Published on Friday, March 31, 2000 by the Environment News Service
Colombia Oil Drilling Fight Wells Up in Congresswoman's DC Office
WASHINGTON - March 30 - A surprise encounter in the Congressional office of Georgia Representative Cynthia McKinney today brought the vice president of Occidental Petroleum face to face with the president of the U'wa indigenous people who are fighting the company's oil drilling on their traditional land in Colombia.
Roberto Perez, president of the U'wa Traditional Authority, confronted a surprised Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) Vice President, Larry Meriage, in the Congresswoman's office. McKinney, a Democrat, is the ranking member on the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights.
According to McKinney, Meriage had requested a meeting with her in apparent response to her remarks on Oxy's controversial oil project yesterday during the House floor debate on the U.S. military aid package to Colombia.
When Oxy officials arrived at her office this morning, they were startled to also be greeted by U'wa President and eight leaders of the U'wa Defense Working Group ready to discuss their demand that Oxy immediately suspend its oil project on the sacred ancestral land of the U'wa people.
During the intense one hour meeting, McKinney asked the Oxy officials pointed questions about the impacts of the project on the U'wa and asked the U'wa president to respond.
When pressed, Meriage admitted on the record that the U'wa had not been consulted on the company's plans to drill the Gibraltar 1 oil well.
One of many protests at the Oxy headquarters in Los Angeles (Photo courtesy Amazon Watch)Oxy's admission about the lack of consultation will be used by the U'wa in the ongoing legal challenges to Oxy's drilling permit in international and Colombian courts. Consultation with indigenous communities is a legal requirement both under the Colombian Constitution and under international conventions such as Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization.
Altossa Soltani of the environmental group Amazon Watch, who was present in McKinney's office during the confrontation, told ENS, "We are basically appealing to Meriage to suspend the project until these issues are dealt with. He said, 'I can't make a decision on that,' but said he would take it to the company."
In response to a question from McKinney, Meriage said he is open to more dialogue.
"Oxy must immediately suspend their project pending a mediated settlement with the U'wa," said McKinney. "If any deaths occur in association with this project, the blood will be on Occidental's hands."
Oxy began construction of the drill site in early February. Some 2,700 U'wa people, local farmers, students and union members are attempting to stop Oxy's construction works on the Gibraltar 1 drill site in Northeast Colombia with a blockade.
On February 11, Colombian soldiers used tear gas to break up the blockade and destroyed the protesters camp. Three U'wa children were drowned in a fast-flowing river as the U'wa ran from the attack. The blockade has since been rebuilt.
The U'wa continue to stress their strong opposition to the oil project and have repeatedly stated their willingness to die defending their land and culture. The U'wa vowed that they would commit mass suicide by leaping from a cliff if oil drilling took place on their lands. Now, while not ruling out the will to die, the U'wa are focusing on life and resistance.
"Oil maintains the balance of the world and is the blood of our mother. In accordance with our natural laws which don't permit the exploitation or destruction of nature, we demand that you respect our rights, our culture, and our lives," declared U'wa President Roberto Perez.
Meriage alleged in testimony before the Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee, "the [U’wa] community has been under intense pressure by the guerrillas to oppose oil development anywhere in the region. These uncontested facts are well known in Colombia. Rather than acknowledge the truth, namely that the U'wa are in no position to speak openly about what is really happening, the NGOs continue to attack Occidental."
But both the U’wa and NGOs have issued multiple condemnations of the guerrillas. Most recently, in January, the U’wa stated, "We don't agree with the actions by the National Liberation Army (ELN) to destroy the machinery and equipment of the transnational oil company Oxy, since actions like these only make the conflict worse."
Meriage’s oral testimony to Congress included the admission of direct payments from Oxy to the guerrillas. Amazon Watch and other NGOs are calling on the oil company to reveal the full extent of the payments and their relationship over time.
Oxy points out that their well is situated outside of U’wa territory. The Gibraltar 1 well lies approximately 500 meters (1,625 feet) outside the border of the newly legalized Unified U’wa Reservation, but the two farms on which the drill site is actually situated are land that is owned by the U’wa.
On November 18, 1999, on behalf of the entire U’wa people, the Association of U’wa Traditional Authorities entered into and officially registered contracts to purchase two farms near the border of their Unified Reserve. These farms encompass the land designated for the Gibraltar 1 well.
The U'wa fear too that the environmental impact of the oil exploration and development so close to their reservation will affect their lands. Neither the government of Colombia nor Occidental has made available to the U'wa the environmental impact study that defines the area of impact.
The U'wa president is in the first days of a U.S. visit which will take him to Boston for a rally in front of Fidelity Investments on Monday. Fidelity is a major investor in Occidental Petroleum. Meetings with socially responsible investment houses are planned with the aim of getting them to divest themselves of shares in Oxy.