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From sadanand@mail.ccsu.edu Wed Sep 13 16:33:32 2000
From: Sadanand, Nanjundiah (Physics) <sadanand@mail.ccsu.edu>
To: tcraine@hotmail.com
Subject: Colombia news:U'wa vs. Occidental Petroleum
Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2000 10:39:33 -0400

U'wa vs. Occidental Petroleum

By Paul Jeffrey, National Catholic Reporter,
8 Sepbember 2000

They called it dialogue. Standing barefoot in the sun, the U'wa looked up at the government officials sitting comfortably on a stage six feet in the air.

The delegation from the Colombian government had traveled to this isolated village in midsummer because the U'wa had blocked area highways to prevent trucks belonging to Occidental Petroleum—known here and in the North as Oxy—from reaching the company's Gibraltar I drill site at CedeF1o.

An awning advertising Aguila Beer protected officials from the tropical July heat. A bevy of aides provided chilled bottles of water for officials, while dozens of soldiers and police ringed the area. The television crews that flew in from the capital with the government delegation captured every official word but turned to film the crowd of Indians only when it broke into a chant of U'wa si, Oxy no.

The highway blocking was the latest incident in a life-or-death struggle over land rights between indigenous Colombians, some 7,000 strong, and a powerful U.S. oil company with ties to Al Gore and his family. The ongoing clash, prompted in part by Colombia's dwindling supply of oil, has implications for the U.S. market, and for church leaders in Colombia, who are trying to determine how best to accompany the U'wa in their struggle.

The current conflict echoes earlier battles throughout the Americas between indigenous cultures and powerful economic interests intent on exploiting natural resources.

The U'wa, whose territory is nestled in the misty forests of northeast Colombia near the border with Venezuela, have been engaged in a struggle with Occidental over land rights since the early 1990s, when scientists from the giant petroleum company found evidence of 1.3 billion barrels of crude oil more than two miles below the tribe's land. In 1995, the Colombian government granted Occidental an exploration permit, ignoring a constitutional requirement that the U'wa be consulted first.

When tribal leaders complained, the Colombian government tried appeasing the U'wa by dramatically enlarging the U'wa reservation. Yet tribal leaders say the sites where Occidental wanted to drill were left out of the newly configured territory. Moreover, the U'wa argue that the entire area belonged to them until Spanish missionaries and agricultural settlers began systematically encroaching on their land over hundreds of years. That erosion has continued. One recent report shows the Colombian government stripped the tribe of 85 percent of its land between 1940 and 1970.

As company geologists and engineers moved in after 1995 to build roads through the reservation, so did the Colombian army, installing two military bases in the area and harassing local residents. In February, when the U'wa blocked roads leading to company drilling sites, army troops beat and evicted the demonstrators.

In March, the U'wa gained a temporary reprieve in the courts, but a higher court ruled against them in May. When Occidental began moving heavy equipment and materials toward CedeF1o, the U'wa and local mestizo peasants (those of mixed Spanish and Indian blood) again blocked area roads. While they permitted other traffic to pass, they lay their bodies in front of Occidental trucks. In June, the government sent in riot police and soldiers; 28 demonstrators were injured and 33 arrested.

Rare show of unity

Undeterred, the U'wa and the mestizos—in a rare show of interethnic unity—maintained the roadblocks, forcing government officials to fly July 7 to nearby Saravena, from where they and the BogotE1 television crews were ferried by helicopter to CubarE1. It was the second such dialogue to take place. In August 1998, a similar group of officials came here, but when U'wa leaders began complaining about broken promises, the government representatives got up and walked out.

This year they stayed put, even as tribal leaders read long documents strongly critical of the government and Occidental. This time, confronted by mounting international support for the U'wa cause and unified local opposition to Occidental, the government had to at least make a show of listening. The day ended with an agreement to hold further talks in the capital.

Protesters removed their roadblocks. Tribal leaders weren't optimistic, but felt they had to demonstrate good faith.

The U'wa remain adamantly opposed to drilling. To emphasize the seriousness of their opposition, tribal elders have raised the possibility of mass suicide if the tribe loses out in its struggle against big oil. U'wa history offers a precedent. In the late 17th century, several hundred U'wa jumped off a 1,200-foot cliff rather than submit to forced colonization by Spanish missionaries and tax collectors. The area was subsequently renamed the Cliff of Glory.

The land is the root of who we are, Roberto Cobaria, a former tribal president, told NCR. From the land we were born. To drill into the earth damages the land, the body of the world. Petroleum is like blood, running everywhere throughout the body of the earth. We demand that the government respect our culture and our sacred land. The U'wa people have a culture that goes far back, and land was always what produced life for us. Without land, there is no life. Without land, where are we going to sit? Where are we going to cultivate our crops? Where are we going to educate our children? Without land, there is no life for us.

Cobaria has traveled through the United States and Europe talking with politicians and activists, explaining the politics of oil. For the petroleum companies, progress means pumping out all the oil. But when it's all gone, what are we going to eat? Progress for them means taking all the petroleum to another world, leaving us here poor, Cobaria said.

The U'wa appeal for solidarity has borne fruit. In the United States, U'wa supporters have spoken out during Occidental shareholder meetings, banged drums outside the Bel Air, Calif., home of Occidental CEO Ray Irani, demonstrated at the Democratic Party's convention in July and picketed the offices of Fidelity Investments, the world's largest mutual fund company, urging it to divest an estimated $500 million in Occidental shares.

We thought for a while that we were alone, U'wa leader Gloria Tegria said. Yet we've come to realize that a lot of people help us, people who, like us, don't want to see Mother Earth die. This international solidarity has given us more respect inside the country. It's forced the government and the military and the insurgents to have to respect us.

U'wa supporters have also dogged the campaign trail of Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, whose family has long had close business and personal ties to Occidental. Gore has often wined and dined with Occidental officials, but he has rebuffed repeated requests for a meeting with U'wa leaders traveling to the United States.

A generous donor

Occidental has been a generous donor to Democrats in recent years, and the Clinton administration has been responsive. According to an investigative report by Ken Silverstein, published in May in The Nation, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson traveled to Colombia in 1999 to meet with government officials on the company's behalf. Richardson also hired a longtime Occidental lobbyist, Theresa Fariello, to serve as deputy assistant secretary for international energy policy, trade and investment. While working for Occidental, Fariello had lobbied the Energy Department on behalf of the company's interests in Colombia. And the revolving door swings the other way: A former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and close aide to Gore, Scott Pastrick, was hired by Occidental in 1997 to lobby the Clinton administration to support its Colombia operations.

For those who support the victims of Occidental policies, solidarity can prove costly. Early in 1999, three U.S. activists were kidnapped and killed while accompanying the U'wa. The three were assassinated by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, called FARC. Rebel leaders blamed a rogue local guerrilla commander for the killings, but both U'wa leaders and independent observers in Colombia suggest more is at stake. They say the rebel forces have constantly opposed the U'wa struggle, unlike Colombia's other main leftist army, the National Liberation Army, called ELN. That army has grudgingly honored the U'wa request to be left alone.

FARC's anti-indigenous posture may be influenced by payments from Occidental, a common practice in Colombia for companies doing business in areas controlled by rebel forces. The only Occidental official in Colombia authorized to issue public statements, Legal Director Juan Carlos Ucros, did not respond to repeated phone calls.

Yet Occidental's vice president for communication and public affairs, Lawrence Meriage, acknowledged before a U.S. Congress subcommittee last February that Occidental personnel regularly pay off guerrillas in exchange for being left alone (see accompanying interview).

Meriage told the hearing that Colombian guerrillas and the U.S.-based radical NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are both engaged in the cynical manipulation of the small indigenous U'wa community in order to advance their own agendas, and claimed that the U'wa are in no position to speak openly about what is really happening. Meriage admitted that his remarks about the situation on the ground were based on the observations of Occidental representatives who have overflown the U'wa region.

Meriage claimed during the hearing that one benefit of Occidental operations in the U'wa region had been the increased presence of government troops. He said Occidental supported increased U.S. military assistance to Colombia, and even urged the United States to expand its military operations in Colombia—largely focused on coca eradication efforts in the south of the country—into Colombia's northeast, where the U'wa stand in the way of its drilling operations.

Human rights workers and church leaders are increasingly worried, too, about the presence in the area of paramilitary units that are independent but usually closely linked to the military.

Time for church to step in

According to Fr. Luis Fernando Miyan, a Catholic priest from the diocese of Arauca's indigenous ministry program, It's a good time for the church to step up its accompaniment of the U'wa. As a beginning to that process, the bishop of Arauca, Rafael Bernal Supelano, came to CubarE1 in February to listen to the U'wa. Miyan has been present since, talking with protesters on the barricades, inviting U'wa leaders to church-sponsored conferences on indigenous themes.

Such accompaniment may help save lives, but Miyan recognizes it certainly won't be easy. The church has been present here for more than 50 years. We're looking for a project of church accompaniment where the indigenous are the protagonists, subjects of their own process of change. In the past, our indigenous ministry made decisions for them, it was very paternalistic. Some of them say we deceived them and destroyed their culture. So our work with the U'wa today isn't very close. Rather, there's distance and separation between us. They haven't told us to leave but neither have they told us to stay. We want to improve the relation. My role as a priest today is to get close to them, listen to them, accompany them, make friends with them, make them understand that the church wants to work with them, that they make the decisions and the church accompanies them, Miyan told NCR.

The violence that has wracked Colombia for decades seems destined in the coming months to reach more completely into isolated corners of the country. In July, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed a $1.3 billion aid package that further militarizes Colombia's seemingly endless war. Included in the package is an increased presence of U.S. troops and the provision of 63 high-tech military helicopters to the Colombian military and police.

While most of the rhetoric about the U.S. aid has focused on drugs, petroleum figures into the political equation. In 1999, oil was Colombia's biggest export, accounting for 31 percent of total exports and 24 percent of the central government's income. Colombia is the eighth-largest supplier of foreign crude oil to the United States, with more than 330,000 barrels per day shipped primarily to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas and Louisiana. Yet the well is beginning to run dry, and unless new reserves are discovered, Colombian officials claim they will have to import oil beginning in 2005. U.S. officials would like to guarantee a safe and steady supply of crude from neighboring countries like Venezuela and Colombia, thus lessening dependence on Middle East providers.

According to Fernando Montano, a lawyer with the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, the expansion of Occidental's operations— with the help of the Colombian and U.S. governments and militaries—is typical of the effect of globalization on small indigenous groups in the Third World. Our lands are up for sale to the highest bidder, no matter what we say, and no matter what the constitution says, said Montano, a member of the Zenu tribe, one of 84 indigenous groups in Colombia. The government has opened the doors to foreign corporations, inviting them to come and invest in mega-projects that don't respect our land or our culture. It's very clear in Colombia that the interests of capital take precedence over the interests of indigenous peoples.

Occidental has promised the U'wa it will respect the environment and their culture, but tribal leaders say the company's deeds speak louder than words. They point to the nearby CaF1o LimF3n oil field, where Occidental currently extracts more than 100,000 barrels a day but where the Guahiba tribe has paid a high price for Occidental's profits. After Occidental opened roads into the jungle, mestizo settlers soon followed. Alcohol abuse and prostitution accompanied the construction workers who were brought in from the city. As construction progressed, the Guahiba watched the fish die in their sacred Lipa Lagoon, which indigenous leaders claim was poisoned by contaminated runoff and grew stagnate after Occidental blocked the lake's outlet streams with its access roads. Protests by the tribe had no effect. Eventually, the Guahiba gave up, their culture and communities destroyed.

Oxy wants to see the U'wa become like the Guahiba, said Tegria. They want to see us reduced to picking up aluminum cans beside the highway. They want our girls and women to work as prostitutes. That's progress for them. But not for us. We'd rather die than give in.

Q & A with Occidental

Following are excerpts from an Aug. 23 telephone interview conducted by Paul Jeffrey with Larry Meriage, Occidental vice president for communications and public affairs, based in Los Angeles:

NCR: When will you be able to begin drilling, and is this just an exploratory well?

Meriage: Certainly before the end of this year. There has been no well exploration or development in this part of Colombia before this time. This is what we call in our industry a wildcat well. You heard that terminology? Despite all the seismic work and analysis, the only way you ultimately determine whether there's a commercial deposit of hydrocarbons is you have to drill the well. The track record in the industry in these cases on what we talk about a fully risk basis is somewhere between one in 10 and one in 12. Your chances of success ... if we were baseball players we'd be out of a job.

A couple of weeks ago you declared force majeur at CaF1o LimF3n. What does this mean and what are the implications?

There has been a rash S of guerrilla attacks against the pipeline that transports oil from the CaF1o LimF3n field that we operate for the Colombian government. What the force majeur declaration does is basically allow the contractors to suspend their contractual obligations when they are no longer able to fulfill their delivery commitments because of circumstances beyond their control. So it's basically a legal term that allows for the temporary suspension of contractual obligations.

Is oil flowing through the pipeline today?

No, the pipeline is down. The pipeline has been a target for attacks, since it went into operation in the late '80s, by Colombia's two largest guerrilla groups. Most of the attacks in the early days were at the hands of the ELN. Over the last three years the FARC has become increasingly active, and really both of these groups are vying with one another for territorial control. The most recent round of attacks has been attributed to the ELN, and the experts tell us that this is related to maneuverings going on in the peace process in Colombia. The ELN began negotiations for the first time with the government and civil society in Geneva approximately a month ago. The negotiations did not go well. The talks were suspended. And these attacks have been interpreted as an effort by the ELN to improve its bargaining position with the government. The issue with the oil flow at CaF1o LimF3n is that out of every dollar of revenue that is generated, 85 cents goes to the Colombian government in various forms. All the natural resources belong to the Colombian government, and companies like us really act as contractors for the government, and we are paid essentially for our work with a percentage of the oil production. The attacks against the pipeline and the oil infrastructure over the years are really designed to weaken the government from an economic standpoint, since approximately 25 percent of the revenue generated by the government comes from oil exports.

Why so many problems with the U'wa?

The biggest issue there is that the area where the U'wa live is controlled largely by the ELN and to a lesser degree by the FARC. The ELN have made it part of their policy over the years to attack the oil infrastructure within the country. Some of the activists who've been involved in this have conveniently ignored this fundamental reality of that part of Colombia, and that you have guys with guns running around. We deal with indigenous communities in other areas of Latin America, but Colombia is unique because of the armed insurgency that's right in the middle. [It] puts us right in the middle of the conflict. And it's significant that there are other constituents, other stakeholders in the region who are not members of the U'wa community who have no problem with the project. These are mayors, communities, other elected representatives. We had no problems, for example, when we were doing work on the project in preparation of the well site, in hiring local people. We hired some 250 local people to work on the project. And despite the fact that the guerrillas attempted to intimidate people with all sorts of dire threats if they worked on this project, [that] there would be consequences for them, this is a very poverty-stricken region, and you know people are looking for economic alternatives. The other problem with the region in general is that there has been an explosive growth of both coca and heroin poppy production over the last two years, and since there is very little government control in this region, in the area near the well site, the town of CubarE1, where the U'wa maintain their offices, in December of '99 the ELN attacked and obliterated the local police barracks, killed a number of police officers, and that was basically the only vestige of civil authority you had in the area.

So are you claiming that the U'wa have been manipulated in this process?

It's not a question that the influence of the bad guys in the region is very, very strong. We hear this from the people that we have on the ground in the region, the intimidation, and no one in that part of Colombia can move about with impunity, do what they want without taking into consideration what the policies are of the guerrillas in the region. Let's say that there has certainly been evidence, there have been barricades go up on the highways, people walking around participating in these work stoppages and road blocks that have occurred, where you've had U'wa there and also people wearing the insignias and armbands of the ELN, this was very apparent. These things have been reported by other reporters, you know, in Colombia, in the Colombian media.

Do you think the press in the United States has given you fair treatment?

The press has been extremely unfair and really biased. It really deals with stereotypical images, the sort of big oil company running roughshod over the rights of small indigenous people. It's sort of David and Goliath. But the reality on the ground is quite different. The reality in Colombia is different. It's a very different perception that's been created in the U.S. press from what's been covered in the Colombian media. Very different perspective that you see here versus there.

What about the mass suicide threat?

There were some representations made to that effect. If anything, it was a magnificent public relations ploy, because it certainly got the attention of some segments of public opinion and the international activist community. But you know they keep repeating this, but the U'wa have long since backed away from that, even making reference to this.

Most observers say companies can't operate in the Colombian countryside without paying war tax. ... What's the situation between Oxy and the FARC in order for you to work in the region?

I made a statement in Congressional testimony that employees of the company had gotten shaken down routinely by the guerrillas. The activists have characterized this as evidence that Oxy is paying off the guerrillas. What I had said, and I have said this publicly in many parts, is that you have individual workers who live in the area, the guerrillas know who works where, and they come up to these people and put a gun to their head and essentially say we want 10 percent of your wages or there will be consequences for you and your family. Would you say that that's tantamount to Occidental paying off the guerrillas? Which is what the activists have maintained. There's a word for this, and it's called extortion. S The Roman Catholic archbishop of BogotE1 was saying the same thing about individual priests and parishes in his jurisdiction who were repeatedly and regularly approached by the guys with guns and forced to pay a war tax. Or the church would be blown up or the parishioners or priests hurt or kidnapped. This is unfortunately what life has become like in Colombia. ... We can't operate in the areas where our operations are located without the protection of the Colombian armed forces and the Colombian police. Our Cano LimF3n operation is literally like an island surrounded by these guerrillas. S We have no internal security forces of our own. We have to rely on the authorities there to provide protection for our personnel and for the assets. Since the government basically owns the resource, they own the oil reserves. They get 50 percent of the tax base. They certainly have a vested interest in maintaining the operations.

Beyond local workers being shaken down, has Oxy made payments ...?

No. Once you start down that road there is no coming back. And the ripple effect would be for any private company to engage in the payment of extortion simply opens you up to crackpots no matter where you're operating.