Colombian U'wa nation get more land but keep fighting

Aug 25, 1999 02:00 AM

An embattled Colombian Indian tribe has won a huge expansion in its territory near the Venezuelan border, but appears to be losing its fight to prevent a U.S. oil company from exploring near its ancestral lands.
The 8,000-member U'wa nation applauded the government's decision a day before to double the size of its forested reservation. But the tribe says it will keep fighting an expected government ruling to grant Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. the rights to conduct exploratory drilling just outside the territory now 543,000 acres.
Tribal spokesman Jose Cobaria said oil exploration and drilling in the region would irreparably disrupt the group's quiet, semi-nomadic way of life. "It's not just sticking a pipe into the ground and taking out the oil," he told. Oil would bring "an avalanche of people from all over the country," a spiral in the cost of living, and the violence that plagues other oil-producing regions in Colombia, Cobaria said.
State and foreign oil companies pay the Colombian military to station troops near wells and pipelines - a protection against frequent bombings and armed extortion by leftist rebels who have gravitated to the South American country's oil regions.
Despite the U'wa's concerns, Colombia's environment minister said he would probably approve a license for Occidental Petroleum to build an exploratory well just outside the U'wa reserve.
"There's nothing in Colombian law preventing it," Juan Mayr told. Mayr, a conservationist who entered the government last year, said the state needed to weigh the possible impact on the U'wa against the economic development of the country as a whole.
Oil is Colombia's top legal export, but officials have said the country will become a net petroleum importer by 2003 if it cannot stimulate more foreign-backed exploration. Occidental has said there may be 2 bn barrels of crude below the ground in the region inhabited by the U'wa.

Colombia's constitution grants the country's 80 tribes vast authority overnatural resource management on hundreds of legally recognised reservations. However, Mayr said, the proposed exploratory well lies "a few km" outside of the expanded U'wa reserve.
For the Indian group that's close enough to spell disaster. In a letter to President Andres Pastrana, the U'wa said it would not permit any exploration or drilling "within or outside the territory."
The U'wa gained world-wide attention in 1997 by threatening mass suicide to prevent an earlier Occidental petition to drill on its reserve. At the time, the U'wa said they believed oil to be "the blood of mother earth," and drilling synonymous with the destruction of their culture.
Stung by the bad publicity, the company revised its plans, and late last year requested a government license to move its proposed well just outside the reserve.

Source: AP
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