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Activists Protest Colombian Oil Drilling

By Michael Borucke

Activists took to the streets of downtown Boston last week to protest Fidelity Investments’ relationship with Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum as well as Occidental’s plans to begin oil exploration in Colombia. Beginning at 11:00 a.m. last Thursday, approximately fifty protesters occupied the park area across the street from the Fidelity Investments building on the corner of Congress Street and Franklin Street. Among the protesters were students from the University of New Hampshire, Boston University, and MIT.

Protest draws concerned, curious

Armed with placards and chant sheets, the protesters drew the attention of people working inside Fidelity Investments as well as hundreds of bystanders on their way to work and a contingent of officers from the Boston Police Department. At around 4:30 p.m., protesters marched from the Fidelity building on Franklin Street to the Fidelity headquarters on Devonshire Street where the protest ended at 6:00 p.m.

Some pedestrians were clearly irritated by the protest. Interested passers-by, though, took flyers from protesters and asked for explanations of the protest.

The protesters demanded that Fidelity use their influence as shareholders of Occidental stock to halt Occidental’s drilling venture in Colombia. Fidelity is the third largest shareholder of Occidental Petroleum with over ten percent of the company’s stock, currently valued at over $700 million.

Occidental draws U’wa ire

Occidental Petroleum is currently poised to begin drilling in the Colombian cloud forest on the tribal lands of the U’wa people, an indigenous tribe. The U’wa believe that oil is the Earth’s lifeblood and the extracting of oil by Occidental will signal the death of every living thing in the forest.

Spirituality aside, the U’wa may have tangible reasons to fear the destruction of their land with the onset of drilling. CaÑo LimÓn is a site 100 miles to the east of the U’wa on which Occidental has been drilling for 12 years. In that time, 60 attacks on the area from guerrilla forces have resulted in two million barrels of oil flowing into the river. One attack caused the death of 70 people in the village of Machuca. Kim Foster, a member of the Rainforest Action Network, explained the motivation behind the attacks.

“The guerrilla forces see the profits from oil drilling as going to fund the Colombian military. Consequently, drilling for oil in Colombia has become associated with violence.”

The original proposal placed drilling land at 1600 feet from the boundary of the U’wa reservation. In November, the U’wa revealed that they had bought the surrounding land from neighboring farmers, giving the U’wa legal claim to the proposed drilling site, rendering illegal the drilling permits issued to Occidental by the Colombian government. Occidental, however, has not acknowledged the U’wa claim to the land and is presently moving forward with their plans to drill for approximately 1.5 billion barrels of oil.

The company said in a 1999 press release that it is the second oil and gas exploration and production company in South America to achieve ISO 14001 certification in recognition of its strong environmental management system.

More protests planned for March

Project Underground and the Rainforest Action Network were responsible for organizing the protest. The San Francisco-based organizations are two of the 200 environmental groups from 50 different countries that have since responded to the plight of the U’wa by putting pressure on the shareholders of Occidental stock.

More nationwide protests are tentatively planned for early March. “We will not stop the protests until Occidental is out of Colombia” said Foster.

An interesting sidenote to the Occidental controversy is the personal connection to presidential hopeful Al Gore. Gore, who has traditionally campaigned on environmental issues, inherited 500 thousand dollars worth of Occidental stock from his father. Environmental groups have also tried pressuring the vice-president to use his personal and political ties with Occidental to halt the drilling without success. A handful of activists were recently arrested outside Gore headquarters in New Hampshire in an attempt to force the vice-president to confront the issue.