Julia Butterfly Hill in Ecuador Jail After Oil Protest:
Pipeline Would Cut Through Reserve
Glen Martin, Chronicle Environment Writer
Julia Butterfly Hill, California’s well-known tree sitter and environmental activist, has been jailed in Ecuador for protesting a proposed oil pipeline that would penetrate a virgin Andean “cloud forest” that teems with rare birds.
Hill, 28, was arrested Tuesday with seven other demonstrators in Quito outside the offices of Occidental Petroleum, a U.S. oil company.
“The little gringos have been arrested, including the old cockatoo who climbs trees,” Ecuadoran President Gustavo Noboa said of Hill, who attained fame for a two-year occupation of a redwood tree in Northern California.
A spokeswoman for Hill said that lawyers for a South American environmental group have gone to court in an attempt to free the activist but that she may remain incarcerated through Friday or beyond.
Occidental is part of OCP Ecuador, a consortium that is constructing a 300- mile pipeline that ultimately will run from oil fields in the Amazon Basin to the Pacific Coast port of Esmeraldas.
About 95 miles of the $1.1 billion project will slice through the Mindo- Nambillo Reserve, one of the few remaining tracts of high-elevation rain forest — or cloud forest — left in the world. The reserve supports more than 450 species of birds — almost 5 percent of the world’s total, 46 of which are endangered.
The region is also a hotbed of eco-tourism, drawing adventurers and nature lovers from around the world.
South American environmentalists and townspeople who rely on the tourism say the pipeline will do irreparable harm to the incomparably splendid region. As evidence, they cite the mishaps that have plagued a state-owned crude oil pipeline that runs near the planned Mindo route.
That pipeline has ruptured numerous times, spewing about 150,000 barrels of crude petroleum into adjacent jungle watersheds.
But Ecuadoran politicians say the Mindo pipeline will pull the country out of the economic slough where it has wallowed for years. They say it will provide 52,000 jobs and attract about $2.5 billion in foreign capital by 2004.
Last year, the Economist magazine noted that Noboa scoffed at resistance to the pipeline, characterizing the opposition as “four bird watchers and a couple of mayors.”
But international concern has swelled since then, culminating in Hill’s arrest.
Hill arrived in Ecuador on July 9 and toured the Mindo reserve, the pipeline route and waste pits left by Texaco after 30 years of oil exploration in the Amazon region.
She also met with residents of the Mindo region and pledged support of their attempts to stop the project.
“When we see these Ecuadoran citizens willing to put their bodies where their beliefs are, risking serious danger and hardships, we know all other systems are failing in our responsibility to the planet,” she said.
Occidental, the primary participating U.S. petroleum company, has been singled out with particular vehemence by protesters.
But Larry Meriage, a spokesman for Occidental, said the company is a minority stakeholder in the project.
“We only have a 12 percent interest in the pipeline, so I really can’t speak for it,” said Meriage. “They have a separate structure down there.”
Attempts to reach OCP Ecuador executives for comment were unsuccessful.
When Hill started her vigil at the top of a redwood tree — a protest against the logging practices of Pacific Lumber Co. — she was dismissed by timber industry executives as a ditzy, feckless tree-hugging hippie. Ultimately, however, she became an international cause celebre and a poster child for environmental civil disobedience. Her tree-sit didn’t end until Pacific Lumber agreed to a logging plan that preserved significant portions of old-growth forests on their lands.
Hill underwent a four-hour deportation hearing on Wednesday. A decision on her expulsion from the country is expected within 24 hours.
“I was not surprised to learn that OCP sent a letter to the police pressuring for my deportation,” Hill said in a statement released after her hearing.
Hill’s tour of the Mindo region and her participation in the Occidental protest has galvanized pipeline opponents, said Nathalie Weemaels, a member of the staff of Accion Ecologia in Quito.
“Her presence here has really focused attention on the pipeline,” Weemaels said, “and we anticipate she’s going to continue the campaign when she’s released.”
Chronicle correspondent Tricia Sheehy Skeffington contributed to this report from Quito. 07.18.02