Oil expansion threatens Colombia’s indigenous
by Bill Weinberg
Indian Country Today
NEW YORK – Colombia’s U’wa indigenous people, in the forested mountains overlooking the oil-rich and war-torn eastern plains, are facing reversal in a hard-won land rights victory over the state oil company. The move comes just as the company is to be partially privatized to fund a new thrust of expansion. Meanwhile, despite a supposed ”demobilization” of the right-wing paramilitaries, illegal gunmen continue to threaten Indians and campesinos organizing to defend their lands from oil development.
The U’wa victory came in May 2002, when Occidental Petroleum Corp. announced at its annual shareholder meeting in Los Angeles that it was quitting its oil exploration bloc in the high cloud forest region. The company cited economic reasons for the move, including a negative result from its first exploratory drill. However, the announcement came after 10 years of effort by the U’wa people and their international supporters to halt the oil development. At least two U’wa had been killed when their blockades of access roads to the drill sites were broken by the army.
But the victory may now prove temporary. On Dec. 15, 2006, Colombia’s Interior Ministry cleared the way for the Colombian state oil company, Ecopetrol, to begin new explorations in the same territory – this time on behalf of the Spanish firm Repsol. The ministry stated in its decision that the U’wa had refused to participate in consultation meetings it had organized to discuss the question.
In response to the announcement, Luis Tegria, president of the Assembly of the U’wa Indigenous Community, said that the question of oil development was not negotiable and pledged that his people will defend their ancestral lands. He also protested that the ministry’s decision was made public before the U’wa were officially notified.
Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe is George Bush’s closest ally in South America. His government has received more than $3 billion in U.S. aid since he took office in 2002. With populist governments backed by indigenous movements coming to power across South America, Uribe is the regional pillar of Bush’s hemispheric war on terrorism and drugs, as well as his free trade agenda.
As Bolivia and Venezuela move to extend greater public control over South America’s ample hydrocarbon resources, Colombia is moving rapidly in the opposite direction. After seven hours of debate on Dec. 12, Colombia’s Congress voted 60 – 29 to authorize the sale of a 20 percent stake in Ecopetrol. Shares in the company will be sold on Colombia’s stock market this year to finance the company’s expansion.
Priority in allocating the shares will be given to company workers, cooperative associations, pension funds and Colombian citizens. The Mines and Energy Ministry said the sale could raise as much as $4 billion and warns that without expansion, Colombia – Latin America’s fifth-largest oil exporter, with 1.45 billion barrels of proven reserves – could become a net importer by 2011.
The changes at Ecopetrol are challenged by the company’s workers, who have repeatedly paralyzed operations at the main Barrancabermeja refinery in protest of the moves towards privatization – resulting in the plant being occupied by the army. The Syndicated Workers Union, representing the oil sector, has threatened to bring the entire company to a halt if the sale proceeds.
According to a year-end study by Colombia’s National Labor School, a total of 71 unionists were assassinated in 2006, compared with 67 in 2005. The study found the greatest increase in killings to be in the two departments of Magdalena, on the Caribbean coast, and Arauca on the eastern plains.
Arauca is a key strategic region for Ecopetrol, site of the Cano-Limon oil fields, currently the country’s most productive. Cano-Limon is also where U.S. oil companies, in joint partnerships with Ecopetrol, have been granted most generous access. The Cano Limon pipeline, lining the fields to the Carribean, cuts through U’wa territory.
The so-called ”demobilization” of the paramilitaries is starting to look increasingly dubious. Colombia’s nongovernmental Council on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) stated that throughout the country there are perhaps 60 ”emergent bands” of ”demobilized” paras who have returned to action. CODHES especially reported a new wave of terror in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department, which has displaced 8,000 local people over the past months. The U’wa mountain homeland is on the border of the Arauca and Norte de Santander departments.
This is one of Colombia’s most militarized regions. The Colombian army has an overwhelming, visible presence throughout Arauca, and is routinely accused by human rights groups of arbitrary detainments and other abuses. Arauca has been declared a special ”rehabilitation zone” where normal civil rights protections are suspended.
The forces are overseen by a group of Green Berets from the U.S. 7th Special Forces Group under a special multi-million-dollar project approved as part of Plan Colombia. This program is turning the Colombian army’s 18th Brigade into a special force to protect the local investments of Occidental Petroleum, which operates in a partnership with Ecopetrol.
Despite this high-profile military presence, the paramilitaries operate with a free hand in Arauca. Indigenous leaders who have protested the contamination of their traditional lands and waters by the oil operations are among those who are targeted, leading the environmental network Biodiversidad en America Latina to see a coordinated campaign of ”ecocide and ethnocide.”
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