One of the world’s hottest battles between indigenous groups and multinational oil companies is heating up in Colombia, where Occidental Petroleum is seeking to drill on land claimed by the 5,000-member U’wa tribe. Early this year, the Colombian government deployed several hundred soldiers to guard workers building a road to the multibillion-dollar project. That led to a clash in February when security forces used tear gas to break up an anti-Occidental demonstration of several hundred Indians. Three children reportedly drowned when they fell into a river as they fled from government troops. The U’was won at least a temporary victory on March 31, when a Colombian court ordered the government to stop Occidental from drilling on tribal land.
Meanwhile, an international campaign opposing Occidental’s plan is also picking up steam. On April 28 about 100 demonstrators turned up at Occidental’s annual meeting in Santa Monica and called on the company to halt the project. Activists have also picketed the offices of Fidelity Investments, which owns about 8 percent of Occidental’s shares, and criticized Vice President Al Gore, whose family owns at least a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of Occidental stock.
But government backing for Occidental’s Colombia proposal runs far deeper than the Gore family’s stock portfolio. The Nation has learned, from a government source and the internal memos of an Occidental lobbyist, that the Clinton Administration has been quietly helping the company–a generous donor to the Democrats in recent years–to win support in Colombia for its drilling plans. While Gore has strong ties to Occidental, the Administration’s point man on the issue is Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who last year traveled to Cartagena and met with government officials on the company’s behalf. Richardson has also hired a former Occidental lobbyist to work in a key international-policy position at the Energy Department.
Occidental has been eyeing the Colombian site, located in a lushly forested northern region near the town of Samore, for almost a decade. The company believes the Samore block holds 1.4 billion barrels of oil, which at today’s prices would fetch about $35 billion on international markets. Occidental claims to have a strong environmental record in Colombia–already the number-seven supplier of American oil and sitting atop at least 2.6 billion barrels of untapped petroleum reserves–but its viewpoint is not widely shared. Oil spills from its Caño Limon pipeline, headquartered just north of U’wa land and repeatedly bombed by guerrillas, have badly polluted rivers and lakes. The Colombian Oil Workers’ Union published a report in 1997 saying that Caño Limon is “the best example that petroleum exploitation should not be permitted in Samore at any price.”
The Colombian government, desperate to attract foreign investment in its moribund oil industry, has been supportive of Occidental’s plans. However, pressure from the U’was and their international supporters has had an impact. Last year, President Andres Pastrana agreed to increase dramatically the size of the U’wa reservation. In 1998 PR fallout stemming from the Samore project led Shell Oil, which had been partners with Occidental, to sell its stake.
For the U’was, opposition to Occidental amounts to a last stand. A 1998 report by Terry Freitas–one of three U’wa supporters from the United States killed by leftist guerrillas while visiting the tribe’s territory last year–says that the Colombian government stripped the tribe of 85 percent of its land between 1940 and 1970. Tribal leaders say the U’was will commit collective suicide if Occidental is allowed to drill on their land. That may not be an idle threat. According to tribal lore, thousands of U’was jumped off a cliff in the seventeenth century in order to avoid submitting to the Spanish crown.