the peasant farmers to remain there, the Environment Ministry would have to declare that the property is part of the nation's legally protected forestland.

Although Environment Minister Rodolfo Rendn told the local press that the area was indeed protected forestland belonging to the Ecuadorean state, no official communique to that extent has yet been issued, because an inspection -- like the one called off in June -- would first have to be carried out.

The representatives of Ecological Action complained that in the past few weeks they had received telephone threats and had become the targets of stepped-up harassment.

''We will not pull out of the province of Esmeraldas,'' reads a recent statement by Ecological Action. ''We will continue to support the farmers, until the Environment Ministry takes a hand in the matter and clarifies that the El Pambilar property does not belong to Botrosa, but forms part of the state's protected forests.''

The group also called for an international hearing to verify ''how much forestland INDA has illegally handed over to logging companies, as it did with Botrosa.''

An estimated 3.4 million trees of native species are felled annually in Ecuador. The country's Amazon jungle to the east and the coastal area of Esmeraldas, which provide around 88 percent of the trees logged in this Andean nation, are being devastated.

Of the roughly 5,000 species of trees growing in Ecuador, around 100 are used by the logging industry, which accounts for 3.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), making it the seventh largest sector of the national economy.

From 1995 to 1998, 857,000 tonnes of wood products like boards, beams, doors, laths and furniture were exported, for 354 million dollars.

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