Danielle Knight

WASHINGTON, Dec 27 2000 (IPS) — Having had no luck convincing a US oil company to halt drilling on land in Colombia claimed by an indigenous tribe, opponents to the project are now declaring some success in targeting investors of the corporation.

Since 1992, when Occidental Petroleum was granted drilling rights in northeast Colombia by the government, the 5,000-strong U’wa tribe – which is against the project and claims the land as their sacred territory – has received international support in opposing the project.

But when condemnation from environmental and human rights groups worldwide did not change Occidental’s plans, activists began targeting the largest shareholder in the corporation, Fidelity Investments.

After a 10-month campaign by the Rainforest Action Network, Amazon Watch, and other environmental groups, the Boston-based firm sold more than 60 percent of its holdings in Occidental totalling 400 million dollars.

Even though Fidelity says that there was no connection between its divestment and the campaign, activists are claiming that it was a result of the impact their numerous protests in the United States and Europe had on the investor’s reputation.

“Fidelity learned the hard way that being Oxy’s business partner is hazardous to their company’s image,” says Atossa Soltani, director of Amazon Watch, a California-based group.

While activists are still trying to get Fidelity to divest its remaining shares in the corporation, pressure groups are now taking aim at another Occidental shareholder, the investment firm Sanford C. Bernstein and Co. and its parent company Alliance Capital Management.

“We are urging Sanford Bernstein and other major Occidental Petroleum shareholders to follow Fidelity’s example and divest from this morally bankrupt company and unethical oil project,” says Soltani. The firm has 53 million shares, valued at 1.19 billion dollars, in Occidental.

Earlier this month Roberto Perez, chief of the U’wa nation, delivered a letter to the firm demanding that it sell its stock in the oil company.

“Occidental’s drilling on our ancestral territory runs the risk of destroying the ancient culture of our ancestors that we have carried on from generation to generation,” says the letter addressed to Roger Hertog, Vice Chairman of Alliance Capital Management and Sanford C. Bernstein.

“For that reason, we demand … that you divest entirely from Occidental.”

The investment firm is declining requests for comment from reporters.

The letter from Perez was a follow-up to a surprise visit by Perez and activists with the U’wa Defense Working Group, made up of US and European human rights and environmental groups, to Sanford C. Bernstein’s New York offices in April, when they called on the money management fund to divest from the oil company.

During the unannounced visit Hertog said he would investigate the issue. In the meantime, the firm increased its holdings by 10 million shares to become Occidental’s largest investor.

Since the company began drilling for oil in November, the tribe says its homeland has become heavily militarised because rebel groups target oil operations.

Just north of the U’wa territory, guerrilla attacks on an Occidental pipeline have caused 2.3 million barrels of oil to seep into the ground, according to the state oil firm Ecopetrol.

Perez says that unless the project is cancelled, the U’wa will be caught in the cross-fire of Colombia’s civil war.

Besides increased violence in the area, the tribe is also opposed to the drilling 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, several U’wa jumped to their deaths from a cliff to avoid coming under the authority of a group of Spanish missionaries and tax collectors.

While the government argues that the oil project is located outside the demarcated indigenous reserve, the U’wa say all land within what was known as the Samore oil block – even that not encompassed by the designated indigenous reserve – is its sacred ancestral territory.

The U’wa and their supporters are currently trying to halt the drilling by legally challenging the company’s license. They are basing their current case on land deeds from the King of Spain which were uncovered in September dating back to the 1600s. The deeds granted the tribe surface and subsurface mineral rights on the land they claim is their territory.

In 1873, the Colombian government claimed all sub-surface mineral rights as property of the nation except those previously ceded by the royal land deeds.


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