Conservation groups World Conservation Union and Birdlife International have launched a scathing attack on a $550 million pipeline to run through the protected Mindo Important Bird Area (IBA), referred to as “one of the most important rainforests in South America” as “disastrous news for birds, the environment and local communities”. President Gustavo Noboa has authorised two competing consortia, one including oil companies, Occidental, Agip, Alberta Energy, Kerr-McGee and Repsol, to bid for contracts to build new extensions to the Trans-Ecuadorian Pipeline. A negotiation process between the two consortia and the government is now underway.

The proposed northern route is to cut through the Mindo IBA, whereas the southern route, proposed by US engineering company, Williams International, would bypass the reserve. Environmentalists believe that the oil pipeline should not be built through the IBA because of its rich biodiversity, booming ecotourist industry, attracting 100,000 visitors a year, and its importance as a natural resource and vital watershed for local communities.

“This is a disastrous decision for birds and the environment because the proposed northern route will have a major detrimental impact on the protected Mindo IBA, globally threatened species and local sensitive forest areas,” said Guido Rada, Executive Director of BirdLife in Ecuador. “Instead President Noboa should have rejected the Mindo route and either selected the alternative southern route, or a new route, by-passing Mindo IBA altogether.”

Survey tracks have already been cut through rare bird territories and land clearance has begun in anticipation that a pipeline will be built through Mindo, Birdlife, the world’s leading bird conservation alliance, says. A new coalition of 50 Ecuadorian associations including Birdlife, environmental groups, local communities, tourist enterprises and landowners has been formed to stop the pipeline being built through the area.

“Mindo was the first ever Important Bird Area to be set up in Latin America because of its spectacular bird life that includes five globally threatened species and the globally critically endangered Black-breasted Puffleg,” said BirdLife Americas IBA Co-ordinator, Maria del Coro Arizmendi.

Environmentalists are also concerned about the possibility of disasters: Last October, an explosion occurred on the western trunk of the Trans-Ecuadorian Pipeline leaking the equivalent of 15,000 barrels of crude oil into adjacent pastureland and contaminating water supplies. Moreover volcanic activity last occurred along the proposed northern route only two years ago when the vulcano Pichincha, near Mindo, erupted causing massive destruction on the opposite side of the nearby capital, Quito.

The groups also want a multi-million dollar Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the proposed routes, commissioned by a government-appointed committee, to be released for public review and comment. “We suspect that the EIA may contain errors or reflect a bias in the selection of the route. The fact that it has not been released for public scrutiny despite repeated requests underlines these suspicions,” said Guido Rada.

Alberta Energy Company (AEC) Ltd said that although it was only one member of the international consortium, it “continues to insist on the highest standards for the preparation of the Environmental Impact Study”, which is currently underway.

“The proposed northern routing was selected only after extensive environmental review and comparison with the southern route, which has been proposed by some as an alternate route,” the company said.

Instead AEC said that the consortium was concerned about the viability of the southern route as no environmental evaluation has been carried out and the route requires “traversing environmentally sensitive areas and areas of seismic activity”. The company said, however, that it had not discarded the southern route as an option, but reiterated that “The northern route was selected as the preferable option in light of a variety of factors, including environmental. The consortium recognises that the northern route intersects an Important Bird Area (IBA) and will take that into account during the final analysis.”

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