Activism - Fidelity Gets Out

Fidelity Investments is no longer the prime target of a campaign to halt oil drilling in the Colombian rain forest, but two other New England-based companies may soon take the investment giant's place. Last year, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Project Underground, and other environmental groups targeted Boston-based Fidelity in a campaign to stop Occidental Petroleum Corporation from exploring for oil in an area of Colombia claimed by the indigenous U'wa people. At the time, Fidelity was one of Occidental's three largest stockholders, but it has since sold more than three-quarters of its Occidental stock. Environmentalists are now considering shifting their campaign's focus to Providence-based Textron, Hartford-based United Technologies Corporation, and a New York investment company, says Kim Foster, RAN's Northeast coordinator.

Fidelity owned eight percent of Occidental's stock at the end of 1999. But by October 1, its share had dropped to just under two percent, says Fidelity spokesman Vincent Loporchio. The sell-off "was in no way related" to the protests that urged Fidelity to pressure Occidental to abandon its drilling plans, Loporchio says, but he refuses to explain why Fidelity did sell. "Our policy is, we don't comment on individual companies that we hold," he explains.

Fidelity most likely sold its stock, Foster speculates, because it realized that the Colombian civil war makes all investment there risky. Bernstein Investment Research and Management in New York City is now Occidental's largest shareholder, she says, and is a likely target for future environmental protests.

Textron and United Technologies are also probable targets, Foster says, because they're selling Bell and Sikorsky helicopters to Colombia as part of President Clinton's $1.3 billion drug-war program. The helicopters will be used to protect Occidental's extensive Colombian oil-drilling operation, says Foster, because the aid package "is about oil. It's not about the drug war."

In 1999, the U'wa occupied Occidental's drilling site, which is within a mile of tribal lands, but they were expelled by Colombian troops. During the evacuation, Foster says, three children were killed. The U'wa also threatened to commit mass suicide if exploration began on the site. But when drilling began in November, they changed their minds, tribal leaders said during a New England tour, because they realized that their deaths would only benefit the Colombian government. Using a recently uncovered 1661 deed from Spain, the U'wa are challenging Occidental's ownership of the land.

American environmentalists won't ignore Fidelity completely. They hope to persuade the company to adopt an "indigenous screen," Foster says, that would allow investors to buy stocks in companies that have favorable policies toward native peoples

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