Occidental Offers to Meet with Indians

Santa Monica, Calif. - Occidental Petroleum Corp has offered to meet members of a Colombian indian tribe who have threatened mass suicide over oil exploration on their land.

Occidental President Dale Laurance, facing stockholders at the company's annual meeting here, said he had sent a letter to the president of the U'wa, a 5,000-strong tribe which has lost several court battles trying to block exploration.

At stake are potentially oil-rich lands in the Boyaca region of northeast Colombia which the nomadic U'wa claim is part of a tribal migratory route.

"We don't want to talk to intermediaries. We want to talk face-to-face with them," Laurance told the audience as two dozen protesters led peaceful demonstrations outside.

Protesters, organized by the environmental groups Action Resources Center and Amazon Watch, shouted "No blood for oil" and waved placards reading "Don't destroy the U'wa Indians."

"I think if Occidental drills on their ancestral lands it will destroy (U'wa) culture," said one protester Brett Doran.

"We're here to raise the issue of self-determination for the U'wa," he added.

He said U'wa Council Chief Roberto Cobaria planned to visit the United States May 2-6, in hopes of getting Occidental off the indians' land.

Tribal representatives threatened at a news conference in Bogota in January to commit mass suicide if their lands were opened to Occidental, a world-wide oil producer, through leases.

"Is it a crafty publicity move or part of their culture? I'm not sure," Carl Wirdak, Occidental's director of Environmental Affairs told Reuters.

After the U'wa claim bounced around in Colombia's courts, the country's Council of State overturned a high court ruling in March which prevented Occidental from exploring lands.

The president of Occidental's Colombian division said earlier this month the company was very interested in new exploration since production from its current Cano Limon field was expected to fall 10 percent every year until Occidental's license expired in 2007.

Colombia is also eager to hold onto foreign oil companies like Occidental, which has endured costly acts of sabotage on its main crude oil pipeline.

The Colombian government takes about 83 percent in taxes from oil projects, one of the highest levels in Latin America.

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