Peru-Ecuador talks: Can smiles end a centuries-old feud?

The table outside the meeting room overflowed with the dress hats of several dozen Army, Air Force, and Navy officers who were trying to find ways to resolve the Ecuador-Peru border feud.

In a way, the mix of hats is symbolic of the peacemaking efforts under way here and across the international bridge in Huaquillas, Ecuador.

There continues to be skirmishing all along El Condor Cordillera separating Ecuador and Peru, but a cease-fire has been in effect since Feb. 2. Both sides, prodded by mediators from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and the United States, are pulling back troops from the rugged mountain border where much of the fighting took place in late January and early February.

The meetings here in Aguas Verdes and across the border in Huaquillas bring the feuding nations together to see if a permanent settlement can be worked out. The dispute is an old one. Peruvians and Ecuadorians have fought over this region since the early 1800s.

The current talks are reportedly amiable. Many of the officers know each other from joint military maneuvers in the Andes, from classroom studies in the United States and at the School of the Americas in the former Panama Canal Zone, and from serving as military attaches in one another's countries. Most spring from the same racial stock -- and their countries have similar histories.

The border dispute has long defied solution. In the mid 1500s, Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana, who discovered the Amazon River, set out from Quito and crossed the rugged El Condor before reaching the headwaters of the Amazon.

Other Spanish conquistadores were exploring the area, but they started from Lima, the Peruvian capital. In those days, Peru was the more important capital, the seat of one of the two biggest viceroyalties in the Spanish New World empire.

Settlers in both Ecuador and Peru claimed the region. After independence from Spain, the overlapping claims continued. Warfare broke out over the area from time to time in the 1800s.

In 1942 a brief but brutal war took place that was settled by the protocol of Rio de Janeiro. The settlement made Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and the US guarantors of the peace. But the treaty was forced on Ecuador, and that nation lost some 70,000 square miles of territory as a result.

Those same square miles are the heart of the current dispute. Ecuador renounced the Rio treaty and argues that Ecuador should have physical access to the Amazon River. It bases its claim on the exploits of the colonial conquistador Orellana.

But there is more to the dispute than conflicting claims to territory and the Amazon. The area is believed to be rich in oil. Peru is already exploiting some of the region. And Ecuador, which has found large quantities of petroleum east of the Andes (of which the Condor Cordillera is part), wants to tap into the disputed land, considering it part of the oil field it is now using.

Both Presidents Jaime Roldos Aguilera of Ecuador and Fernando Belaunde Terry of Peru have toured the area, asserting sovereignty over it. Fighting in late January and early February left at least two dozen soldiers dead.

But the words spoken here in Aguas Verdes and in Huaguillas are friendly. There are numerous abrazosm (the LAtin embrace so common in meetings) and smiles all around.

When a Peruvian general tripped on a rough brick in the pavement, his Ecuadorean counterpart gently supported him with his arm, then patted him on back and said with a smile:

"I did that yesterday, and where were you to support me?"

All this good nature is important, but it will not settle the dispute. The best that can be said of the talks is that they are keeping troops from the countries apart -- and giving both countries time to think through the consequences of a return to hostilit ies.

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