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 Uwa Indians say Gore must join their fight against the oil companys plans to drill on tribal lands, or risk his standing as an environmentalist and humanitarian.
Gores late father, Senator Al Gore Sr. (D-Tenn.), served on Occidentals board of directors. The younger Gore is executor of his fathers 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 familys 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 candidates ties to the company. The ad read, Who is Al Gore? Environmental champion or petroleum politician?
Laura Quinn, Gores 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 Uwa have been questioned by the U.S. Embassy and believe the pressure was coming from Gores office.
The long, bitter conflict between the Uwa indigenous people of northeastern Colombia and the Colombian government over Occidentals Gibraltar 1 drilling site led to the drowning deaths of at least three children last month, say Uwa leaders. On February 11, Colombian National Police with bulldozers and tear gas charged a blockade set by the Uwa and their supporters to stop road traffic from reaching the proposed drilling site. So fast and violent was the charge, say the Uwa, that they had no choice but to jump into the fast-flowing Cubujon River.
The Uwas tenacious campaign to stop oil drilling on their ancestral lands first came to the worlds attention in February 1995, when they threatened to commit mass suicide. All 5,000 Uwa 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 Uwa 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, Uwa leaders declared that the governments 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 Watchs Soltani says that no mass-suicide threats have been made during the current confrontation, which began in January. Instead of suicide, the Uwa 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 Uwa 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 Uwa 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 Uwa, 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 Uwa 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 Uwa also sued the Colombian government and Occidental Petroleum for failing to adequately consult with them on oil exploration. To the Uwa, this failure violated the 1991 Colombian Constitution protecting the rights of indigenous communities to participate in public decisions that affect them. The Uwa 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.
Simply put, the Colombian government wants that oil. Colombias 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 governments 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 Uwa reservation, the Ministry of the Environment granted Occidental Petroleum permits to drill at Gibraltar 1. The Uwa changed tactics, now that the State Council had ruled against them and the government refused to renegotiate the reservation boundaries.
In November, the Uwa 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 Uwa, and the Colombian military and national police surrounded the site.
According to Amazon Watch, in late January the military lured the Uwa leadership off the site for talks, and no one was let back. Soon, only 26 Uwa remained at Gibraltar 1, and they were removed by force in Colombian helicopters.
Having lost control of the drilling site, Uwa leaders then initiated roadblocks. They have also charged that FARC, a Colombian guerrilla group, works with Occidental Petroleum and is intimidating Uwa supporters (FARC claimed responsibility for the murder of Terrence Freitas, one of three Americans working with the Uwa who were killed in March 1999). The relationship between guerrilla groups and oil companies is a volatile issue in Colombia. Over the past decade, Occidentals 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 Uwa 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 Uwa 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.
Uwa leaders resolutely disavow charges of guerrilla influence and Uwa 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 Uwa 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.
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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 Uwa and Occidental, but between the Uwa and the Colombian government. Amazon Watch and the other members of the Uwa 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: Its 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 Occidentals Irani, who said the groups candlelight vigils outside his Beverly Hills home have caused him and his family emotional distress. Iranis requests for permanent injunctions against protests outside his home were recently rejected in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Amazon Watchs Atossa Soltani says, Neither we nor the Uwa will go away. We will continue to press Gore, Oxy and Fidelity for immediate suspension of the oil project on Uwa land.