In Colombia’s northeast Norte de Santander province, the country’s richest oil region, an indigenous people known as the U’wa are in a life and death struggle with Occidental Petroleum (OXY), one of the world’s largest multinational oil companies. It’s been going on since the early 1990s, when OXY began oil exploration plans that threaten to destroy the tribe’s culture and way of life. The U’wa oppose oil drilling in their ancestral lands, saying that oil is “the blood of Mother Earth” and therefore must not be touched.
It’s been an uphill battle for these indigenous people, given the powerful corporate and government interests aligned against them. Yet, their future became even more bleak last November, when the Colombia Supreme Court gave OXY the green light to begin drilling a long-awaited test well near the tribe’s reservation. The $40 million, 14,300-foot well was to be sunk in the first half of this year.
While no one knows for sure what the test well will reveal, OXY estimates that the region contains approximately 1.5 million barrels of oil. The figure may seem like the makings of a huge supply of oil, but, as OXY’s critics have pointed out, that amount will fill a mere three months of US oil needs.
Considerable money is at stake, especially for the Colombian government. For example, Ecopetrel, the state-owned oil company, is expected to receive as much as $900 million in additional taxes and royalties annually – if the script goes according to plan. Increasingly reliant on oil exports, since coffee is declining as a major source of export earnings, the government doesn’t want to lose the OXY deal.
The money at stake has no doubt helped weigh the Colombian system against the U’wa’s interests. As the tribe has argued in a prepared statement, “For our people, it’s ominous and abusive that the men of Occidental, along with the Colombian government, program actions that injure and violate the cultural and territorial principals of the U’wa and of the campesinos … our brothers who come with impartiality to support our cause.”
The U’wa have played by the rules, seeking justice through the Colombian judicial system. They’ve provided records documenting their claims and showing that they have titles to land from the Spanish Crown dating from 1661. The records also protect their rights to subsoil minerals, including oil, they say.
A lower Colombian court decision did halt the oil exploration on the grounds that the government violated the U’wa’s constitutional rights by not consulting them before granting OXY a license to drill. However, a higher court overturned that ruling in May 2000. In a meeting on March 30, 2000, with indigenous leaders and their supporters, OXY Vice President Larry Meriage admitted that the tribe wasn’t consulted about his company’s drilling plans.
The ruling has taken the U’wa back to square one in their battle for survival. In August 1999, the Colombian government signed an agreement with the U’wa expanding their borders from 61,000 to 220,000 hectares. But the U’wa have repeatedly maintained that their sacred ancestral land extends beyond the limits of the reservation. They oppose oil exploration anywhere within that area.
Nevertheless, a court ruling said that the Colombian government didn’t have to consult the U’wa before granting OXY a license to drill, since the exploration was occurring outside the border of their reserve. Meanwhile, the government has failed to turn over any of the land that would expand their territory.
The National Indigenous Organization (ONIC), an umbrella group of Colombian indigenous peoples, announced that it would take the U’wa case to the country’s Supreme Court and international forums.
A “mere legalism,” responded Armando Valbuena, ONIC’s president, when it was pointed out that the test well was close to – but not in – the U’wa reserve. “The fact that the Colombian government would allow the oil well to endanger a people’s survival shows that economic interests prevail over the welfare of the indigenous peoples,” Valbuena said.
Domestic and international support for the U’wa continues to grow, coming from organizations ranging from US environmental groups to the Green Party of Europe and guerrilla forces in Colombia. Last year, in the months leading up to the US presidential election, candidate Al Gore became a main target. Gore’s family owns stock in OXY; getting the Gores to sell their shares would have been a major coup for the U’wa and their supporters. The campaign caused Gore some embarrassment, but the US media basically ignored it.
Amazon Watch, Rain Forest Action, and Project Underground ran an ad in the New York Times, asking: “Who is Al Gore. Environmental Champion or Petroleum Politician?” In July, activists occupied Gore’s campaign headquarters in Knoxville, Tennessee. Two months later, 200 activists took over his Olympia office and demanded that he accept responsibility for his role in the OXY petroleum project.
Gore tried to ignore the heat, as well as a letter from the U’wa. “We don’t want to have to hold you responsible for the destruction of our culture,” they warned. “Your silence signifies the death of planet Earth and consequently, the possibility of life upon her.”
In September, Stephano Boco, president of the Italian Green Party, announced that the Green Party of Europe is ready to bring the U’wa’s case before the Hague Tribunal, and that Italian legislators are prepared to set up a permanent residence in U’wa territory.
Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) has publicly expressed support for the U’wa, and has repeatedly attacked construction and engineering equipment moved into the test well site. The U’wa reject such actions as only making their situation worse.
Targeting OXY’s major investors has been the most successful strategy employed so far. Last December, after an aggressive two-month campaign by Rainforest Action Network, Amazon Watch, and other environmental groups that focused attention on the Boston-based Fidelity Investments and its relationship with OXY, the company sold 60 percent of its OXY holdings, totaling $400 million.
The latest target is the largest institutional investor, the Sanford Bernstein investment firm, and its parent company Alliance Management, which owns 53 million shares valued at $1.19 billion. Last December, U’wa supporters demonstrated outside the company’s San Francisco office, and U’wa leader Roberto Perez hand-delivered a letter to the company.
Yet, after nearly nine years of struggle, the U’wa aren’t any closer to winning their battle. The tribe has threatened mass suicide if OXY continues to violate the blood of their land. It’s not an idle threat. In the late 17th century, a group of U’wa jumped to their deaths from a cliff to avoid submitting to the authority of Spanish tax collectors and missionaries.
That could happen again. And as things currently stand, only continued international support, along with intense pressure on Occidental and the greedy corporate interests that back the multinational, can help prevent it.