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Where Is Al Gore? 

Silence on Colombia’s oil-drilling showdown irks environmentalists

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000

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Simply put, the Colombian government wants that oil. Colombia‘s state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, stands to gain 25 percent of the revenue from the estimated 1.5 billion barrels in the Samore block. Much of the oil will be exported, and the revenues used to reduce the Colombian government’s deficit spending -- a stringent requirement of a new $2.7 billion aid package from the International Monetary Fund. Without the Samore oil, the Colombian government faces fiscal crisis.

Consequently, in September 1999, just a month after the Colombian government expanded the U‘wa reservation, the Ministry of the Environment granted Occidental Petroleum permits to drill at Gibraltar 1. The U’wa changed tactics, now that the State Council had ruled against them and the government refused to renegotiate the reservation boundaries.

In November, the U‘wa bought the two farms that are the Gibraltar 1 drilling site, and some 200 people moved onto the land, claiming it was now part of the reservation. On January 19, Occidental got an eviction order to remove the U’wa, and the Colombian military and national police surrounded the site.

According to Amazon Watch, in late January the military lured the U‘wa leadership off the site for talks, and no one was let back. Soon, only 26 U’wa remained at Gibraltar 1, and they were removed by force in Colombian helicopters.

Having lost control of the drilling site, U‘wa leaders then initiated roadblocks. They have also charged that FARC, a Colombian guerrilla group, works with Occidental Petroleum and is intimidating U’wa supporters (FARC claimed responsibility for the murder of Terrence Freitas, one of three Americans working with the U‘wa who were killed in March 1999). The relationship between guerrilla groups and oil companies is a volatile issue in Colombia. Over the past decade, Occidental’s oil pipelines in the Cano Limon region have been bombed over 500 times, costing more than $15 billion in lost revenues and 1.7 million barrels spilled -- a huge environmental threat. Two major reasons the U‘wa resist Occidental are to avoid the violence associated with oil development and to protect the environment, a mission the tribe sees as a religious obligation.

The U’wa have been accused by the news media in Colombia of making their stand against Occidental only after being influenced by a second guerrilla group, named Domingo Lain.

U‘wa leaders resolutely disavow charges of guerrilla influence and U’wa sympathy toward the guerrillas. ”We demand that those in the media who have called us guerrilla sympathizers rectify these accusations immediately, because they endanger the life of the U‘wa community and of those that support us. We fight to defend our cultural principles, which benefit society as a whole and not those particular dark interests.“

Occidental Petroleum and its major investors declare no responsibility for the crisis. Occidental Petroleum spokesman Roger Gillitt told the Weekly, ”The confrontation is not between the U’wa and Occidental, but between the U‘wa and the Colombian government.“ Amazon Watch and the other members of the U’wa Defense Group coalition have called upon Boston-based Fidelity Investments, a major owner of Occidental stock, to pressure Occidental to change its policy. Fidelity spokesperson Ann Crowley said Fidelity would not get involved: ”It‘s our view that the government authorities have a responsibility to address matters of this type.“

Pressure against Fidelity escalated on March 8 when protesters in 30 cities around the world picketed Fidelity offices, urging investors to sell their mutual funds unless Fidelity removes Occidental Petroleum stock from its holdings. On April 28, Amazon Watch will introduce a resolution at the Occidental shareholders’ meeting to change policy.

Amazon Watch was sued by Occidental‘s Irani, who said the group’s candlelight vigils outside his Beverly Hills home have caused him and his family emotional distress. Irani‘s requests for permanent injunctions against protests outside his home were recently rejected in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

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