Peru-Ecuador war: oil at issue?

The region where the fighting between Ecuador and Peru is taking place is some of the most remote and forbidding mountainous territory anywhere in the world -- and yet it could prove tremendously rich in petroleum.

As the Organization of American States (OAS) meets in Washington Feb. 2 to seek solutions to the conflict, it is this oil potential in the disputed region that makes difficult any early settlement of the week-old fighting.

Upward of 1.5 billion barrels of petroleum are estimated to lie beneath the craggy, 18,000-foot peaks and virtually impenetrable valleys of the remote El Condor mountain range.

Test borings and other evidence suggest that this area may be part of a vast sea of oil running northeastward from the Peruvian oil fields of Talera on the Pacific and the Ecuadorean wells east of the Andes near the Brazilian border. The region is less than 250 miles from fields yielding 100,000 barrels daily for Occidental Petroleum Company, a US firm.

National honor is also involved in the dispute. Ecuador lost some 70,000 square miles of land to Peru in a 1942 peace treaty after a full- fledged war between the two countries.

Ecuador renounced the treaty in 1951, claiming it had been coerced into signing. The conflict, which dates back to the early 1800s, did not again mushroom into serious fighting until now.

Just which country began the current conflicts is difficult to determine. Conflicting claims from Quito, Ecuador, and Lima, Peru, the two capitals, indicate that fighting has been intense, with more than 100 soldiers dead.

The OAS is considering sending an observer team to the disputed area. In 1969, an OAS team sent to El Salvador and Honduras was successful in convincing troops to move back from the border and end a two-week war. But there is a feeling in the region that more than observers may be needed this time.

Representatives of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and the US -- the four guarantors of the 1942 treaty -- have urged Peru and Ecuador to resolve their dispute peacefully. But since Ecuador has long since renounced the treaty, any moves by the guarantors may well be futile. Real solutions may be possible only in Washington.

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