Broad pressure on Occidental for Colombian project

Apr 16, 1998 02:00 AM

Environmental groups opposed to oil exploration and drilling on indigenous land in the Amazon have taken their case to the readers of the New York Times.
Full-page advertisements, published in the newspaper across the nation, branded the Colombian oil exploration project planned by the California-based Occidental Petroleum Co. as a "death sentence" for indigenous communities. One group, the U'wa tribe, has threatened mass suicide by walking en masse off a cliff to stop oil exploration on their land.
"Oil development will desecrate the sacred homeland of the U'wa people" the advertisement, sponsored by some 30 environmental groups, says. "Faced with the slow death of their environment and culture, the U'wa have vowed to leap to their deaths if Occidental Petroleum drills for oil in their forest home."
The $ 30,000 advertising campaign aims to increase public awareness of the plan in time for Occidental's shareholders meeting.
Because Shell, Occidental's original partner in the project, now wants to sell off its shares, environmentalists believed they could halt the project if they put pressure on other potential investors.
Occidental, who signed a contract with the Colombian government seven years ago to search for oil in the area, denies the U'wa homelands are involved and argues that the land dispute actually is between the Colombian government and the 5,000 member traditional indigenous community.
"I'll say it again, Occidental never has had plans to explore for oil on U'wa territory," says Larry Meriage, spokesman for the corporation.
He told that the company, under a contract from the Colombian authorities, has plans to explore within the potentially oil rich 200,000-hectare " Samore Block" in the east foothills of the Andes near the Venezuelan border -- but not within the U'wa reservation and ancestral lands. "This exploration will not have a negative effect on the U'wa territory, " Meriage maintains.
Steve Kretzman, of Californian Underground, an environmental and human rights organisation involved in the advertising campaign, disputes this claim. "All land within the Samore Block is sacred ancestral U'wa land," he said.
The U'wa have been fighting against the oil giants since 1995, when a Colombian court overturned a previous decision in favour of the indigenous group. The indigenous group insists that they have the right to say "no" to any oil activities in their backyard and that their rights to cultural survival and a healthy environment must be protected.
They recently demanded that the government and the company recognise their right to refuse or accept oil activity on their land as any precondition to any dialogue about oil development.
"We demand the Colombian government permanently suspends the oil exploration license of Occidental on our traditional lands," Roberto Cobaria, president of the Traditional U'wa Authority said before the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. "We would rather die with dignity, protecting the land we hold sacred, than lose everything that makes us U'wa."
The suicide threat has a 300-year-old meaning. According to legend, a community of U'wa peoples jumped to their death from a local cliff in the late 17th century to avoid colonisation by Spanish missionaries.

The exploration in Colombia poses a similar threat to other oil developments around the world that has led to "disease, death and cultural destruction, " reads the advertisement in the New York Times.
"Human and ecological tragedies documented from Ecuador to Nigeria to Burma show an unmistakable pattern," the advertisement says. "When Big Oil wins, native peoples and local ecosystems are sacrificed."
The environmental groups, including the Washington-based Amazon Coalition, the Sierra Club and California-based Rainforest Action Network, point out the effect oil companies have had other parts of the Amazon, outside of U'wa land. "Cultural decay, toxic pollution, land invasion and massive deforestation have doomed dozens of indigenous cultures and millions of acres of ancient rainforest."
U'wa community leaders also fear that oil development will dramatically increase the violence in their land. Guerrillas have attacked pipelines near the U'wa homeland more than 500 times in the past 11 years, spilling some 1.7 million barrels of crude oil into the soil and the rivers, said environmentalists. The Colombian government has responded by boosting its military presence.
The oil corporation argues that the majority of the U'wa are in favour of oil exploration on their land. "The U'wa are very fragmented and the people who have been speaking with the environmental groups are not the majority, " Meriage told.
Cobaria, however, denies that the majority of the U'wa favour the drilling and says that Occidental is fostering division within the tribe. The company has provided support, such as scholarships, to certain members of the U'wa groups without first obtaining the permission of U'wa authorities, he says. "Our impression of these actions is that they aim to create conflicts among our people," he says.
Last year, the Organization of American States backed members of the tribe in a non-binding report commissioned by the Colombia government. A panel of experts and Harvard University urged the companies to "immediately and unconditionally" suspend exploration activities in the Samore block.
When the report was released, the oil company volunteered to bring its operation to a temporary halt throughout 1998 but said that the Colombian government must decide the fate of the Samore project.
Colombia's Ministry of Mining, meanwhile, has said that "oil activity in the area will not cease. "
The U'wa intends continuing the fight against any oil exploration on their land.

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