The U'wa-Oxy Standoff
Occidental Petroleum's efforts to drill on land in northeastern Columbia claimed by the U'wa people as their ancestral territory has provoked both an on-the-ground standoff in Columbia and escalating protests in the United States. 

Observers in the town of Gibraltar, located near Oxy's proposed drill site, report a heavy military and police presence in the area. The U'wa have blockaded the road leading to the site, which lies just half a mile from the U'wa reservation. 

The Colombian government recently expanded the reservation in an attempt to settle the question of where Occidental can drill, but the U'wa assert that the proposed drill site is still within their ancestral territory. They have repeatedly stated that they "are willing to die" to keep oil drilling off of  their ancestral lands.

On February 11, the Colombian police attempted to break up the blockade with tear gas. The U'wa reported that three indigenous children drowned when the group was pushed back into a river.

Four days later, rural workers throughout the region responded with a general strike. Two thousand five hundred workers, students and campesinos joined over one thousand U'wa and other indigenous peoples in the blockade.

The secretary of the local Association of Campesinos (ADUC), Reina Rojas, says the mobilization and blockade "will only end with a commitment from the government to halt the petroleum exploration in the Samore Block."

U.S. human rights organizations believe the Colombian military and police will not attempt to permanently dismantle the blockade by force at least until the U.S. Congress approves a $1.3 billion Colombian aid package proposed by the Clinton administration.

Occidental was the only party outside of the Clinton Administration to testify before Congress on behalf of the aid package, which has since bogged down in House bipartisan procedural quarrels.

Occidental says the aid is necessary to protect the oil operations from guerrilla assaults. It has paid millions of dollars in recent years to support Colombian army units which defend the company's Cano Limon-Covenas pipeline.  The pipeline was bombed a record 79 times last year by rebels opposed to what they see as excessive involvement of foreign multinationals in Columbia's oil industry. National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels have also reportedly sabotaged construction equipment at the proposed drilling site.

In his testimony before a House committee hearing held in February, Occidental Vice President Lawrence Meriage said the 1.4 billion barrel project in Colombia is a crucial alternative to drugs as a means of developing the country's economy.

Meriage also suggested that "the guerrillas and the U.S.-based NGOs [non-governmental organizations opposed to Oxy's plan to drill on U'wa territory] are both engaged in the cynical manipulation of the small indigenous U'wa community in order to advance their own agendas. ... The U'wa live in a guerrilla-infested area that has seen a spectacular increase in the production of illegal drugs bound for the U.S., and the community has been under intense pressure by the guerrillas to oppose oil development anywhere in the region." 

The U'wa have demanded that Occidental "rectify" the accusation that they are guerrilla sympathizers.

Meriage also testified that Occidental contractors are regularly forced to pay a "war tax" to rebel groups in order to operate.

"Oxy is escalating the potential for violence in the region and furthering U.S. involvement in Colombia's civil war," says Steve Kretzmann of Amazon Watch, a group working to stop the project.

Meanwhile, protesters have hammered Al Gore along the U.S. presidential campaign trail for his long-term connections to Occidental and for not weighing in on the standoff in Columbia.

Gore controls $500,000 in Occidental stock. His father, Al Gore Sr., served for 28 years on Occidental's board after retiring from the U.S. Senate, and left his son with land that generates an income from Occidental of $20,000 per year for mining rights the company has not yet exercised after paying Gore for 20 years. Occidental is also a major Democratic party donor, giving nearly $500,000 in soft money since 1992.

"There's probably no company in America today," says Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, "that is as close personally and financially to the vice president as Occidental Petroleum" [see "The Buying of the President," Multinational Monitor, March 2000].

"Al Gore has no direct business connection to Occidental Petroleum," Occidental vice president Lawrence Meriage told the Monitor. 

Eight activists were arrested for shutting down Gore's campaign headquarters in Manchester, New Hampshire in January. The activists have demanded that Gore take action that results in an immediate suspension of Oxy's project, and a significant reduction of tension on the ground.

Gore has studiously avoided commenting about the U'wa situation to the media. Activists say he has said he didn't believe there was much he could do.

-- Charlie Cray