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Date: Tue, 1 Sep 98 16:07:45 CDT
From: Mark Graffis <ab758@virgin.usvi.net>
Subject: Occidental Petroleum vs. the U'wa indigenous people of Colombia
Article: 42348
To: undisclosed-recipients:;;@chumbly.math.missouri.edu
Message-ID: <bulk.14682.19980902181529@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Occidental Petroleum vs. the U'wa indigenous people of Colombia

By Dr. Cesar M. Chelala, M.D., Earth Times News Service 1 September 1998

If it goes into full production, the Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum stands to make millions in profits from what could be one of the largest oil fields in the hemisphere in Samor , in north east Colombia. The area is territory to the U'wa, a group of 5,000 indigenous and peaceful people, who have lived in the cloudforests of the Colombian Andes from time immemorial. Since the signing of an agreement between Occidental Petroleum and the Colombian government for exploration rights in 1992, the U'wa have strongly opposed both the exploration and the exploitation of their territory, which they considered sacred, and fear the ecological and social disruption the project will cause. Under the present agreement, Occidental can start drilling at any time.

The U'wa consider part of their collective duty to care for the Earth, which has nurtured them. They believe that if the equilibrium between the natural and spiritual worlds is broken, it will mean the end of the universe. They have threatened with mass suicide if Occidental carries out its plans. Confronted with this opposition, Royal Dutch Shell, Occidental's current partner, reportedly wants to withdraw from the project.

From its beginnings, the Samor project has been accompanied by violence. The finding of oil in the area has attracted thousands of people in search for work, as well as well-armed guerrillas from the two main groups operating in the country, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army). To defend the pipelines from their attacks, Occidental paid for two mobile brigades of the Colombian army. In the ongoing war against the guerrillas, the Colombian army has been accused of atrocities by Amnesty International and Colombian human rights groups.

Colombia's 1991 constitution requires the government to protect its 84 tribes of indigenous peoples. The government, however, has an equal duty to develop the country's resources to benefit everybody. Although the U'wa territory is protected, the U'wa don't own the territory's mineral rights.

U'wa's fears of ecological and social disruption are not unfounded. Labor and religious leaders have documented the consequences of oil exploitation in the country. They include pollution of the air, the rivers, lakes and the soil, the death of birdlife, land degradation and climatic changes. In the last decade, approximately 1.7 million barrels of crude oil have spilled because of pipeline sabotage in Colombia (the Exxon Valdez spill was approximately 260,000 barrels). In the Southern department or territory of Putumayo, thousands of Inga, Siona and Kofan Indians had to relocate after the construction of oil roads and pipelines contaminated their fresh water supplies.

Because the Samor region is located in one of the most high-conflict areas in the country, it will conceivably become the scene of guerrilla attacks against the oil pipelines, with unpredictable consequences for the environment and the U'wa's quality of life. Occidental's Ca o Lim n installations in Arauca, for example, which lie 100 miles to the east of Samor , have been attacked by ELN guerrillas 473 times in 11 years.

Should oil exploitation proceed in the Samor territory, the U'wa will face the same problems now besieging the state of Tabasco, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. For the last two decades, this area has been experiencing an ecological and social crisis stemming from the reckless exploitation of the state's petroleum reserves by Petr leos Mexicanos (PEMEX), Mexico's national oil company. While this exploitation has generated $130 billion for Mexico's Federal Government over the last 20 years, the state ranks as the ninth poorest in Mexico, with 61 percent of its population living in marginal areas.

Two decades of oil extraction in the Tabasco region, without planning or environmental codes or attention to the population's health and quality of life, have resulted in rapid escalation of the cost of living, badly-skewed income distribution, forced relocations and extremely hazardous living conditions for the local population. The release of toxic substances, hydrological disruption, and acid rain generated by petroleum extraction has damaged cacao and other crops, and has practically eliminated the fish populations in many streams, rivers and lagoons, thus destroying the ancestral livelihoods of many of the residents in the region.

Dr. Jos Luis Cort s Pe aloza, a Mexican researcher, has conducted studies in the area which show that cancer and leukemia are on the rise for all age groups, with leukemia death rates being highest among infants and children. According to Dr. Pe aloza leukemia, which rated sixth as a cause of child mortality in 1991, had risen to third place by 1995. The highest incidence of leukemia was reported around petroleum producing areas.

In 1992, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission issued a report containing Recommendation R-100/92, based on scientific studies conducted by researchers from the Chapingo Regional Center. This report called attention to the damage caused by PEMEX to the environment and to public health, and declared that the state-owned oil company was violating the human rights of small farmers and fishermen in the area.

The U'wa's confrontation with Occidental Petroleum in Colombia, and the residents of Tabasco with PEMEX in Mexico, highlight the conflicting needs and interests of local populations and national and international companies interested in the exploitation of natural resources.

As Robert W. Benson, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles remarks, "...international law has incorporated virtually all the natural law norms we need to halt the destruction of the planet...Oil drilling on land that threatens an indigenous people with cultural death and contributes to environmental destruction is illegal. Nations cannot authorize it. Companies cannot engage in it."

What is needed is the understanding by the political authorities of the dire consequences of unregulated oil extraction, and the necessity to create and enforce laws geared towards the protection of the environment, and of the people living in mineral and oil-rich areas. The economic development of a country should not be done at the expense of the health of its population.

Copyright 1998 The Earth Times All rights reserved.