Battle for the Sacred Oil

The U'wa tribe of Colombia is remote, little studied, less visited and, until recently, barely registered on the barometer of western or even local Colombian awareness. But in the past two years its fight with Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) has become an international cause celebre. For the tribe, the outcome may be life or death. For the oil company, it could be a PR and financial disaster on the scale that Ken Saro-Wiwa was for Shell.
The latest round in the struggle to prevent oil extraction on what the U'wa say is their land involved families occupying the spot which Oxy intends to drill. The Colombian military surrounded the U'wa after their protest in November and, following a tense stand-off , 26 people were forcibly removed by truck and helicopter last month.

The U'wa are opposed on many levels to oil drilling. The leaders know that, should Oxy go ahead, the whole area will inevitably become militarised and attract rebel groups and paramilitary forces, making impossible a way of life that has at its heart remained unchanged in centuries. The dangers are real: last year, US environmentalist Terry Freitas and two human rights workers were murdered by a Colombian rebel group after visiting the U'wa. Some U'wa leaders have been threatened, and Oxy's existing pipeline taking oil from another field has been attacked more than 600 times in the past 12 years.

But the U'wa are opposed for religious reasons, too. The intensely spiritual tribe, which guards its culture fiercely, believes oil to be the "blood of the earth" and therefore sacred. Several years ago, the tribal leaders declared that members would commit suicide if oil was taken from below their land. This has since been changed to a stance of resistance. "We prefer (our own) genocide sponsored by the Colombian government rather than handing over our Mother Earth to oil companies," said their spokesman, Roberto Cobaria, last month.

The battle, now taken up by US and other international environment groups, has wider implications and is now gathering a head of steam. The latest to be drawn in is US vice-president Al Gore, a committed "environ mentalist" who is the Democratic Party frontrunner in the forthcoming elections and eager to grab the large green vote.

The Gore family and the Los Angeles-based company have been linked for generations. Gore's father worked for Armand Hammer, the founder of Occidental, and funds from the company and its subsidiaries eventually formed the basis of the Gore family fortune.

Activists are also targeting one of the largest shareholders of Occidental stock. Last week, activists from European and other countries, including Britain, demonstrated outside Fidelity Investments, one of the world's largest mutual fund companies, whose US offices are known to invest heavily in the company.

Meanwhile, the U'wa will now present charges before the UN and the Organisation of American States (OAS) against Occidental for the violent expulsion of the protesters.

The Colombian government argues that Oxy's drilling is located outside the indigenous reserve. But independent congressman Gustavo Petro says the "problem is not whether the oil project is inside or outside of the reserve. It is a failure to defend indigenous culture, for which Colombia could be charged with the crime of genocide."

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