Al Gore and Big Oil Genocide

For eight years, the 5,000 semi-nomadic U'wa inhabitants of northeastern Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Cocuy mountains have fought to keep Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) from sinking oil wells inside their traditional territory. The U'wa have persisted in the face of harassment, beatings and the murder of three supporters.

In 1998, the U'Wa gained international attention when they vowed to commit mass suicide if foreign oil companies were allowed into their territory The U'wa consider oil to be the blood of Mother Earth. To draw oil from the ground is seen as the ultimate desecration of the natural order.

The U'wa reserve lies at the headwaters of the critical Orinoco River basin. The U'wa people know the damage that oil extraction has done in Colombia. Oxy's Cano Limon pipeline has spilled an estimated 1,700,000 barrels of crude oil, contaminating surrounding land, lakes and rivers.

Last September, Colombia's Environment Minister granted Oxy a permit to begin exploratory drilling. The site for Oxy's first well, Gibraltar 1, lies on ancestral U'wa land, only 600 yards from the boundaries of an established U'wa Reservation. The Gibraltar site sits on the edge of the Samore Block, which is believed to contain as much as 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil.

Last November, 250 U'wa children, parents and grandparents established a protest camp on the site. The impasse was broken on January 19, when more than 5,000 heavily armed Colombian Army troops stormed the campsite. At the same time, Colombian police moved into the region to "protect" Occidental's engineers.

The U'wa protested that the invasion violates clear "constitutional and legal rights, which state that the communal ethnic territories are inalienable."

Back in the US, activists from the Native Forest Network, Action for Community and Ecology, and the Rain Forest Action Network were arrested at Gore's New Hampshire presidential campaign headquarters when they attempted to bring the problem to the attention of the Vice President.

In his book, Earth in the Balance, Gore wrote that auto exhaust was a deadlier foe than "any military enemy we are ever again likely to confront." The activists wanted to ask Gore how he could condone the destruction of the U`wa culture and Colombia's cloudforest ecosystem for a reserve of oil that would supply the US with just three weeks' worth of fuel.

Gore is in a unique position to act. He inherited $500,000 worth of Occidental stock from his father, a former US senator who served on Occidental's Board of Directors. As a major stockholder, Gore's voice could make a difference. Unfortunately, Occidental has been careful to make sure that its voice is heard--in the form of large campaign contributions.

Another potential moral lever in the campaign against the Oxy wells is Fidelity Investments, which holds 30 million shares in Oxy. Fidelity's company motto is: "We help you invest responsibly."

Simon Billenness, senior analyst at the socially responsible Trillium Asset Management Fund, told the Boston Globe that Gore and Fidelity CEO Edward C. Johnson III could play a critical role. "Both of them could easily pick up a phone and talk to the CEO of Occidental, which could send a very strong message that this project ... is going to be counterproductive.

Compounding the problem is President Clinton's plan for a $1.6 billion military aid package to "fight drugs" in Colombia. The funds, if approved, would give the Colombians $452 million to buy 63 Blackhawk and Huey attack helicopters from two US corporations--Bell and Sikorsky (with engines by General Electric).

Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) oppose the plan, noting that similar investments in the past have not reduced drug crops. They also fear that the US could be drawn into Colombia's civil war--a 40-year conflict that has killed an estimated 40,000 civilians.

Even US Drug Czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey has admitted that the drug issue is just a cover story for military intervention. As McCaffrey has stated, the goal is to help Colombia's corrupt military "recover the southern part of the country currently under guerrilla control."

A 21-page planning document obtained by the Boston Globe reveals that the Clinton game plan to increase aerial spraying of Colombia's coca crop would displace 10,000 rural farmers. The document also indicates that $55 million is to be spent on an unexplained "classified" intelligence program.

Oil fields and military force have long been linked in US foreign policy. Colombia is being set up as a major US oil pump. On February 11, shortly after Clinton's announcement of a $1.6 billion gift to Colombia's military, four US-supplied helicopters carrying Colombian National Police forces attacked a group of U'wa who had been peacefully blockading the road leading to Oxy's Gibraltar 1 drilling site.

Hundreds of police attacked the U'wa with riot batons, bulldozers and [US-supplied?] tear gas. Three U'wa children, two young boys and a four-month-old girl, drowned when police forced them into the fast-flowing Cubujon River. U'wa Chieftain Fabio Tegria reported that 15 U'wa (including nine children) remain missing.

What You Can Do: Contact Vice President Gore [1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC 20500, DC 20510, (202) 2244944]; Ray R. Irani, President and CEO, Occidental Petroleum [10889 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024, (310) 443-6690, fax: 208-8800]; Presidente Andres Pastrana [Casa Presidencial, Bogota, Colombia, fax: +571 334-1940,]; Edward C. Johnson III [Fidelity Investments, 82 Devonshire St., Boston MA 02109]. For more information, contact: Global Response and the U'wa Defense Working Group c/o Rainforest Action Network [220 Pine St., No. 500, San Francisco, CA 94104, (415) 398-4404; fax: (415) 3982732, ].

© Earth Island Journal, summer 2000 issue