Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Awaiting a final okay from the Colombian government, Occidental Petroleum Corp. has mustered the political will to begin drilling a tropical oil field despite the vow of an indigenous tribe, 5,000 strong, to commit mass suicide if their land is so despoiled.

Occidental officials have engaged in sporadic talks with the U’wa tribe over access to tracts the tribe claims as its ancestral homeland, but no compromise has been reached, and the oil giant appears to be losing patience.

On Friday, Oxy chairman Ray R. Irani declared at an April 30 shareholders’ meeting at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium that U’wa complaints about the drilling should be aimed at the Colombian government and not Oxy. According to the company’s associate director of public relations, Roger Gillott, Occidental intends to go forward as long as “we receive all the government approvals.”

Members of the U’wa tribe believe drill-ing could destroy their cultural heritage, which is intricately linked to the lush cloud forest where they live. They further are aware that oil pipelines tend to become battle lines in Colombia’s enduring civil war. With rebels bombing other such lucrative economic lifelines and the armed forces militarizing to protect them, a reported 1.7 million barrels of oil have soiled the once pristine Colombian Amazon.

The U’wa cause has been taken up by eco-activists in the United States, and Oxy annual meetings have been the target of demonstrations for the last three years. More than 50 protesters turned out Friday, with one glaring absence. One of the leaders of that movement, Los Angeles–raised Terence Freitas, was killed in Colombia in January along with two other American activists.

Earlier last week, many of the same protesters marched on Occidental’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters to stage a sit-in. Traffic was snarled for an hour at the crowded Westwood intersection as police handcuffed and arrested about 20 boisterous demonstrators.

Visiting U’wa representative Roberto Perez Gutierrez, who spoke at both demonstrations and addressed the shareholders, rejected chairman Irani’s comments as subterfuge. “It isn’t [the Colombian government’s] property to give,” said Perez, who considers the Oxy deal to be a violation of U’wa sovereignty.

“We told the president of Oxy it is time to recognize the right to life on ancestral indigenous territory,” said Perez. “For us, it is the destruction of our culture. It is the contamination of our rivers. They don’t have equipment that doesn’t pollute, so we cannot permit any agreement on the exploitation of oil,” he said. “We aren’t talking about the economy. We are talking about respect for our culture.”

While cultural understanding may not be referenced in the mission statement of Occidental, which reported $6.6 billion in revenues last year, the multinational firm was given pause in 1995 when, two months after a license for seismic testing was granted, the U’wa threatened to march off a “Cliff of Death” in the Andes. Oxy announced it would forgo drilling activity within the government-recognized U’wa reservation, and the corporation delayed drilling in the area although it kept an environmental permit pending at one site.

But Oxy’s pledge did not extend to outlying lands adamantly claimed by the U’wa –- a claim disputed by the government –- and the company’s newly stated intention to move forward strikes environmental activists as precipitous and revealing. “Oxy seems to be trying to call the U’wa on their suicide threat,” said Atossa Soltani, director of Amazon Watch. “They will only realize what the consequences are when it affects their bottom line.”

Asked if the suicide threat remains in force, Perez said, “We are maintaining this in reserve. It is our internal affair . . . [but] we will continue until the end.”

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