U'wa tribe blocks oil company exploitation
Lars Din
March 2000

On January 25 two hundred members of the indigenous U'wa tribe in Eastern Colombia were removed from their "permanent presence' at a proposed oil drill-site on their ancestral lands by 5000 Colombian troops. The tribe had been occupying the land since November 17 in an effort to stop U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum from pursuing oil exploration known as the Samore block project.

Living in the beautiful cloudforest region of the Eastern Andes, the U'wa first gained international attention in 1997 when they threatened to commit mass suicide by jumping from a 1400-foot cliff, if plans to drill on their land were not halted. The U'wa say their land is sacred. They believe that "oil is the blood of Mother Earth" and that extracting it would disrupt the spiritual and ecological balance which their tribe is charged with maintaining.

The U'wa people's struggle exploded into the public arena last March with the tragic murders in Colombia of three indigenous rights activists: Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok and Lahe'ane'e Gay. Terence was one of the founders of the U'wa Defense Working Group and had devoted the last two years of his life to supporting the U'wa in their campaign to stop Occidental's oil project, reclaim their ancestral homeland and protect their traditional culture. Ingrid and Lahe'ane'e were coordinating with the U'wa to launch an educational project designed to maintain and promote the U'wa's traditional way of life.

Claiming there are vast oil reserves under U'wa land, Occidental has for several years been unsuccessfully lobbying the U'wa to allow drilling on their land. Last September the Colombian government granted Occidental Petroleum a permit for construction of the Gibraltar 1 drill site. The U'wa have stated clearly they do not want oil drilling. They see it as the latest move in fifty years of colonization of the U'wa, resulting in the decimation of their tribe and whittling away of their land. Once numbering in the tens of thousands, today 5,000 U'wa remain on tribal lands a fraction of their former size.

Oil wells are a magnet for violence in Colombia. Occidental's Caño Limón pipeline, just north of U'wa territory, has been attacked by leftist guerillas more than 600 times in its 13 years of existence, spilling some 1.7 million barrels of crude oil into the soil and rivers, more than 8 times the Exxon Valdez! The Colombian government has militarized oil production and pipeline zones, often persecuting local populations the government assumes are helping the guerrillas. Last year alone, in the neighboring Arauca region, there were 38 assassinations, 31 incidents of torture and 44 kidnappings. No wonder the traditional authority of the U'wa are opposed to oil exploration on their land. They've said they prefer extermination to this possible future.

Over the years the U'wa have taken a variety of actions to halt the project including the filing of lawsuits against the government in Colombia, petitioning the Organization of American States to intervene, appealing directly with Occidental's top executives, and reaching out to company shareholders. Last April U'wa representatives came to Los Angeles to directly confront Occidental. Along with several hundred supporters the U'wa marched on Oxy's HQ and demanded a meeting with CEO Ray Irani. When they were refused entry activists occupied the street in front of the building and held an inspirational rally on Oxy's front steps. Two days later the U'wa spoke at an Occidental shareholder's meeting; there were simultaneous demonstrations at Colombian consulates and embassies around the world.

Responding to a plea by the U'wa Traditional Authority, activists in the U.S. and around the world are taking action. As a result of their efforts, Shell Oil has sold its interest in the Samore Block project. On February 3, during a world-wide day of action to support the U'wa, they held demonstrations in 22 cities, as far away as London and Tel Aviv. Several local activists represented Gainesville at an outreach action in Tampa, FL. "We're targeting Fidelity because they manage about a tenth of Oxy's stocks," said Dan Berger. "They can either influence Occidental to stop the project, or divest. Basically we're here to raise awareness about the U'wa's desperate position." The activists distributed hand-outs at a traffic light next to Fidelity's offices; a spray-painted banner said, "Fidelity: Investing in Genocide?"

Activists for the Rainforest Action Network asked Fidelity to encourage Occidental to stop the project. "Our portfolio managers ...are not trained to make investment decisions to fulfill social or political objectives," said a Fidelity official. Yet the company's slogan is "We Help You Invest Responsibly."

Fidelity Investments' parent company, Fidelity Research and Management Corporation (FMR corp), is the world's largest investment management. Lately, activists have been communicating with owners of Fidelity funds. "I do not want my money supporting something like this," said Kathy Kerridge, an attorney and home-maker who owns $47,000 worth of shares in five Fidelity funds. While she hasn't sold her investments yet, she said, "if I don't see some kind of action I will sell my shares and transfer them to another fund and move them out of Fidelity."

Another major beneficiary of Occidental profits is presidential hopeful Al Gore, Jr. He is executor for the Gore estate, which includes $500,000 in Occidental stocks. The Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit research group in Washington, reports that Al Gore Sr., the vice president's father, earned $500,000 a year working for Occidental after he retired from the Senate. In the past, the younger Gore has flown aboard the company's private jet and solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from Occidental for the Democratic Party.

Gore has not commented on the situation. On February 2, eight environmental activists "locked down" at his New Hampshire campaign headquarters by chaining themselves to the door, and were arrested.

The eviction of the U'wa from the proposed Gibraltar 1 drill site means that time is running out for the U'wa. After the raid by Colombian troops three U'wa men were missing. Several more were taken to the hospital because of "illness." "We hold the Colombian Government responsible for this action and in particular the President, Andres Pastrana Arango and the Occidental Company, OXY," said the U'wa in a statement released January 26.

For activists in the U.S, the U'wa struggle is touchstone. With a $289 million aid package in 1999, Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world after Israel and Egypt. The U.S has stationed hundreds of military "advisors" in Colombia. In spite of record human rights abuses by the Colombian government (ten times more disappearances and murders than in Kosovo), the Clinton administration has proposed to give Colombia an additional $1.5 billion dollars.

What you can do:
1. Write to the following; tell them to stop the Samore Block Project in Colombia:

Edward C. Johnson III Chairman and CEO Fidelity Investments
82 Devonshire St.
Boston, MA 02109
Telephone: 800-544-6666
Fax: 617-476-4164
Dr Ray Irani, President and CEO
Occidental Petroleum Corporation
10889 Wilshire Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90024
or Via fax: (310) 443 6922
Presidente Andres Pastrana
Casa Presidencial
Bogota, Colombia
Colombian Embassy Washington D.C.
Fax: (202) 387-0176
Phone : (202)-387-8338

2. Keep an ear open for more local actions. For more info send an email to: Larsdin@hotmail.com
3. Contribute to the U'wa Defense Project, by sending a check to:

Amazon Watch
200110 Rockport Way
Malibu CA 90265 USA.

4. Check out the Rainforest Action Network website at: http://www.ran.org/

Thanks to Aaron at Rainforest Action Network for help in writing this article.

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