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Date: Sat, 17 Jul 1999 11:27:13 -0500 (CDT)
From: rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: Amazon: Indigenous Groups Unite in Struggle Against Oil
Article: 70084
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.21271.19990719061516@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

/** ips.english: 393.0 **/
** Topic: RIGHTS: Indigenous Groups Unite in Struggle Against Oil **
** Written 9:03 PM Jul 16, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **

Indigenous Groups Unite in Struggle Against Oil Exploration

By Danielle Knight, IPS, 16 July 1999

QUITO, Ecuador, July 16 (IPS) - Indigenous communities in remote areas of the Amazon rainforest in Colombia and Ecuador are reaching across the border to share experiences in their ongoing struggle against US oil exploration companies.

I used to believe that we were alone, but it is not so, says Roberto Cobaria, a leader of the U'wa indigenous group, which lives in the isolated tropical rainforests of the Andes in Colombia near the Venezuelan border.

The Secoya also are not alone, he said referring to the small indigenous group of Ecuadorian Amazon.

With the help of the non-governmental organisations Oilwatch, an international monitoring network, and the Quito-based Ecological Action, members of the U'wa last month made a first visit to the small Secoya village of San Pablo in the remote part of the Northeastern Ecuador.

Both groups currently are opposed to plans by California-based Occidental Petroleum Corporation to explore and drill for oil on their territories.

Occidental has signed agreements with both governments that allow it to explore for oil in indigenous territory but the Secoya and U'wa both oppose the start of operations.

The entire U'wa group of 5,000 people has vowed to commit mass suicide off a giant cliff if the drilling begins as planned. At the heart of the dispute between the oil company and the U'wa is a disagreement over the boundaries of the tribe's ancestral lands.

Occidental spokesman Lawrence Meriage says the company's original drilling plans fell outside the U'wa reservation but within the oil-rich area known as the Samore Block. Meriage says the company voluntarily canceled plans on 75 percent of the Samore block in response to the tribe's concerns.

The remaining 25 percent of the project is on land the Colombian government claims does not belong to the Indians.

But the U'wa, based on recent mapping, consider all of the 2,000- hectare Samore Bloc to be within their sacred ancestral lands.

In 1997, a report written by the Organisation of American States and Harvard University backed the position of the U'wa, and urged Occidental to call off its operations until the land dispute was resolved.

As oil pipelines and other energy projects have become targets by rebel forces, the U'wa and other indigenous communities in Colombia, have become caught in the crossfire.

In March, three US citizens who were visiting with the U'wa to set up an indigenous education programme, were killed in Colombia by the prominent leftist rebel group, FARC.

Occidental's Cana Limon pipeline, which lies next to U'wa territory, has been attacked by guerrillas more than 500 times in its 12 years of existence, spilling about 1.7 million barrels of crude oil into the water and soil.

In response the government has militarized oil production and pipeline zones using right-wing paramilitary troops, notorious for human rights abuses and killings of unarmed civilians.

The U'wa fear that similar violence and pollution would harm their people and scar their traditional territory if the Occidental's project proceeds

On the recent visit to Secoya territory, Armando Tegria, a member of the U'wa, told the indigenous group to beware of attempts by the company or the government to offer gifts in exchange for exploration and exploitation rights.

Occidental and the government has offered us several things, including money and silver, says Tegria. But we don't want money, the U'wa are not for sale.

Luis Tegria, another member of the U'wa, says the company told them it was going to help them become more developed by providing roads, schools, and clinics.

But we say no to this because our history is without these things, he says.

The Secoya - whose number totals just about 300 - say they have experienced similar negotiating tactics by Occidental.

In 1996, the company traded medicine chests, solar panels, rain- coats and water-pumps to a Secoya community in exchange for unrestricted access to the indigenous territories of the Secoya and the Siona, another group.

Before we didn't have any contact with oil companies and we didn't know anything about petroleum, said Humberto Piaguaje, president of the Secoya Indigenous Organisation of Ecuador (OISE).

We had seen them do seismic testing but we didn't know what this was for, he added.

When other Secoya and Siona communities who were opposed to oil exploration on their territory heard about the agreement they denounced the company which eventually canceled the contract.

OISE is currently in negotiations with Occidental on a formal code of conduct for how future interactions and contracts between the company and the Secoya communities will take place.

Piaguaje says the Secoya have not decided as a whole what they will eventually allow Occidental to do on their territory.

We want to know before we decide what the company has done in other parts and this is why we invited the U'wa, says Piaguaje.

Since the first meeting of the groups in June, indigenous leaders of both groups say they plan to keep up the relationship with one another and share information regarding the company.

Piaguaje says the visit was very important for him because he felt inspired by the strength of the U'wa people and their fight to preserve their culture.

Before I was frightened to speak about our culture or speak in my Secoya language, said Piaguaje. Now we are beginning to light the fire which was almost extinguished.