Occidental Petroleum Abandons Oil Development
on UWa Land
Theres little news to celebrate coming out of Colombia these
days. However, after years of consciousness-raising campaigns and numerous
demonstrations, an oil giant has capitulated under pressure and is abandoning
a development project on indigenous peoples land. Congratulations
to the Uwa people for their perseverance, to those who participated
in the demonstrations, and to the groups that organized the campaign
for the Uwa, including Rainforest Relief and the Activism Center
at Wetlands Preserve, Project Underground, Rainforest Action Network
and Amazon Watch.
At its annual shareholder meeting in Los Angeles last
month, 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 Uwa people [See Roney in Satya
The Uwa and their American environmental supporters rejoiced at
this result which follows a nine year campaign to halt the oil project
in the Colombian cloudforest. 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
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 Uwa and our friends around the world.
Atossa Soltani, director of the advocacy group Amazon Watch, said, Oxys
departure from the oil block will be a great victory for the Uwa.
Oxy now needs to commit to staying out of all Uwa ancestral lands
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 companys continuing public relations nightmare
around the Uwa issue weighed heavily on the decision.
The Uwa have repeatedly denounced Occidentals oil operation,
saying it threatens their tribe and will raise the death toll of innocent
civilians caught in the crossfire of Colombias civil war. At one
point the approximately 5,000 Uwa threatened to commit suicide
en masse unless the oil company stopped its operation on their territory.
Uwa leaders have conducted protest tours across the U.S. 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 site. A Bogota judge supported the Uwa
tribes claim that oil exploration of the Samore blocklocated
just outside their official reservationis part of the ancestral
lands of their forefathers. The injunction was later lifted, and drilling
was allowed to proceed.
In June 2000, Colombian riot police broke up a nonviolent road blockade
by Uwa 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 administrations military aid proposal to spend
$98 million to defend the companys Caño Limon oil pipeline
in Colombia, which runs through traditional Uwa land.
In its 2001 Annual Report, Occidental Petroleum said, Sabotage
of the Caño Limon pipeline by leftist guerillas significantly
disrupted our Colombian production last year.
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 report. Colombia
accounts for less than three percent of our worldwide proven reserves
and less than one percent of our total assets, the company said.
In a related development, in early May, Attorney General John Ashcroft
indicted six Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas
for the 1999 murders of three Americans working in Colombia with the
Uwa people. Among the activists murdered was Terence Freitas,
founder of the Uwa Defense Project. The Freitas family issued
a statement in opposition to more military aid to Colombia.
Human rights and environmental groups have long highlighted the connection
between oil development and militarization. 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 Uwa land from oil development is not
yet over. While Oxys departure from the oil block is a welcomed
development, she said, the threat remains that another company
could take over the area. In addition, [oil company] Repsol-YPF is currently
looking to develop the Capachos oil block, also located on traditional
The Uwa 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.
This article is courtesy of the Washington, D.C.-based Environment News
Service (ENS) and is reprinted with permission. ENS is an independently
owned, international newswire that distributes daily stories about the
environment. Visit ens-news.com or call (800) 632-9528 to learn more.
Visitors to the Web site can join their free E-mail list. For more information
about the struggle of the Uwa, see www.ran.org, www.amazonwatch.org,