A small tribe battles big oil

Roberto Prez, an U'wa Indian from a potentially oil-rich patch of northern Colombia, has something he wants the world to hear: "A culture is a nonrenewable resource."

His message - faint though it was amid all the ballyhoo and speechmaking - was carried to the United States last month by protesters at the Democratic convention crying "Save the U'was!"

The protest showed how, in an era of economic globalization and the Internet, distant environmental and cultural battles have made their way to the international stage. In the case of the U'was, a Colombian Indian tribe about 5,000 strong, the Los Angeles rally showed that such battles can reach all the way to US presidential politics.

The tribe is fighting with the Colombian government over plans by the Los Angeles-based Occidental Oil and Gas Corp. to drill for oil on lands the Indians consider sacred.

The conflict echoes questions being asked around the world about who benefits from international investment in developing countries, what place small or indigenous cultures have amid increasing globalization, and whether economic development and environmental protection can be reconciled.

The Colombian government and Occidental hope to tap into oil reserves they believe could provide billions of dollars in revenue, create jobs for the impoverished local population, and keep Colombia an oil exporter.

But the drilling site, just outside the U'was' protected reserve, is on what the Indians consider their "ancestral territory." Even though the government last year tripled the size of the U'wa reserve to an area about a tenth the size of Massachusetts, the tribe insists that initial drilling and subsequent oil development would threaten their way of life.

"Many cultures have already died in Colombia," says Mr. Prez, who wears a seed in a woven cord around his neck.

Prez says he wants to discuss the U'wa issue with Vice President Al Gore, a politician known for his interest in the environment. Before Prez and a delegation of U'was visited Washington in April, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, (D) of Georgia, ranking member on the House Human Rights Subcommitttee, asked Gore to meet with Prez. Citing a busy schedule, Gore declined.

Ms. McKinney and representatives of a coalition of environmental and Indian rights groups supporting the U'was say the real reason Gore declined is his longtime close relationship with Occidental, which has been one of the vice-president's top contributors. Gore's late father was on the Occidental board, and left company stock to Gore's mother.

But it could also be that Gore wanted to avoid getting involved in a conflict that raises so many nettlesome issues related to both economic globalization and Colombia's internal troubles.

Guerrilla groups target already existing oil operations as a way to weaken the government and wreak havoc in the region. Guerrillas are active in the area of the U'wa lands.

Last year three American environmentalists working with the U'wa were executed by the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), Colombia's largest insurgent organization. Another group, the National Liberation Army, extorts payments from oil-field workers and requires residents to join popular protests against further development, while both groups regularly bomb regional oil pipelines.

"In Colombia, wherever there has been oil development, violence and ecological disaster have followed," says Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch, a member of the U'wa Defense Group in Topanga, Calif. Other critics fear social ills like alcoholism and prostitution that they say accompany oil operations in indigenous areas.

But Occidental's vice president for public affairs, Larry Meriage, says this is a "tired clich" that ignores the mutually profitable working relationships that oil firms have developed with indigenous groups elsewhere, such as Occidental's project with the Shuar Indians of Ecuador's Oriente rain forest.

Ms. Soltani says that while some oil companies have done a better job than others at environmental protection - though she is particularly critical of Occidental - she maintains that none have been able to extract oil in sensitive areas without causing damage. And Soltani insists that some of the Shuar Indians are not happy with the working relationship their governors have developed with Occidental.

Occidental spokesmen and Colombian officials say the U'was are being used in a - "radicalization" of international environmental activism.

Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr, an internationally recognized environmentalist, says that the U'was took an uncompromising stand against all oil exploration only after the U'wa cause was adopted by environmental groups in Europe and the US.

"I see them using the U'was as a tool to further their agenda, which is anti-development, and anti-oil," says Occidental's Mr. Meriage.

The Indians and their supporters counter that the Colombian government, by encouraging oil exploration just outside the U'wa reserve, is disregarding a constitutional obligation to protect all of Colombia's cultures.

"We realize this is a clash of two rights, the right of a minority people to exist and pursue their culture, and the right of the majority people to development and economic betterment," says Blanca Lucia Echeverry, who handles indigenous and minority affairs in the Colombian government's People's Defender's office. "Here we're talking about the cultural extinction of a group that hasn't been infiltrated," she adds, "but even if it were only the beliefs of one person at risk, that would still be above the right to development."

A March injunction against the exploration plan was overturned in May, and the People's Defender is appealing the decision.

Ms. Echeverry believes the government is squelching any potential challenges to the project.

"Isn't is strange," she says, "that one day the Interior Ministry official in charge of Indian affairs finds this project would adversely affect a people, and the next day he is replaced by someone who decides the opposite?"

Prez remains adamant against drilling. "We don't believe we can compromise when we are talking about the resources of our earth and our very survival."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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