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U'wa Tribe Loses Court Ruling on Oil Drilling

by Yadira Ferrer

story on U'wa
(IPS) BOGOTA -- The Colombian National Indigenous Organization (ONIC) said last week it would turn to the Supreme Court and international forums to fight a legal ruling that authorized California-based Occidental Petroleum to continue exploring for oil on land claimed as ancestral territory by the U'wa people.

The U.S. company will begin exploring for oil once again in the area known as the Samore Block in northeastern Colombia based on a ruling by the Bogota high court May 15, which overturned a previous court decision halting work in the area on the grounds that it violated the constitutional rights of the U'wa community.

Alleging that the environment ministry violated their constitutional rights by failing to consult them before granting Occidental a licence to drill for oil in the Samore Block, the Indians filed their lawsuit, which was dismissed by the high court yesterday.

The U'wa are opposed to oil drilling in their ancestral territory, believing oil is "the blood of mother earth" and must not be touched.

Based on a 300-year-old precedent, they have threatened to commit mass suicide if Occidental is allowed to go ahead with its plans. In the late 17th century, a community of U'wa jumped to their deaths from a cliff to avoid coming under the authority of a group of Spanish missionaries and tax collectors.

But the Bogota high court argued that the ethnic group did not need to be consulted before the environmental licence was granted, because the exploration work was taking place outside the boundaries of the indigenous group's reserve.

In August 1999, the government increased the U'wa reserve in the Samore Bloc from 61,000 to 220,200 hectares. Less than a month later, it extended Occidental an environmental license to explore for oil in the Gibraltar oilfield, located less than five kms from the territory officially reserved for the Native group.

But the Indians argue that their sacred ancestral lands encompass the entire 2,000-hectare Samore Block, which stretches from the central department of Boyac‡ to Arauca on the border with Venezuela.

ONIC announced May 16 that it would take the case to the Supreme Court and to international forums.

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The ruling by the Bogota high court "disregards the cultural and spiritual values of the U'wa people," stated the communique released by the umbrella group of Native organizations.

Armando Valbuena, president of ONIC, told IPS that the fact that the Gibraltar oilwell was located so close to the U'wa reserve was a mere "legalism." The key issue at stake, he said, was that the oil-drilling would endanger the group's survival.

In Colombia, economic interests prevail "over the right to life and cultural integrity of indigenous peoples," complained ONIC.

A range of social groups in the department of Arauca declared themselves on alert today and announced peaceful mobilizations against the legal decision.

The organizations, which held protests and mounted roadblocks last month in the department of Arauca to express their solidarity with the U'wa people, said the high court decision amounted to an attack on the ancestral rights of the Native community.

The U'wa Defense Working Group, made up of U.S. and European environmentalists and human rights activists, argues that exploration for oil so close to the Indian reserve would devastate that part of the Amazon jungle and put the Native community in danger, because oil-drilling activity would act as a magnet for armed groups.

In the context of Colombia's decades-old civil war, oil facilities have been targeted by leftist guerrillas opposed to the influence of transnational corporations.

For example, Occidental's Cano Limon pipeline -- which runs near U'wa territory -- has been attacked by insurgents hundreds of times in its 13 years of existence, spilling more than 1.7 million barrels of crude oil into waterways and the soil.

In response, the government has militarized oil production facilities, using right-wing paramilitary units notorious for human rights abuses and killing unarmed civilians, complain international environmental watchdogs like Oilwatch, the Environmental Defence Fund and the Sierra Club.

The president of the state-run Colombian Oil Company (Ecopetrol), Alberto Calderon, meanwhile, said Occidental's plans for the Samore Block were still in the "exploration phase and have no significant repercussions on the ecosystem or on the livelihood" of the U'wa Indians.

Occidental has invested around $100 million in the Samore Block project, and if oil is found it plans to extract oil in partnership with Ecopetrol. Estimated to hold 1.5 billion to 2.5 billion barrels in potential crude oil reserves, Samore could be one of Colombia's largest oilfields.

Through the joint venture, the government hopes to gain some $900 million a year in additional oil revenues.

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Albion Monitor May 22, 2000 (

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