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Date: Sat, 21 Aug 1999 00:17:06 -0500 (CDT)
From: Colombian Labor Monitor <xx738@prairienet.org>
Subject: Colombian Indians get new reserve in oil zone
Article: 73264
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.6542.19990821121606@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Colombian Indians get new reserve in oil zone

By Karl Penhaul, Reuters, Friday 20 August 1999

BOGOTA—A Colombian Indian tribe which in the past has threatened mass suicide if oil exploration was carried out on its ancestral lands has been granted a huge new reservation in a region of the country believed to be teeming with crude, the government said Thursday.

The move marked the latest stage in a long-running legal wrangle between U.S. oil giant Occidental Petroleum Corp and the semi-nomadic U'wa Indian group, whose 5,000 members threatened to kill themselves if drilling went ahead on an area they claimed as tribal homelands.

An Occidental spokesman said it was not immediately clear what impact the land rights deal would have on oil exploration in the northeastern region, with estimated potential reserves of between 1.5 billion and 2.5 billion barrels of crude.

Occidental was granted exploration rights to the 500,000 acre (209,000 hectare) Samore block in 1992 but operations were put on hold after just $12 million of seismic surveying was completed until the lengthy land dispute was resolved.

If proven, that level of reserves would make it similar in size to the Cusiana-Cupiagua complex, Colombia's largest field, operated by BP Amoco in the eastern plains.

A senior official with the government land agency INCORA told Reuters that the land rights decision increased the U'wa reservation from 98,800 acres (40,000 hectares) at present to more than 543,400 acres (220,000 hectares).

The reserve spans parts of central Boyaca and northern Norte de Santander, Santander and northeast Arauca provinces. The decision was officially finalized Tuesday but is not likely to be publicly announced by President Andres Pastrana until early next week.

At least 50 percent of the Samore block is spread across the old dimensions of the reservation and an area of national parks. The Occidental spokesman said even more of the block would be covered by the new, larger reservation.

Under Colombia's constitution, Indian groups must approve mining and resource extraction on their lands. So far the U'was have resisted all overtures to allow Occidental on their land, claiming that oil is the lifeblood of Mother Earth.

The INCORA official did not rule out the possibility that the U'wa may at some time in the future reach a deal to permit limited drilling on part of the new reservation in return for substantial benefits. U'wa leaders could not immediately be reached for comment.

Although the decision seems likely to vastly reduce Occidental's opportunities in the region, the company spokesman welcomed the decision, saying it was a positive step to finally resolving the long-running dispute.

He said the multinational was still waiting for government permission to drill its first test well, expected to cost some $30 million, in part of the Samore block that falls outside U'wa lands. The request for an environmental license was requested in October and could be issued shortly.

The entire area covered by both the Samore block and the Indian reserve is a stronghold for Marxist guerrillas. The rebels are fiercely opposed to what they see as excessive foreign involvement in Colombia's oil industry and routinely sabotage energy infrastructure.

In February this year, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America's largest surviving 1960s rebel army, kidnapped and killed three Americans who had been visiting U'wa territory.

The trio had been helping the U'wa prevent encroachment on their land. The FARC has admitted the killings but blamed the brutal action on a renegade field commander.