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.“
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.
Amazon Watch’s Atossa Soltani says, ”Neither we nor the U‘wa will go away. We will continue to press Gore, Oxy and Fidelity for immediate suspension of the oil project on U’wa land.“