COLOMBIA: Indigenous people beat Big Oil


The news long awaited by Colombia's U'wa tribe and its thousands of supporters around the world has finally arrived: the Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) has announced that it has failed to find oil at the Gibraltar 1 well site on the tribe's ancestral land in North-eastern Colombia.

The company has begun removing equipment from the site, a positive turn of events for the valiant non-violent resistance campaign waged by the U'wa, an indigenous community of 8000 who live high in the Andean cloud forests.

Since Oxy received drilling rights in 1992 to the Siriri block (formerly known as Samore), the project has been embroiled in controversy and condemned by environmental and human rights groups worldwide.

The August 1 announcement by Oxy comes as thousands of U'wa are taking part in a traditional three-month spiritual retreat for fasting, meditation, teaching, singing, and prayer. The U'wa werjayas (spiritual leaders) and karekas (medicine people) have been praying for months and using traditional rituals to "hide the oil" from Oxy's drill.

While the U'wa called this development a "cultural triumph", the tribe pointed out that their ancestral land is still threatened by oil exploration by the Spanish company Repsol, which is just beginning exploratory drilling in the Capachos 1 block.

"This is a battle that we have won, but the war continues, because the U'wa territory is not only Gibraltar 1", said Roberto Perez, president of the U'wa Traditional Authority in a communique.

"The blood spilled from the three North American indigenous activists and other supporters who were killed, the loss of our U'wa children in the violent evictions, the humiliations of the armed forces, the cries of the U'wa children and elders in the peaceful mobilisations, the challenge to resist the aggressions by the Colombian state and Oxy, will not go unpunished. It will be a bittersweet memory that will remain in the minds of those who participated directly and indirectly in the most difficult moments of this process", said Perez.

The U'wa have become a symbol of resistance to oil exploration and corporate-led globalisation for thousands of supporters around the world. Over the last five years, the U'wa resistance has inspired a massive international solidarity movement that has captured headlines with hundreds of peaceful demonstrations. More recently, the U'wa and their supporters have been organising to stop US military aid to Colombia, of which Oxy is an influential proponent.

Using tactics ranging from blockades at the drill site, lawsuits, shareholder resolutions, letter writing campaigns, banner hangs, and non-violent civil disobedience, the U'wa along with environmental and human rights activists have confronted Occidental and its major shareholders including Fidelity Investments, former US vice-president Al Gore and Alliance Capital/Sanford Bernstein.

"This is an important victory and a real milestone in the larger struggle to win recognition and respect for indigenous people's rights around the world. Unfortunately, until we address our society's addiction to fossil fuels by transitioning to renewable energy sources, the world's remaining pristine ecosystems and traditional cultures will continue to be threatened by unscrupulous oil corporations", said Kevin Koenig, campaigner for the US-based environmental group Amazon Watch, which has sought to publicise the U'wa's cause."

This is yet another blow to Oxy's operations in Colombia which have suffered significant losses this year. The company's Cano Limon field and pipeline have been paralysed since February 17 as a result of more than 110 guerilla bombings on the company's pipeline so far this year.

In addition, Oxy's private security contractor, AirScan, was recently implicated in one of the Colombian military's worst civilian massacres, putting Oxy in the centre of yet another controversy. AirScan guided a Colombian military attack on the Santo Domingo village that killed 12 civilians including nine children.

[Reprinted from Drillbits & Tailings, an electronic monthly on the mining and oil industries published by the US-based Project Underground.]

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