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U'wa Tribe Confronts Surprised U.S. Oil Exec

by Danielle Knight

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U'wa and their homeland

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- A leader of a Colombian Native group, in a visit to the United States Congress last week, confronted a surprised executive of a U.S. oil company and demanded that it halt all plans to drill on land claimed by the tribe.

The 5,000-strong U'wa tribe, 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 Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum proceeds with its oil operations.

On March 30, Larry Meriage, vice president of Occidental, had requested a meeting with Representative Cynthia McKinney, a Democrat from Georgia, in response to her remarks on the company's controversial oil project during the debate on the aid package to Colombia, which was approved by the House of Representatives last month.

But when he arrived in McKinney's office, Meriage was greeted by Roberto Perez, president of the U'wa and eight members of the U'wa Defense Working Group, a coalition of environmental and Native advocacy groups. They demanded that the company immediately halt all operations on land the tribe considers its sacred ancestral territory.

"In accordance with our natural laws which don't permit the exploitation or destruction of nature, we demand that you respect our rights, our culture and our lives," said Perez.

The last time Occidental met directly with members of the tribe was in 1997 in Los Angeles.

According to Atossa Soltani, director of Amazon Watch, who was present at the one-hour meeting, Meriage admitted that the U'wa had not been consulted on the company's plans to drill an oil well, known as Gibraltar 1.

Meriage had previously said on the record that the tribe was consulted. In early February, with a drilling license from the government, the company began construction of the Gibraltar site. "Occidental's admission about the lack of consultation give strong credence to the ongoing legal challenges to Oxy's drilling permit in international and Colombia courts," Soltani told IPS.

Consultation with indigenous communities is a legal requirement both under the Colombian Constitution and under international conventions such as Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, she said.

Meriage, the main spokesperson for the company, could not be reached for comment. His secretary at company headquarters said he would be in meetings with U.S. lawmakers all day.

In the past the company has maintained that the dispute is essentially a conflict between the Colombian government and the tribe. 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.

Currently some 2,700 U'wa people, local farmers, students and union members are trying to stop construction of the oil well through non-violent demonstrations, according to Soltani.

In mid February, the tribe reported that several children were killed and many adults were injured when police used tear-gas, riot batons and bulldozers to force hundreds of U'wa demonstrators off the Gibraltar site.

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

The U'wa Defense Working Group, which includes the U.S. groups 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 United States last month, U.S. groups targeted two of Occidental's most prominent shareholders -- Fidelity Investments and Vice President Al Gore.

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.

Boston-based financial Fidelity Investments controls more than 30 million shares of Occidental, valued at approximately $700 million. Perez will head to Boston and New York this weekend to try and meet with Occidental's investors.

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, say environmental and human rights activists.

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).

"If any deaths occur in association with this project, the blood will be on Occidental's hands," said Congresswoman McKinney.

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Albion Monitor April 10, 2000 (

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