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Drilling Blocked After Tribe Threatens Suicide

Tue., Feb. 4, 1997

In a major defeat for big oil Monday, Colombia’s highest court upheld a petition by a native group blocking Occidental Petroleum from exploiting a field believed worth billions of dollars.

Leaders of the U’wa tribe, which numbers about 8,000 people, had threatened mass suicide if the court ruled in favor of the U.S. oil company.

The Constitutional Court in the capital, Bogota, ruled 5-4 that a Colombian subsidiary of Bakersfield, Calif.-based Occidental cannot drill on territory the U’wa tribe considers its own.

It is not clear whether the decision leaves open the possibility Occidental one day might win the right to drill in the Samore field, which lies in a remote region just outside the U’wa tribe’s legal reserve.

A meeting of tribal elders is scheduled for today.

The U’wa Indians consider oil the “blood of mother Earth” and say drilling will destroy their culture. They have refused repeated efforts by Occidental to make a deal.

“What is sacred we don’t sell or negotiate,” said Ebaristo Tegria, an U’wa lawyer.

Robert Stewart, Occidental’s manager of corporate affairs, said he knows of no legal precedent for such a decision.

He said the field could be one of the largest in the hemisphere. Seismic tests indicate the field could hold between 1 billion and 2.5 billion barrels of oil.

“We wouldn’t have gone through all of this if we didn’t think the field was worth it,” said Stewart.

If initial projections had proved correct, the Samore field would have yielded billions of dollars for the company and the Colombian government, which would receive 80 percent of the profits.

Occidental had invested about $12 million doing seismic tests.


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