Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ECUADOR: Frontier Garrisons, Split Between Ecotourism and War

Kintto Lucas

QUITO, Jan 4 2002 (IPS) - While Ecuadorean army garrisons on the border with Peru, a former enemy, are being refurbished as ecotourism centres, the preparations in outposts along the Colombian border are focused on war.

Through the Amarun Huasi (“the boa’s house”, in the indigenous Kichwa tongue) plan, the army and the air force, with the support of national and foreign tour operators, are getting four frontier garrisons in the southern part of Ecuador’s eastern Amazon region ready to receive ecotourists.

The project emerged after a peace accord was signed with Peru in October 1998, when part of the infrastructure built to house Ecuadorean troops deployed to fight Peru’s armed forces during a brief border war was abandoned.

Ecuador and Peru squabbled over an area along the border for more than 50 years, engaging in several border skirmishes, the last of which took place in 1995.

Although the Amarun Huasi plan was launched in May 2001 by the Selva Pastaza Brigade in Ecuador’s Amazon jungle region, it only began to be implemented in the last few months of the year, after marketing studies and tourism publicity campaigns were carried out.

The Sangay and Capitán Chiriboga garrisons in the eastern provinces of Pastaza and Morona-Santiago have been converted into hotels for tourists wishing to get a close-up look at Ecuador’s Amazon jungle.

But farther north, in the provinces of Sucumbíos, Orellana and Napo, the military and police presence has been beefed up to prevent the Colombian armed conflict from leaking over the border into Ecuador, according to armed forces spokespersons.

The stepping-up of security along the border has included renovations of existing garrisons and the construction of new ones, in line with new exigencies arising from Plan Colombia.

Plan Colombia, which is partly dependent on financing from the United States, was presented by Colombian President Andrés Pastrana as a multi-billion dollar anti-drug strategy.

But analysts and activists argue that its real targets are the guerrilla groups, and that it will only lead to an escalation of Colombia’s decades-old civil war.

General Oswaldo Jarrín, commander of the Ecuadorean army’s Fourth Amazon Division, told the press that the armed forces were prepared “to maintain Ecuadorean military hegemony” over territory along the Colombian border.

That is the objective underlying the construction of a new military outpost just a few kilometres from Lago Agrio, the capital of Sucumbíos, and the installation of additional mobile and fixed checkpoints along highways running through the country’s Amazon jungle region, said Jarrín.

The air force reported that it has the equipment to track aircraft in the Amazon jungle, and that the planes of the Combate 31 base, located in the Lago Agrio airport, have been given the mission of “guaranteeing the inviolability of Ecuadorean air space.”

The airport, which belongs to the CITY oil company and is located just a few kilometres from Lago Agrio, is now operated by the armed forces, to transport and supply troops stationed in the area.

Colonel Miguel Maldonado, the commander of the Napo 19 Brigade, said the mission of Ecuadorean soldiers deployed to the Colombian border zone is “to protect the established legal order and defend national sovereignty.”

Meanwhile, the outposts transformed into ecotourism installations farther to the south have become a new source of revenues for the army and the air force.

Jorge Véjar, who represents TourisVéjar, one of the agencies associated with the Amarun Huasi Ecotourism Plan, said the project enjoys the support of the Defence Ministry and the General Command of the Land Forces.

“Over the past two months, the units have been fixed up to provide the comforts required by tourists, and the officers’ bungalows and clubs have been remodeled as necessary,” said Véjar.

Visitors are flown to the four revamped tourist installations by a military plane refurbished to carry passengers, who board the aircraft in the small town of Shell, in the province of Pastaza.

The outposts are set in the middle of the jungle, on the banks of rivers that make it easy to take boat rides into the depths of the Ecuadorean and Peruvian Amazon jungle.

“In each garrison, the military cooks were trained by SECAP (Ecuadorean Service for Vocational Training) experts to specialise in preparing national and international dishes,” said Véjar.

The guides who take the tourists into the jungle on canoes with outboard motors are soldiers who come from Amazon indigenous communities.

Villages reached by foot or by river near the new “tourist- garrisons” sell their crafts and hold shamanic rituals as demonstrations for the tourists.

Captain Claudio Pinto, who is in charge of the ecotourism project, said visitors can take boat rides, hike or ride bicycles or horses on special paths cut out of the jungle, bathe in waterfalls that are sacred to local indigenous peoples, fish for piranhas, go on bird-watching or caving expeditions, and visit hidden lakes.

In the meantime, Ecuadorean troops and police officers farther north, along the Colombian border, stepped up their participation in anti-drug operations led by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the Amazon provinces, in the last two months of 2001.

Military spokespersons say the anti-drug activity is focused on fighting Colombian drug traffickers who use Ecuadorean territory as a transit zone.

For the past three years, DEA staff has been training the National Police Special Anti-Narcotics Unit in combatting trafficking in the Ecuadorean-Colombian Amazon region.

As part of that plan, a modern outpost was built in Baeza, in the province of Napo, which is also set up for counterinsurgency operations.

The Baeza military station will house more than 500 troops, and has been equipped with a modern communications system. It is located at the intersection of routes that according to the DEA are used to transport chemical precursors for producing drugs, as well as weapons and ammunition, to Colombia.

 
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