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Police Attack U'wa Homeland Defenders in Colombia

by Danielle Knight

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U'wa and their homeland

(IPS) -- U.S. rights and environmental groups are challenging a proposed increase in U.S. military aid for Colombia following reports of a deadly clash there between police and Native people.

Lawmakers, in congressional hearings here Feb. 15, debated Pres. Clinton's proposed $1.3 billion, two-year emergency aid package to fight narcotics in Colombia.

Rights groups are challenging the measure, saying that there is no assurance the United States could avoid funding abusive activities by the Colombian military and police.

Activists point to recent reports from northeastern Colombia that three children died when the national police force evicted hundreds of protesters from an oil drilling site claimed by the U'wa Native tribe as its ancestral territory.

The 5,000-strong Native group, which lives in the tropical rainforest of the Andes near the Venezuelan border, sees oil as "the blood of mother earth" and has threatened mass suicide if oil operations proceed.

"Military maneuvers resulting in the death of innocent U'wa children cause serious alarm about how our tax dollars could fund more brutality and human rights abuses against innocent civilians in Colombia," says Steve Kretzmann, who coordinates the U'wa Campaign for California-based Amazon Watch.

Under Clinton's emergency spending package, the Colombian National Police would receive $68 million in 2000 and $28 million in 2001.

Hundreds forced off site by riot police
Last week, the U'wa tribe reported that three children were killed and many adults were injured on Feb. 11, when police used tear-gas, riot batons and bulldozers to force hundreds of protesters off land where the Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum plans to drill its first test well.

Since November, between 200 and 450 U'wa had established a permanent settlement on the drill site, known as Gibraltar 1, as a form of protest.

Members of the tribe told reporters that the children died because they were strapped to the backs of women who were among those forced by the police into the Cubojon River.

"We denounce these crimes against humanity... these actions violate our constitutional rights, our human rights and international humanitarian law," says a statement released by the Association of Traditional U'wa Authorities.

Occidental did not respond to requests for comment on the recent reports, but in the past the company has said that the dispute is between the Colombian government and the U'wa.

During Feb. 15 congressional hearings, Lawrence Meriage, spokesman for Occidental, urged that Clinton's aid package be balanced between the military and the national police force.

"The Colombian National Police anti-narcotics unit are badly outnumbered and outgunned by the guerrillas and paramilitaries," he said.

The conflict between the U'wa and Occidental began in 1992 when the state-run Colombian Petroleum Company (Ecopetrol) signed a contract with the corporation in the area known as the Samore Block, where Occidental hopes to find approximately two billion barrels of oil.

The government argues that the oil project is located outside the demarcated Native reserve.

But the U'wa says all land within the Samore Block -- even that not encompassed by the designated reserve -- is its sacred ancestral territory.

The U.S.-based U'wa Defense Working Group, which includes the Rainforest Action Network and Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, is calling for an immediate suspension of all activity by Occidental at Gibraltar 1, pending a negotiated settlement with the U'wa. It is also calling on Pres. Andres Pastrana to withdraw Colombian security forces from the U'wa reserve.

In protests across the country over the past few weeks, U.S. groups have targeted two of Occidental's most prominent shareholders -- Fidelity Investments and Vice Pres. Al Gore.

Boston-based financial Fidelity Investments controls more than 30 million shares of Occidental, valued at approximately $700 million.

According to Gore's 1998 Public Financial Disclosure Report, he owned between 250,000 and 500,000 in Occidental stock, which had been inherited from his father, who died in 1998. His father worked for Armand Hammer, the founder of Occidental, and funds from the company and its subsidiaries eventually formed the basis of the Gore family fortune.

Activists say drilling near or on U'wa territory would harm the rain forest and endanger the tribe because it would likely increase oil-related violence in the region.

In the context of the country's civil war, oil facilities in Colombia have been turned into military fortresses and have been a magnet for leftist guerrillas, who are then targeted by right-wing paramilitary units, says the group.

Environmentalists say Occidental's Cano Limon pipeline -- located just north of claimed U'wa territory -- has been attacked by guerrillas more than 600 times in the last 13 years, spilling more than 2.1 million barrels of crude oil into the soil and rivers.

Three U.S. citizens working with the U'wa were killed last March by a unit of the country's most prominent leftist group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

In yesterday's congressional hearings, Meriage said that over the last two years "we've seen a dramatic escalation in the attacks" on oil operations.

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Albion Monitor February 13, 2000 (

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