Occidental Petroleum Abandons Oil Development on U'wa Land

LOS ANGELES, California, May 3, 2002 (ENS) - At its annual shareholder meeting today, Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) announced that the company will return to the Colombian government its controversial oil block located adjacent to the traditional territory of the U'wa people.

The U'wa and their American environmental supporters rejoiced at this result which follows a nine year campaign to halt the oil project in the Colombian cloud forest. Known for years as the Samore block, the land at issue is located in a guerrilla controlled area of northeast Colombia, and is estimated to hold up to 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil.

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U'wa land, high in the Andean cloud forests (Photo courtesy Amazon Watch)
Uwa spokesperson Ebaristo Tegria said, "This is the news we have been waiting for. Sira, the God of the Uwa has accompanied us here in Colombia and our friends around the world who have supported us in this struggle. Now Sira is responding to us. This is the result of the work of the U'wa and our friends around the world."

Atossa Soltani, director of the advocacy group Amazon Watch, said, "Oxy's departure from the oil block will be a great victory for the U'wa. Oxy now needs to commit to staying out of all U'wa ancestral lands permanently."

Last July, Occidental Petroleum announced that its first exploratory well on Uwa land turned up dry. Today the company cited economic reasons for relinquishing the block.

Soltani said that the company's continuing public relations nightmare around the Uw'a issue weighed heavily on the decision.

Occidental Petroleum's attempt to develop oil production on the controversial block of land has been troubled.

The U'wa have repeatedly denounced Occidental's oil operation, saying it threatens their tribe and will raise the death toll of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of Colombia's civil war. At one point the approximately 5,000 U'wa threatened to commit suicide en masse unless the oil company stopped its operation on their territory.

U'wa leaders have conducted protest tours across the United States several times over the past five years and have visited Congress to raise support for their cause.

On March 31, 2000 a Colombian court ordered the oil company to stop all construction work on the oil drilling site. A Bogota judge supported the U'wa tribe's claim that oil exploration of the Samore block while located just outside their official reservation is part of the ancestral lands of their forefathers. The injunction was later lifted, and drilling was allowed to proceed.

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U'wa boy (Photo courtesy Amazon Watch)
In June 2000, Colombian riot police broke up a road blockade by U'wa people who were trying to prevent trucks from reaching the construction site where Occidental Petroleum was preparing to drill. Three indigenous children died in the incident.

Occidental also finds itself center stage in a growing controversy around the Bush administration's military aid proposal to spend $98 million to defend the company's Caño Limon oil pipeline in Colombia, which runs through traditional Uwa land.

In its 2001 Annual Report, Occidental Petroleum said, "Sabotage of the Caño Limón pipeline by leftist guerillas significantly disrupted our Colombian production last year."

Soltani says, "If Congress passes the proposal, this targeted military assistance for the pipeline will set a dangerous precedent of taxpayers covering private corporations' security expenses overseas."

"When in operation, Colombia is one of our most profitable operations on a unit-of-production basis and costs are kept at an absolute minimum when the field is down," Oxy said in the annual report. "Colombia accounts for less than three percent of our worldwide proved reserves and less than one percent of our total assets," the company said.

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U'wa leader Robert Cobaria and founder of the U'wa Defense Project the late Terence Freitas protest Oxy oil development in Los Angeles. October 1997 (Photo by Dang Ngo courtesy Footbag Peace Initiative)
In a related development, Attorney General Ashcroft this week indicted six FARC guerrillas for the 1999 murders of three Americans working in Colombia with the Uwa people. Among the activists murdered was Terence Freitas who founded the U'wa Defense Project. The Freitas family issued a statement in opposition to more military aid to Colombia.

Human rights and environmental groups have highlighted the connection between oil development and militarization for years. Oxy pays a fee to the Colombian government on every barrel of oil produced, which funds the military. Amazon Watch estimates that one in four Colombian soldiers are detailed to protect oil installations.

Soltani said the threat to U'wa land from oil development is not yet over. "While Oxy's departure from the oil block is a welcomed development," she said, "the threat remains that another company could take over the area. In addition, Repsol-YPF is currently looking to develop the Capachos oil block, also located on traditional Uwa land."

The U'wa hold that the Earth is their Mother and oil her blood. They have often expressed the fear that the drilling will bring guerrilla violence to their territory.

The Colombian government has maintained that the oil revenues will benefit the majority of the Colombian people.