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May 09, 2002
Occidental Returns Siriri Oil Block to Colombia
    by William Baue

Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum withdrew from an oil field belonging to the indigenous U'wa people, but the company will continue oil extraction in Colombia. (part one of a two-part article)

At its annual shareowner meeting last week, Occidental Petroleum (ticker: OXY) announced that it would return to the Colombian government the Siriri oil block, which had been the focal point of protests by the U'wa people that have lived for millennia on the land where Occidental drilled.

"We drilled a dry hole in the block from February through July 2001," said Occidental Vice President of Public Affairs Larry Meriage. "We had shows of natural gas and condensate, but not in sufficient quantity," he continued. "Our geologists and geophysics . . . concluded that, on technical and economic grounds, it was in our interest to relinquish the block. We spent a lot of money there and were not successful in finding commercial hydrocarbons."

The U'wa, who have been peacefully protesting against oil development on their sacred ancestral lands throughout the past decade, thanked their God, Sira, upon hearing this news. However, the Colombian government may yet allow further oil development there, and Occidental continues to hold a 44 percent interest in the Cano Limon pipeline, which runs through U'wa land.

Mr. Meriage maintained that the U'wa protests had "no effect at all" on Occidental's withdrawal decision. This characterization elides the undeniable negative publicity of the U'wa's ongoing campaign of resistance that has inspired international support, according to Kevin Koenig, an oil campaigner with Amazon Watch. This Los Angeles-based non-profit helps defend the environment and indigenous people's rights from corporate encroachment in the Amazon Basin.

"The public relations 'black eye' that Occidental has suffered had to have played a factor in their withdrawal," said Mr. Koenig.

Mr. Meriage called into question the legitimacy of U'wa claims to the land where Occidental drilled the Gibraltar-1 exploration well, as the Colombian courts upheld Occidental's right to proceed.

"The declaration of the court basically was that this area was outside the U'wa reservation, which had been expanded more than threefold prior to the time that Occidental moved ahead with the drilling project," said Mr. Meriage. "The land belonged to small farmers."

Mr. Koenig agreed with the basic facts of Mr. Meriage's explanation, though he placed the information in a broader context.

"The majority of the Siriri block falls on this expanded reserve. Now the actual drill site does fall outside of that, however, only by 500 meters. To say its not technically on U'wa land is ridiculous," said Mr. Koenig. "They will definitely fall victim to the environmental impact."

Furthermore, Mr. Koenig called into question the claim that small farmers owned the land.

"The U'wa bought these farms from the local people, so technically this drill site was on two farms that, while maybe not in their expanded reserve that the government recognizes, were legal property of the U'wa," said Mr. Koenig. "Up until the moment that Occidental called in the military to dislodge them, they had been occupying these farms for months, with hundreds of U'wa people cooking and remaining vigilant at the site to not let Occidental enter there."

"Those are false claims," responded Mr. Meriage.

Ironically, regardless of whether the U'wa actually owned the land or not, the Colombian laws are structured in such a way that the Colombian government can trump land-owners' self-determination.

"The crux of the struggle for indigenous autonomy and land is that the Colombian government maintains the right to the subsurface minerals, so when the U'wa get title to their land, it's only from the ground up. The government maintains the right to the minerals underneath, and it auctions those off in blocks to multinational corporations," said Mr. Koenig. "The U'wa feel that this is outrageous. These are people that have lived on these lands for thousands of years."

The Colombian government will decide whether to license the Siriri block out to another oil company, with the state oil company as its most likely candidate. Thus the U'wa struggle to respect the environmental integrity of their ancestral home and the legitimacy of their land claims may continue.

"This is a campaign to keep oil exploitation off their land--whether it's Occidental or another company, the U'wa will continue to fight to prevent that from happening," said Mr. Koenig.

Tomorrow's article will examine the environmental degradation, military protectionism, and corporate welfare that is accompanying Occidental's oil development in Colombia.


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