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Ignoring the Protesters

Foes of Occidental Petroleum’s oil-drilling plan in Colombia failed to slow the project at the company‘s annual shareholders meeting last week. Their next effort to draw attention to what they see as a huge threat to sacred ground will be outside this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

”The president of Occidental Petroleum Corporation is violating the peace of the indigenous U‘wa people! You’re violating our fundamental rights! You‘re attacking our way of life, our cultural principles and the environment!“ cried Roberto Perez, president of the Traditional U’wa Authorities, as he spoke to Oxy shareholders last Friday in Santa Monica.

”If the verdict is against us, we are going to return to blockading again,“ Perez said. But for all of his passion and seriousness, the U‘wa leader moved only a handful of Occidental stockholders. A resolution calling for Occidental to hire an outside consultant to evaluate the potential risks and costs of the proposed oil development received only 4 percent of the stockholder votes.

Nor have the U’wa had any luck in persuading Vice President Al Gore to meet with them. Gore‘s father made his fortune while serving on the company’s board of directors, and when he died, Al Gore came to control $500,000 in Occidental stock in a trust fund for his mother. Given Gore‘s authorship of Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit and his calls for environmentally sensitive public policies, the U’wa thought he would be a natural supporter. ”We did ask him for a meeting with us,“ Perez says of his recent trips to Washington, D.C., ”but he didn‘t have the political will to meet with us. He always says he’s really busy.“

But Gore won‘t be able to avoid the U’wa indefinitely. Days before the Occidental stockholders met, member groups of the Mobilization for Global Justice gathered in Los Angeles to prepare for the Democratic National Convention in August. It‘s the same coalition that organized the demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, D.C., against the World Trade Organization. ”Amazon Watch had a large contingent in Seattle, and we made allies,“ says organizer Stephen Kretzmann. ”The Oxy-U’wa conflict is one of the top issues that will be brought up by the labor-environmental demonstrators, and we plan to have tens of thousands of people on the streets.“

The U‘wa have for years resisted efforts by an oil consortium led by the Colombian government and Occidental Petroleum to drill on land they consider part of their traditional territory. Drilling for oil is forbidden by their religion. ”Petroleum is the blood of Mother Earth. It maintains the balance of nature,“ Perez said. ”The majority of our ancestral territory is untouched cloud forest. We were born as the guardians of these resources, where the mountains and rivers were born.“

U’wa leaders also desperately want to avoid Colombia‘s ongoing civil war and fear that drilling will draw them into the conflict. Guerrilla groups routinely charge oil companies a ”war tax“ on each barrel they drill, and bombing of oil facilities occurs weekly. Much of the Clinton administration’s proposed $1.7 billion U.S. Military Aid Package (currently before the Senate Appropriations Committee) is designated for military equipment and training that will be used to protect the oil industry.

”You pay the guerrillas, you ask the government of the United States for more guns, you build oil facilities which the guerrillas bomb,“ Perez told Occidental stockholders. ”Will you be surprised when blood and oil cover our sacred land and your hands?“

The boundaries of the U‘wa reservation are in dispute. The Colombian government and Occidental contend that the Gibraltar 1 drilling site lies outside the legal limits of the reservation established in August 1999. Perez disagrees. ”We said very clearly that these are your boundaries and not our boundaries. The mountains and rivers established our traditional frontiers. We agreed with the expansion of our reservation, but not with any conditions. Our ancestral territory is not for negotiation.“

The U’wa purchased the proposed drilling site, but their ownership was not acknowledged by the Colombian government. Thousands of military and police moved into the region in January, evicting the U‘wa from Gibraltar 1. In response, the U’wa and allied social movements -- mainly peasants‘ organizations and student groups -- mobilized and began to blockade the surrounding roads. On February 11, Colombian riot police attacked the blockade with tear gas; three children drowned in the Cubujon River trying to escape, and 11 adults are still missing.

The deaths dramatically escalated the conflict, mobilizing an additional 4,000 local peasants and Indians to join the blockade. ”This time, when the military came,“ Perez says, ”we told the general that they would have to kill each one of us individually, because we’d rather die defending our land than die running away.“ The military backed down, and the blockade remained in force until April 22, when the U‘wa left for one of their culturally prescribed retreats into the cloud forest for spiritual purification and renewal.

By that time the U’wa had also won some breathing room in court. On March 30, the 11th Circuit Court of Bogota granted the U‘wa’s request for an injunction, suspending Oxy‘s Gibraltar 1 project until the U’wa legal claims are addressed. Occidental appealed the injunction on April 4; the court is supposed to make its final ruling in mid-May.

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