By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Al Gore seems to want no part of a long-standing battle being waged in Colombia, where an Indian community is fighting plans by Los Angeles--based Occidental Petroleum, which has ties to the vice president.
But U.S. backers of the U’wa Indians say Gore must join their fight against the oil company‘s plans to drill on tribal lands, or risk his standing as an environmentalist and humanitarian.
Gore’s late father, Senator Al Gore Sr. (D-Tenn.), served on Occidental‘s board of directors. The younger Gore is executor of his father’s estate, which controls $500,000 in Occidental stock. In addition, Occidental chairman Ray Irani has donated more than $400,000 to the Democratic Party since Al Gore became vice president.
”If he wants to be an environmental champion, he needs to make a statement on the issue,“ said Atossa Soltani of California-based Amazon Watch. ”And he needs to take personal responsibility for his family‘s fortune.“
Amazon Watch and other environmental groups, including Rainforest Action Network and Project Underground, took out a full-page ad March 6 in the West Coast edition of The New York Times, criticizing the presidential candidate’s ties to the company. The ad read, ”Who is Al Gore? Environmental champion or petroleum politician?“
Laura Quinn, Gore‘s communications director, insists that Gore is not protecting Occidental and said his only responsibility as executor is to transfer the estate to a trust for his mother. In Colombia, American reporters wonder just how detached Gore is from the controversy. They say writers of articles favorable to the U’wa have been questioned by the U.S. Embassy and believe the pressure was coming from Gore‘s office.
The long, bitter conflict between the U’wa indigenous people of northeastern Colombia and the Colombian government over Occidental‘s ”Gibraltar 1“ drilling site led to the drowning deaths of at least three children last month, say U’wa leaders. On February 11, Colombian National Police with bulldozers and tear gas charged a blockade set by the U‘wa and their supporters to stop road traffic from reaching the proposed drilling site. So fast and violent was the charge, say the U’wa, that they had no choice but to jump into the fast-flowing Cubujon River.
The U‘wa’s tenacious campaign to stop oil drilling on their ancestral lands first came to the world‘s attention in February 1995, when they threatened to commit mass suicide. All 5,000 U’wa would step off a 1,400-foot cliff in Guican if the Colombian government granted a consortium led by Occidental Petroleum permission to drill exploratory wells in the Samore block.
According to tribal legend, committing mass suicide from this cliff in Guican has historical precedent. When the Spanish conquistadors attempted to enslave a branch of the U‘wa some 400 years ago, thousands put their children in clay pots, threw them off the cliff and then walked backward off the edge to join them in death. In 1995, U’wa leaders declared that the government‘s failure to seriously consult with them and the subsequent loss of their old ancestral land to oil drilling would be a new form of slavery; a second mass suicide, this time extinguishing the tribe, was preferable.
Amazon Watch’s Soltani says that no mass-suicide threats have been made during the current confrontation, which began in January. Instead of suicide, the U‘wa now pledge ”to put their lives on the line to defend their land“ through blockades and other acts of civil disobedience. Roughly 300 Colombian soldiers, part of a special unit whose sole mission is to defend oil wells and pipelines, are dug in on Gibraltar 1, while another 700 soldiers and hundreds more National Police patrol the region.
For Colombia, a tangle of problems created the conditions for the U’wa uprising. The issues include how the central government treats tribal peoples and their land claims, how the government will cope with its own oil shortage and fiscal crisis, and what can be done to tame the escalating violence between various guerrilla groups and the military and paramilitary forces.
During the 1990s, the Colombian government granted both the U‘wa and other indigenous groups, together with Afro-Colombians living in rural areas, far more ”reservation“ land, called resguardos, than any previous government -- title to over 28 percent of the national territory, when they numbered only about 4.5 percent of the population. Moreover, these new lands were legally ”inalienable,“ meaning they could never be sold. In August 1999, the U’wa, after years of insisting upon the return of their ancestral lands, received title to over 500,000 acres, an area four times larger than their previous legally recognized reservation.
But U‘wa leaders say that they did not agree to the final boundaries of the reservation. Their lawyer, Ebaristo Tegria, reports that when they first saw the proposed boundaries they agreed, but later, when they realized that Occidental would be drilling just outside the proposed boundary, they objected and asked that the boundaries be redrawn. The Colombian government refused. While negotiating with the government over expanding the reservation in the mid- and late 1990s, the U’wa also sued the Colombian government and Occidental Petroleum for failing to adequately consult with them on oil exploration. To the U‘wa, this failure violated the 1991 Colombian Constitution protecting the rights of indigenous communities to participate in public decisions that affect them. The U’wa won in local court, lost on appeals, and then won a second time at the Colombian Constitutional Court, roughly equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, yet another legal institution called the State Council then overturned the Constitutional Court, ruling in February 1997 that ”the general interest of the Colombian people“ took precedence over ”all other considerations, including the rights of the indigenous pueblos protected under the National Constitution.“
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