For Immediate Release
Contact: Michael Brune, Tel: 415-398-4404
LOS ANGELES (May 6, 2002) -- At its annual shareholder meeting today, Occidental Petroleum (NYSE:OXY) announced its plans to return to the Colombian government its controversial Siriri oil block (formally Samore), located on the traditional territory of the U'wa people. This follows a nearly decade-long peaceful campaign by the U'wa to halt the oil project.
''This is the news we have been waiting for. Sira, the God of the U'wa has accompanied the U'wa here in Colombia and our friends around the world who have supported us in this struggle. Now Sira is responding to us. This is the result of the work of the U'wa and our friends around the world,'' said U'wa spokesperson Ebaristo Tegria.
The U'wa's campaign to protect their people and land from the violence and environmental destruction that comes with oil projects in Colombia has garnered international attention and created an ongoing public relations liability for Oxy. Peaceful U'wa resistance to the Oxy project has been met with several episodes of violent repression over the years, in one case resulting in the death of three indigenous children during a military break up of peaceful U'wa blockades.
The U'wa have repeatedly denounced Occidental's oil operation, saying it threatens their tribe and will raise the death toll of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of Colombia's civil war. Activists noted that while Oxy's departure from the oil block is a welcomed development, the threat remains that another company could take over the area. In addition, Repsol-YPF is currently looking to develop the Capachos oil block, also located on traditional U'wa land.
''Oxy's departure from the oil block will be a great victory for the U'wa,'' said Atossa Soltani, Director of Amazon Watch. ''Oxy now needs to commit to staying out of all U'wa ancestral lands permanently.'' Last July, Oxy announced that its first exploratory well on U'wa land turned up dry. Today the company cited economic reasons for relinquishing the block, while observers noted that the company's continuing public relations conflicts around U'wa issue weighed heavily on the decision.
Meanwhile, Occidental also finds itself center stage in the growing controversy around the Bush Administration's military aid proposal to hand over $98 million of U.S. taxpayers' money to defend Occidental's Caño Limon oil pipeline in Colombia, which runs through traditional U'wa land.
If Congress passes the proposal, this targeted military assistance for the pipeline will set a dangerous precedent of taxpayers covering private corporations' security expenses overseas. Critics say this is a clear case of corporate welfare. Based on last year's level of U.S. oil imports from Caño Limon, taxpayers will be covering Occidental's security expenses at the cost of $24 per barrel of oil.
Occidental also finds itself in the spotlight this week with Attorney General Ashcroft's indictment of six FARC guerrillas for the 1999 murders of three Americans working in Colombia with the U'wa people. Among the activists murdered was Terence Freitas who founded the U'wa Defense Project. Freitas' family issued a statement in opposition to more military aid to Colombia (available upon request).
The U'wa are expected to release a full statement next week.