02/22/2008, 00.00
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Angry poor hold new Chinese colonisers hostage

In Tarapoa’s oil fields the Chinese live like in a redoubt, protected by armed guards and electrified fences. They move by helicopters and spend their holidays locked up in nearby hotels. But oil has become a need and a business interest Beijing cannot do without, whatever the cost.

Tarapoa (AsiaNews) – For thousands of Chinese engineers and workers, life in one of the 40 or so countries in which Beijing has oil interests means staying at a drilling camps that look more like redoubts surrounded by enemies, making lots of money with the possibility of getting killed every day, travelling under escort just to work in the energy field.

In the top luxury hotel of Tarapoa (Ecuador) Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun spoke to a 40-year-old engineer from Beijing, whose name was withheld to protect his identity.

He works for Andes Petroleum, a joint company set up by China’s two largest oil corporations to drill for oil in Latin America. Before that he worked as a top official for the Beijing-based energy giant, the China National Petroleum Corporation.

He is spending his holidays in the hotel, just a few kilometres from the site where he works, a place run by a Chinese state-owned company.

“We cannot leave without company permission. It’s dangerous for us to be seen with locals,” he said. “They are angry because they say we steal their jobs.”

All one has to do is just look at the oil facilities to see why. Everything is enclosed by a high-voltage electrified barbed-wire fence and is protected by guards armed with guns. There is a runway for aircraft and workers are flown in and out by helicopter rather than driven out for fear of their safety.

When the journalist asked to visit the site the Chinese engineer warned against it. “You must not go there. If you do, you will be shot by farmers,” he said. For him locals cannot make the difference between a Japanese and an engineer from Beijing.

For him the risk is worth taking though. He now earns about ,000 (50,000 yuan) a month. Even though he might die any time, he is certain to come back next year.

“I am away from my family,” he said. “I have been forced to work in a place with no entertainment” and there “is also a risk of getting involved in accidents. So it is a matter of course that we can receive such high salaries.” This way he can afford to send his son to get a better education.

Locals confirm that foreigners are exposed to great risks. In November 2006, dozens of Chinese and people related to the site were caught by local residents, angry at the inequities they see. For Armulfo Estrella, 35, the Chinese “must be living in air-conditioned rooms inside the oil facilities. They are like kings.”

And then things got worse in October 2007. An oil-drilling derrick was built in eastern Ecuador near the source of the Amazon River; its impact on local farming was devastating.

“Since then, the well water has smelled bad. Everyone is complaining about it," said Manuel Bonilla, who farms just outside Tarapoa (Sucumbios province). And every day people leave things just outside the camp site.

Things got so out of hand in one province that Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa had to declare a state of emergency, after a series of anti-Chinese demonstrations by local residents.

But Andes Petroleum is going to stick out and remain because of China’s fast rising energy needs. In fact China has become the second-largest oil-consuming country in the world as a result of its run-away economic growth.

In 2006 China consumed 348.76 million tonnes of oil, plus gas from its neighbours in Central Asia and domestic coal.

The value of oil is bound to rise. The International Energy Agency expects oil prices to reach US$ 150 per barrel.

Taking over Africa and Latin America’s reserves is thus both a necessity and good business that Beijing does not want to let go.

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