Mirrors and conquest

By Published On: August 30, 2005Categories: Gas & Oil1 Comment on Mirrors and conquest

“To hide what they were doing, they handed out trinkets like the Spanish handed out mirrors.”

There is an apocryphal story that the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma foresaw the Spanish invasion when he saw the image of strange men landing on the coast in the mirror-like eyes of a captive bird.

In spring of 1519, he received his first reports of aliens landing from the glassy sea on the east coast of his empire. One of the items they are rumoured to have swapped for gold as they swept across the country were mirrors. Just two years later, the Aztec empire cracked into pieces in the face of the Spanish conquistadores.

I wonder what Moctezuma would have seen if he had looked forward 481 years? Perhaps the reflection of a stark Andean sky in the rich dark pool of petrol as it slinked along a river bed. The continuation of an invasion where profits rule and responsibility is evaded at all costs. Truth distorted in a hall of mirrors.

It was 30 January 2000 and Hans Moeller, a Bolivian of German descent and President of an environmental forum in Oruro had just received a disturbing call from a friend. “You know that river that you cross on the way to Oruro which has a pipeline going across it. Well the pipe has broken and there is thick back petrol gushing into the river.”

Alerting the authorities, Hans Moeller headed down to the scene. “It was very rough and ready, but I decided to measure the amount of petrol coming out using a tin can,” he said. It may seem a strange response to an environmental catastrophe, but his decision to at least quantify the impact of the pipeline accident was to prove crucial in the following days.

For what Hans’s friend had discovered was an oil spill caused by two of the most powerful energy companies in the world. Their struggle to hold these companies to account for an environmental disaster would need huge amounts of courage and persistence, lots of luck and every tool possible, even a tin can.

Enron-Shell ignore warnings

The pipeline which ran from Cochabamba across the Altiplano and down to Arica in Chile was owned by Transredes. It is effectively an Enron-Shell run company that became responsible for the transport of much of Bolivia’s oil and gas when the public energy sector was capitalised in the early 1990s.

Unknown to the public, Transredes had received a warning in November 1999 saying that the pipe was in serious need of repairs. They chose to do nothing. As the year began, heavy rains as usual battered the altiplano causing surges of water down the riverbed. Meanwhile in Cochabamba, the refinery was cleaning out its tanks sending unusually thick and toxic oil residues down the pipeline.

As the water crashed against the rusted pipeline, it split spilling its poisonous contents down the rapidly rushing river that spread it out over the surrounding river-plain.

Widespread impact

“I realised what an impact it had, when we organised meetings with local villagers and they turned up with oil caked onto their trousers and boots,” said Hans. The heavy rains meant that the oil spread out over 190 kilometres down the River Desaguadero, ending up in Lake Poopo, a renowned nature reserve.

The oil contaminated both ground level wells and drinking water, and increasing reports came in of dying cattle and sheep and increased illnesses amongst the people living in the area. Research by a group of Canadian environmentalists showed that the oil residue had an unusually high sulphur and lead content.  “You could see sheep wandering around in circles because of the sun and UV reacting off the oil on the ground,” said Hans.

Distraction by mirrors

Transredes decided to respond with mirrors, to distract attention from the impact.

At first they tried to play down the impact. Transredes announced that the hole was a size of a small coin, that the accident happened on 31st January, that only 1500 barrels had leaked and therefore would only have limited impact.  This was a day after Hans’s friend had seen the oil spill implying that the leak had lasted for 6 hours rather than 32 hours calculated by the Oruro Environmental forum.

“I had seen that the pipe was split and measured how much was coming out, so I stood up publicly and said that my calculation meant that at least 18,500 barrels had been spilt. I was laughed at. How can you go against a professional company with all its expertise?”

Transredes went into overdrive with its PR machine casting a great deal of doubt on Hans and his environmental group’s claims. Threats of libel were frequently waged against Hans, former friends who worked for the company were sent to persuade him to back down, both his phones were tapped, and at one point they even accused him of making the hole.

“It was tough, but I continued to insist that Transredes had got it wrong,” Hans said.

Refinery backs up Oruro environmentalists’ claims

Hans had invited a Venezuelan engineer whose research showed that around 32,000 barrels had been spilt. However, indisputable evidence came when the Cochabamba refinery reported on 26th May that 29,000 of the barrels of oil that it had sent to Arica never arrived. “I remember seeing that announcement in a headline on a news-stand. When I saw that I knew that I was safe. I could breathe again.”

But the battle was far from over, for Transredes was now on the offensive persuading the public that it was responding effectively to the crisis. With a huge public splash in the newspapers, they announced they were flying in 20 Texans to clean up.

“Suddenly the sky was full of helicopters flying in experts. Yet our research showed that at least 500 were needed to clean up the mess.” Hans was invited by the company to fly in a helicopter to see the work they were doing, but he refused only half-joking that he feared he might be pushed out mid-flight.

Mirror-like trinkets

Transredes also started to meet with villagers, handing out money to village leaders. Hans visited one community one day that had just received six new tractors. “To hide what they were doing, they were handing out trinkets like the Spanish handed out mirrors.”

Transredes was handing out between $50 to $100 which given the scale of the disaster was nothing, but given average earnings of $300 a year was hard to refuse. “The trouble is that for these poor campesinos, this was significant money. Suddenly no-one was coming to our meetings, we were alone.” Attendance at campaign meetings dropped from 200 to between eight and ten people.

Push for audits and legal challenge

Thankfully by this time, international support had kicked in. Greenpeace and various other organisations spoke out in support of the campaign and against Transredes. With their support, they pushed for an environmental audit of the oil spillage which would allow for a case of legal damages against Transredes.

“The law allowed for this but it had never happened before. There was no jurisprudence. But we needed a legal route because individuals were just being bought off.”

After a concerted campaign and initial opposition from the Bolivian government, an environmental audit was approved in 2001, but concerns grew as time passed and little happened. “The evidence we needed of the extent of the damage was disappearing as each day passed.”

Frustrated by the delays, campesinos together with the environmental forum took increasingly radical action to push for the audit and legal action against Transredes. They organised over 40 demonstrations and blockades over several months, and on one day even took a barrel of oil and threw it across the floor of the Ministry for Environment.

Finally in 2002 with the evidence back from the audit, the Supreme Court ruled that Transredes would have to pay compensation and pay for a proper clean-up of the area. In all they were required to spend $45m on cleaning the effects of the spill, which was carried out over 17 months. Meanwhile the 129 communities affected received a total of £6.5m compensation. This was a record amount in Bolivia, and worked out as roughly $6-8000 per family. Justice had finally been done.

Lessons for struggle

“The fight against the companies taught me a lot. That you need time, a good strategy, a good team, capacity and time to mobilise communities and a willingness to use legal instruments to get justice,” said Hans reflecting on the lessons of the campaign.

These are no doubt important lessons as the country gears up to fight even larger scale struggles to regain control of its natural resources in particular its oil and gas.  As I have reflected on the statistics and claims thrown out by the energy companies, it is clear that the game of mirrors goes on. Whether they are handed out to distract or to distort, companies like the conquistadores use them to hide their actions as they exploit the open veins of Bolivia’s natural resources.

However Hans’ story showed the power of a few individuals who are prepared against an often hostile or sceptical audience to continue fighting for what they know to be right. His determination and failure to be distracted was crucial in winning justice for campesinos affected by the disaster and to hold companies to account for their treatment of the environment.

Hans and the actions of his environmental group were like the mirror-like eyes of Moctezuma’s bird. They reflected back the truth and he stubbornly held the mirror up to the world until no-one could evade it.


One Comment

  1. Global Voices Online August 30, 2005 at 10:44 pm - Reply

    Bolivia: Negative Effects of Petrol Industry

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