Colombia's Oil War
The U'wa battle Occidental over "the blood
of Mother Earth"
by Ron Chepesiuk
Toward Freedom magazine, May 2001
In Colombia's northeast Norte de Santander province, the country's
richest oil region, an indigenous people known as the U'wa are
in a life and death struggle with Occidental Petroleum (OXY),
one of the world's largest multinational oil companies. It's been
going on since the early 1990s, when OXY began oil exploration
plans that threaten to destroy the tribe s culture and way of
life. The U'wa oppose oil drilling in their ancestral lands, saying
that oil is "the blood of Mother Earth" and therefore
must not be touched.
It's been an uphill battle for these indigenous people, given
the powerful corporate and government interests aligned against
them. Yet, their future became even more bleak last November,
when the Colombia Supreme Court gave OXY the green light to begin
drilling a long-awaited test well near the tribe's reservation.
The $40 million, 14,300-foot well was to be sunk in the first
half of this year.
While no one knows for sure what the test well will reveal,
OXY estimates that the region contains approximately 1.5 million
barrels of oil. The figure may seem like the makings of a huge
supply of oil, but, as OXY's critics have pointed out, that amount
will fill a mere three months of US oil needs.
Considerable money is at stake, especially for the Colombian
government. For example, Ecopetrel, the state-owned oil company,
is expected to receive as much as $900 million in additional taxes
and royalties annually-if the script goes according to plan. Increasingly
reliant on oil exports, since coffee is declining as a major source
of export earnings, the government doesn't want to lose the OXY
The money at stake has no doubt helped weigh the Colombian
system against the U'wa's interests. As the tribe has argued in
a prepared statement, "For our people, it's ominous and abusive
that the men of Occidental, along with the Colombian government,
program actions that injure and violate the cultural and territorial
principals of the U'wa and of the campesinos ... our brothers
who come with impartiality to support our cause."
The U'wa have played by the rules, seeking justice through
the Colombian judicial system. They've provided records documenting
their claims and showing that they have titles to land from the
Spanish Crown dating from 1661. The records also protect their
rights to subsoil minerals, including oil, they say.
A lower Colombian court decision did halt the oil exploration
on the grounds that the government violated the U'wa's constitutional
rights by not consulting them before granting OXY a license to
drill. However, a higher court overturned that ruling in May 2000.
In a meeting on March 30, 2000, with indigenous leaders and their
supporters, OXY Vice President Larry Meriage admitted that the
tribe wasn't consulted about his company's drilling plans.
The ruling has taken the U'wa back to square one in their
battle for survival. In August 1999, the Colombian government
signed an agreement with the U'wa expanding their borders from
61,000 to 220,000 hectares. But the U'wa have repeatedly maintained
that their sacred ancestral land extends beyond the limits of
the reservation. They oppose oil exploration anywhere within that
Nevertheless, a court ruling said that the Colombian government
didn't have to consult the U'wa before granting OXY a license
to drill, since the exploration was occurring outside the border
of their reserve. Meanwhile, the government has failed to turn
over any of the land that would expand their territory.
The National Indigenous Organization (ONIC), an umbrella group
of Colombian indigenous peoples, announced that it would take
the U'wa case to the country's Supreme
Court and international forums. A "mere legalism,"
responded Armando Valbuena, ONIC's president, when it was pointed
out that the test well was close to-but not in-the U'wa reserve.
"The fact that the Colombian government would allow the oil
well to endanger a people's survival shows that economic interests
prevail over the welfare of the indigenous peoples," Valbuena
Domestic and international support for the U'wa continues
to grow, coming from organizations ranging from US environmental
groups to the Green Party of Europe and guerrilla forces in Colombia.
Last year, in the months leading up to the US presidential election,
candidate A1 Gore became a main target. Gore's family owns stock
in OXY; getting the Gores to sell their shares would have been
a major coup for the U'wa and their supporters. The campaign caused
Gore some embarrassment, but the US media basically ignored it.
Amazon Watch, Rain Forest Action, and Project Underground
ran an ad in the New York Times, asking: "Who is Al Gore.
Environmental Champion or Petroleum Politician?" In July,
activists occupied Gore's campaign headquarters in Knoxville,
Tennessee. Two months later, 200 activists took over his Olympia
office and demanded that he accept responsibility for his role
in the OXY petroleum project.
Gore tried to ignore the heat, as well as a letter from the
U'wa. "We don't want to have to hold you responsible for
the destruction of our culture," they warned. "Your
silence signifies the death of planet Earth and consequently,
the possibility of life upon her."
In September, Stephano Boco, president of the Italian Green
Party, announced that the Green Party of Europe is ready to bring
the U'wa's case before the Hague Tribunal, and that Italian legislators
are prepared to set up a permanent residence in U'wa territory.
Colombia's second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation
Army (ELN) has publicly expressed support for the U'wa, and has
repeatedly attacked construction and engineering equipment moved
into the test well site. The U'wa reject such actions as only
making their situation worse.
Targeting OXY's major investors has been the most successful
strategy employed so far. Last December, after an aggressive two-month
campaign by Rainforest Action Network, Amazon Watch, and other
environmental groups that focused attention on the Boston-based
Fidelity Investments and its relationship with OXY, the company
sold 60 percent of its OXY holdings, totaling $400 million.
The latest target is the largest institutional investor, the
Sanford Bernstein investment firm, and its parent company Alliance
Management, which owns 53 million shares valued at $1.19 billion.
Last December, U'wa supporters demonstrated outside the company's
San Francisco office, and U'wa leader Roberto Perez hand-delivered
a letter to the company.
Yet, after nearly nine years of struggle, the U'wa aren't
any closer to winning their battle. The tribe has threatened mass
suicide if OXY continues to violate the blood of their land. Its
not an idle threat. In the late 17th century, a group of U'wa
jumped to their deaths from a cliff to avoid submitting to the
authority of Spanish tax collectors and missionaries.
That could happen again. And as things currently stand, only
continued international support, along with intense pressure on
Occidental and the greedy corporate interests that back the multinational,
can help prevent it.
Contributing writer Ron Chepesiuk is a Rock Hill, SC-based
journalist. He is the author of The War on Drugs An International