Eight environmental activists were arrested yesterday inside the New Hampshire campaign headquarters of Vice President Al Gore, after they conducted civil disobedience to protest Occidental Oil’s plans to drill in the Colombian rainforest. The protesters, from the groups Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action Network, Acerca and Native Force Network, were demanding to speak with Gore over the growing crisis in Colombia. Gore owns up to half a million dollars in Occidental stock and has historic ties to the company. [includes rush transcript]
The California-based oil company plans to drill its first well in a land that activists say is the ancestral homeland of an indigenous group, the U’wa. Last week, Democracy Now took a look at Gore’s involvement with the company, both as stockholder and as a major player in the multibillion sale by the Clinton administration of a vast, oil-rich area in California known as Elk Hills to Occidental.
These ties to Occidental are what activists say put Gore in the position of being able to influence the company’s plans to drill in U’wa land.
The U’Wa first became known internationally a few years ago, when they threatened to commit mass suicide if Occidental drilled on their territory.
Now, they continue to resist Occidental’s efforts to explore for oil in new ways. In October of last year, about 500 members of the community occupied the area Oxy would like to explore, which they say is their ancestors’ land. And in November, the community purchased from local peasants the exact piece of land where the company would like to drill its first exploratory well. But on Friday, the Colombian military arrived in the area and proceeded to force the U’wa off the land, and two days ago, the 26 members who were still on the land were evicted by helicopter. Yesterday members of the U’wa held a news conference in Bogota.
- Kim Foster, from Rainforest Action Network, one of the eight protesters who were arrested yesterday at Gore’s Manchester, New Hampshire, headquarters.
- Steven Dudley files story on U’Wa from Bogota.
P>*AMY GOODMAN:* Well, you wouldn’t know it from watching television, but eight environmental activists were arrested yesterday inside the New Hampshire campaign headquarters of Vice President Al Gore, as they conducted civil disobedience to protest Occidental Oil’s plans to drill in the Colombian rainforest.
Now, what does Gore have to do with Occidental Petroleum? Well, the protesters from the groups Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action Network, Acerca and the Native Force Network were demanding to speak with the Vice President over the growing crisis in Colombia. Gore owns up to half-a-million dollars in Occidental stock, and his father was closely tied to Occidental, and Armand Hammer, its owner, was in fact a head of an Occidental subsidiary, Gore’s father.
The California-based oil giant plans to drill its first well in a land that activists says is the ancestral homeland of the indigenous group, the U’wa of Colombia.
Last week, Democracy Now! took a look at the Vice President’s involvement with the company, both as a stockholder and as a major player in the multi-billion-dollar sale by the Clinton administration of a vast oil-rich area in California known as Elk Hills. And that sale was made to Occidental. It was the largest sale of federal land put into private hands in the history of the United States. These ties to Occidental are what activists say put Gore in the position of being able to influence the company’s plans to drill in U’wa land.
We’re joined now by Kim Foster from the Rainforest Action Network. She was one of the eight protesters who were arrested at Gore’s headquarters. What happened yesterday, Kim?
KIM FOSTER: Hi, yes. We walked into the headquarters and were approached by a young woman who said that "We knew why you were here. You’re here for the U’wa, right?" And we said yes. And she said, "You’re welcome to do your demonstration outside." We said that we were here on behalf of the U’wa people and that we wanted to talk to Vice President Al Gore or someone about the situation in Colombia and the Vice President’s connection to Occidental Petroleum and the threat of genocide in Colombia. At this time, she said we needed to leave and go outside, and we all started filing into the office. She said that she would be happy to have someone come outside, but we refused to leave.
At that point, she called on — she went into the back and got Representative Buckley to come out and talk with us. He said that he would be happy to have some information and get back to us. And we went out and got him a press packet, brought it in for him. And he then said that he would send somebody to — he would call us.
At that point, we still reiterated why we were there and that we would not leave until we got a response and that they needed to call the Vice President. He said that that would not be able to be done. At that point, there was a photographer who was being physically removed from the — with the campaign staff outside, as well as our legal observer, who was also brought outside. At about this point, we all decided to sit down and refused to leave until we got an answer.
AMY GOODMAN: If you could make it as fast as possible, because we’re also going to go down to Colombia, and we only have a few minutes.
KIM FOSTER: Sure, sure. At that point, the police came in. There was a lot of mocking and laughing from the staff people. We started chanting. They started chanting back, "Elect Gore!" And then the police did come in. They asked us to leave. We refused to leave again, until we spoke with the Vice President about the situation. And they began removing us one by one.
AMY GOODMAN: And are you the only person who’s gotten out of jail at this point, or has everyone?
KIM FOSTER: There are still four people left in jail.
AMY GOODMAN: And what are you all charged with?
KIM FOSTER: And we’re charged with criminal trespassing and resisting arrest.
AMY GOODMAN: I just think it’s very interesting. We were watching TV all day yesterday in the background in the office and saw — we didn’t see mention — maybe CNN did a little piece on this — but throughout the day did not see mention of what happened to you in the offices, despite the fact that there was massive coverage of what’s going on in New Hampshire and a great deal of discussion of the style of the candidates. This is a rare occurrence to have people arrested inside a candidate’s office. And which is why we really wanted to explore it.
Now, yesterday, if Democracy Now! listeners were listening, we interviewed the California press secretary for Al Gore, David Chai. He refused to comment on the Occidental story, even though the company is based in California and Elk Hills is also in California. But when contacted yesterday for reaction on the arrests in New Hampshire yesterday afternoon, the Gore campaign said no one would be available for comment until Wednesday. Of course, that’s a day after the first primary in this country. And that is the New Hampshire primary.
But the U’wa first became known internationally a few years ago when they threatened to commit mass suicide if Occidental drilled on their territory. Now, they continue to resist Occidental’s efforts to explore for oil in new ways. In October of last year, about 500 members of the community occupied the area Oxy would like to explore, which they say is their ancestors’ land. And in November, the community purchased from local peasants the exact piece of land where the company would like to drill its first exploratory well.
But on Friday, the Colombian military arrived in the area and proceeded to force the U’wa off the land. And two days ago, twenty-six members who were still on the land were evicted, taken away by Colombian military helicopter.
We go down now to Bogotá, where reporter Steven Dudley is and filed this report.
STEVEN DUDLEY: In a press conference, three U’wa leaders calmly explained that the arrival of 5,000 armed troops to the area alarmed them, but not enough to force them away from what they claim is theirs. Roberto Perez Gutierrez is an U’wa leader.
ROBERTO PEREZ GUTIERREZ: [translated] And they told us that we should leave the area, because they’re going to start drilling for oil, he says. And what did we say? We told him we’re not going to leave, because this is our land and our ancestors’ land.
STEVEN DUDLEY: The U’wa say they bought the land in late November from two farmers who were preparing to leave. They illustrated the legal deed and made reference to the notary’s signature. But their deed did not serve its purpose. The army proceeded to round up the U’wa members and usher them into a helicopter. The army then took most of them to their reservation, located just a few kilometers away along the Venezuelan border, but the indigenous leaders said three of their community members are still missing.
The U’wa’s claim of military abuse came on the same day that the Colombian government completed a deal to allow for oil exploration on the land. As far as the government is concerned, the U’wa issue ended when the government increased the size of the community’s reservation last year. Alberto Calderon is the president of state oil company Ecopetrol, which stands to make at least 50% from whatever oil is found on Oxy’s Samore block.
ALBERTO CALDERON What I would emphasize there is that the — I’d say, from Ecopetrol’s point of view, what we saw was the size of the reservoir was multiplied by four and that as you saw it took a huge chunk of the Samore area, so that’s something that we were surprised, and it’s something that we were not particularly thrilled, but that we accept, because this is a state of law.
STEVEN DUDLEY: Calderon says the government has the right to all the soil beneath the topsoil and that Occidental had obtained all the correct legal papers. So even if the land is the U’wa’s in deed, the California-based company would still have the legal mandate to drill for oil.
The U’was are also facing a difficult political battle. While support for their efforts has soared in from abroad, most Colombians are less than sympathetic to their cause. Oil is the top export product in the country, accounting for millions in sales and tax revenue each year. While the oil production hit its peak last year, and without more oil reserves the country will become a net importer of crude by the year 2004, a prospect that will quickly bankrupt the government and the country.
Despite the seemingly uphill battle, the U’wa leaders said they would continue to resist Occidental’s efforts to drill for oil and even reiterated the group’s now famous threat.
ROBERTO PEREZ GUTIERREZ: [translated] We are not afraid of death, U’wa leader Gutierrez says. We are prepared to give up our own lives to defend our land.
STEVEN DUDLEY: For Democracy Now!, I’m Steven Dudley in Bogotá.
AMY GOODMAN: That report from Bogotá, Colombia. Now back up to Manchester, New Hampshire. That news conference held yesterday in the Colombian capital. Kim Foster the Rainforest Action Network, you were getting arrested at the news conference of the U’wa, was being held there. Your final comment?
KIM FOSTER: Yes. We will continue to question Gore. What he does today will determine us if he will stand for human rights and the environment, or will he support big oil?
AMY GOODMAN: How do you plan to get the message out, since the press doesn’t seem very keen on your protest? Though I will say that the Associated Press put out an extended report and did explain what the issues were. But that goes into newsrooms, not out to the general public. And then, from there, news editors decide whether it is printed in newspapers or broadcast on television.
KIM FOSTER: Right. We continue to bring people up and getting this issue recognized by holding demonstrations and being a presence in Manchester this week.
AMY GOODMAN: If people want to get in touch with the Rainforest Action Network, where can they call?
KIM FOSTER: They can call 1 (800) 989-RAIN.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s 1 (800) 989-RAIN. And I know your website, www.ran.org.
KIM FOSTER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much for being with us.
KIM FOSTER: Thank you.