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Date: Fri, 22 May 98 14:22:27 CDT
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Article: 35504
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.15662.19980523181540@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Project Underground (http://www.moles.org)
Exposing corporate human rights & environmental abuses;
Supporting communities threatened by the mining & oil industries.

Occidental threatens U'wa of Colombia: Tribe contemplates mass suicide

From Project Underground, 23 May 1998

I sing the traditional songs to my children. I teach them that everything is sacred and linked. How can I tell Shell and Oxy that to take the petrol is for us worse than killing your own mother? If you kill the Earth, then no one will live. -U'wa woman, August, 1997

The U'wa people have lived peacefully in the cloudforests of the Colombian Andes for as long as anyone can remember. The last great tragedy to befall these 5,000 people happened 400 years ago, when according to oral histories, a portion of the tribe committed mass ritual suicide rather than submit themselves to Spanish rule. Today, the U'wa are once again talking about death as new invaders-Occidental Petroleum (Oxy)-move onto their land. As the project moves forward one thing becomes very clear: Whether it is through the pollution of the land they consider sacred, the increased violence that the project will inevitably bring, or by their own hand, oil exploration means the death of the U'wa.

The U'wa's Spiritual Tie to the Earth

The U'wa believe that the Earth gave them life, and as such, their territory is sacred. That the Earth is alive and is their mother is a principle U'wa understanding. This concept, in turn, has determined the U'wa practices and rituals in agriculture, hunting and gathering which sustain them. They celebrate and honor their spiritual beliefs through fasts, traditional songs and dances. For the U'wa, part of their collective purpose is to care for the Earth which has always provided for them. This has translated into the continuing U'wa practice of using the forest and mountain resources without exhausting them, taking care for future generations. The U'wa believe that if the equilibrium which exists in the natural and spiritual worlds is broken-as they feel an oil project will do-it will mean the end of the universe.

Oil Project Overview

In April of 1992, Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum was granted exploration rights to much of traditional U'wa territory-known to the oil companies as the Samore block. Oxy believes the field to hold approximately 1.5 billion barrels of oil, slightly less than three months worth of oil for the United States. Since the beginning, Samore project has been plagued by guerrilla violence and the steadfast opposition of the U'wa. If it can be brought to production, Oxy stands to make millions in profits from what could be one of the largest oil fields in this hemisphere.

However, corporate balance sheets do not reflect the catastrophic human and environmental costs that will undoubtedly impact the investments in Samore. Royal Dutch/Shell, Oxy's current partner, knows this and wants out of the project now. Facing a scarred public image as a result of its egregious human rights and environmental practices in Nigeria, Peru and the North Sea, Shell is seeking to sell its 37.5% investment share in the project rather than suffer the fall out. Meanwhile, dozens of prominent environmental, human rights and indigenous organizations have moved to advise potential new investors of the public relations, legal and financial liabilities attached to the controversial Samore oil project.

Colombia & Oil

Colombia is the fourth-largest and fastest-growing major exporter of oil in South America, increasing its output by nearly 30 percent in 1995, and expecting to double its production by 1998. Under pressure from the United States and international financial institutions, the Colombian government has turned to increased oil production as a way to pay off its debts. Indeed, the United States imports some 215,000 barrels a day of oil from Colombia, some 65 percent of the country's exports. For the peoples of Colombia living in oil regions, however this multinational oil exploitation only has brought pollution and conflict.

As Occidental knows, the growing oil infrastructure has served as a magnet for violence. Oxy's Cano Limon pump station and pipeline in Arauca which controls almost one third of Colombia's oil export has been attacked by guerrillas 508 times in its 11 years of existence.

Like in Nigeria and Burma, multinational oil companies are turning to the military to protect their investments. With the strong presence of guerrillas in the area, the Colombian military-recognized as having one of the worst human rights records in the world and armed with the latest equipment and weapons by the U.S. government-has moved in to protect Oxy's oil interests. Human rights observers contend and Occidental officials privately concede that oil industry activity in the region will only serve to heighten and focus the violence.

Equally devastating will be the impact of this oil project on the cloudforest ecosystem. In the last decade, some 1.7 million barrels of crude oil have spilled because of pipeline sabotage in Colombia (the Exxon Valdez spill was only 26,000 barrels). As the Samore block is located in one of the highest conflict areas of the country, it is impossible to imagine that the project will not result in significant environmental damage to the U'wa homeland. This is situated at the headwaters of the Orinoco river basin, which flows through sensitive cloudforest and rainforest ecosystems and other indigenous homelands on its way to the sea. The region is also home to threatened and endangered species, such as the spectacled bear (South America's only bear), ocelot, a variety of parrots as well as several rare tree species. All of this is threatened for three months of oil.

Current Situation

Now they say that the government wants to know our thoughts about the oil project, but if they don't like what we think, they will simply proceed with their own decisions. - Roberto Cobaria, President of the Traditional U'wa Authority

In their search for justice the U'wa have turned to both national and international legal fora, neither of which has yet to fully recognize the U'wa's right to protect their land and culture. In early 1997, two contradictory rulings on the U'wa case were handed down by Colombian courts, with the Council of State's decision taking precedent. This ruling found that the State's right to develop its natural resources, in this case oil, superseded the U'wa's constitutional right to consultation and defense of its cultural identity.

Looking internationally, the U'wa have recently petitioned the Inter-american Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) to call for the project's cancellation in defense of the U'wa's human rights. Meanwhile, in response to a request from the Colombian government, the OAS in conjunction with Harvard University, has issued a series of recommendations in regards to the Samore block, intended to serves as a guide to resolve the conflict between the U'wa and oil interests.

This report advocates several positives steps to be taken in favor of the U'wa, including an immediate and unconditional suspension of all oil activities in the Samore block, and the legal recognition of the U'wa's full traditional territory. However, it also recommends a process of consultation with the U'wa which is based on recognizing the Colombian's States right to exploit oil over the U'wa's right to halt it. The OAS/Harvard path to conflict resolution, therefore, depends on the U'wa giving up both their position of resistance as well as their vow to collective suicide if the project goes ahead. Indeed, these OAS/Harvard assumptions disregard the most basic of the U'wa's rights-to cultural survival, religious freedom, a healthy environment and control over their own development-all of which are guaranteed under international law. Ignoring these rights, be it by Oxy, the Colombian government or the OAS, could prove horribly tragic for the U'wa.

In response to the OAS/Harvard recommendations and overtures towards mediation, the U'wa issued a series of demands this February. The U'wa have explained that they are willing to discuss the oil project with the Colombian government and Occidental, but first the parties must agree to the following conditions:

*1. Respect for the U'wa's right to determine the fate of their ancestral homeland-including the right to refuse the oil project if they so decide.

*2. Grant legal title to the U'wa for their full traditional homeland.

*3. Demilitarize the full U'wa homeland. The cycle of violence and intimidation must stop.

To date, neither the Colombian government nor Oxy have responded to these U'wa demands.

As the U'wa learn first hand about the complexities of international legal strategies and the empty rhetoric of 'consultation,' at home they face a new and immediate danger: violence and death threats for opposing oil development. On October 20, 1997 at a press conference outside of Occidental's headquarters in Los Angeles, U'wa Chief Roberto Cobaria revealed the details of the recent death threat and beating he received in his cloud forest village. Cobar?a was pulled from his bed in the middle of the night by a group of hooded men with rifles. The assailants held the U'wa leader to the ground, demanding that he sign an authorization agreement, or he would lose his life. After refusing to sign, Cobaria was threatened with hanging, then beaten and pushed off an embankment into a river where he nearly drowned. According to Cobar?a, they said if you don't sign the agreement you will lose your life. And I said I will lose my life then. Kill me right now, because I can't make this agreement. I can't sign anything away from my tribe.

Cobaria is the U'wa people's elected representative and as such serves as the tribal spokesperson, refusing to authorize Occidental's plans to drill for oil on U'wa territory. This recent attack and death threat are painful evidence that the U'wa are already suffering the consequences of this controversial oil project. Observers familiar with the on-going repression in Nigeria where some 2,000 Ogoni, including leader Ken Saro-Wiwa, have been killed for organizing against Shell, are concerned about the emerging parallels between the two cases. This most recent act of violence against peaceful resistance further demonstrates that for both environmental and human rights concerns this oil project, as the U'wa are demanding, must be canceled.


Write Oxy and asking in your own words that the company cancel the plans for the Samore block. Let Oxy know that you hold it responsible for the U'wa's welfare and expect the company to fully respect the U'wa's rights protected under international law.

Dr. Ray R. Irani, CEO
Occidental Petroleum Corp
10889 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90024

Fax +1 (310) 443-6922