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Wall Street Journal Corporation
June 7, 1999
U'wa Chieftans Carry Eco-Fight To Doorstep of Corporate America
By PETER WALDMAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
MALIBU, Calif. -- Cell phones clamor, modems screech, bodies scramble.
"'60 Minutes' is interested!"
"No, it's not."
"Is Ed Asner coming?"
"Who's picking up the Dominican nuns at the airport?"
"Is the lentil stew vegan?"
It is Monday, April 26, 1999: Day One of "International Week of Action for the U'wa," a tribe of 5,000 Colombian Indians who have vowed to walk off a 1,400-foot cliff in the Andes mountains if Occidental Petroleum Corp. drills for oil on land they consider sacred. This is the war room, a slice of caffeinated nirvana called the EarthWays Foundation on a coastal bluff north of Los Angeles -- with Tibetan-style yurt, meditation room, and sweeping views of dolphins dancing in the Pacific.
And this is Abruno Nuniwa, president of the Traditional U'wa Council, swaying languidly in a hammock amid the swarm of environmental activists. To get here, he and another U'wa chief, Berito Kubaruwa, have traveled three days by foot, canoe, car and airplane to join in what has become an annual rite of spring for many indigenous peoples: giving corporate America hell.
By week's end, the U'wa pair will ramble through four days of protests, prayer circles and press events, stage-managed by some of the most savvy environmental agitators in the business. The climax comes April 30 at Occidental's annual shareholders' meeting in Los Angeles. At the podium, a seething Ray Irani, Occidental's chairman and chief executive officer, stands wire-taut as the U'wa in their native straw caps lecture him on "the time before there was history, before there was the sun and the moon."
The chairman's response, after 45 minutes of pleas to cancel the project and avert tribal suicide: "The fact of the matter is your problems should be discussed with the Colombian government, not here. ... It doesn't matter what Occidental does or doesn't do."
It matters a lot, of course, but Occidental is in a box -- just where the activists want it. By personalizing the global fight over natural-resource extraction with the brooding faces of the U'wa and other affected tribes, environmentalists are tugging at heartstrings like never before.
This spring, U.S. groups have helped indigenous peoples from abroad pitch their plights at annual meetings of a dozen or so major U.S. companies, including oil giants Chevron Corp. and Atlantic Richfield Co. (Alaskan natives,) Unocal Corp. (Burmese dissidents) and mining-company Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (Indonesian tribesmen).
The appeals seldom change corporate policy outright. Still, environmentalists say the budding alliance between U.S.-based activists and indigenous groups world-wide -- facilitated by the Internet – is beginning to make corporate behavior more accountable in far-flung places like Nigeria, Indonesia and Colombia.
"Putting that human face on the fight has helped us slow the onslaught," says Shannon Wright, director of the "Beyond Oil Campaign" for Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco and a lead organizer of U'wa week.
Central casting could hardly have found more sympathetic characters than the U'wa. Isolated in the high rain forests of Colombia's northeast, the tribe of hunters and gatherers has resisted outside encroachment for centuries. Their ritual songs, chanted for days on end by medicine men, tell of a time 400 years ago when scores of U'wa, their backs pushed up against the timber line at 12,000 feet by Spanish invaders, hurled themselves off a cliff to avoid enslavement.
Substitute Occidental for the conquistadors, and the plot, to Occidental's critics, is similar today. This time, the U'wa elders say the tribe's duty extends beyond its own lands to helping, at least by example, save the planet as well.
"We are guardians of Mother Earth," says Mr. Kubaruwa, 45 years old, who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 1998 for his tribe's stand. "If we must die, the lights of the sky will go dark."
In 1992, Occidental and Royal Dutch/Shell Group won the right from the Colombian government to explore the so-called Samore oil block in U'wa territory. After years of controversy, culminating in the tribe's suicide threat, Shell ceded its interest to Occidental last year. Occidental then renounced 75% of the original block, saying it would drill only in an area outside official U'wa lands. But the tribe says the area Occidental targets still lies inside its ancestral territory, though it is unrecognized as such by Colombia's government. The claim infuriates Occidental.
"It's a concoction of certain activists up in the Bay Area," says Lawrence Meriage, Occidental's executive who deals with U'wa matters. Mr. Meriage says a Harvard anthropologist investigated the U'wa suicide legend, but found scant proof any mass suicide took place. (The anthropologist, Theodore Macdonald, puts it differently: "What I told Occidental is, regardless of historical evidence, if there is an existing historical memory that it happened, it happened.") Mr. Meriage suggests that the U'wa are being manipulated by U.S. environmentalists dead set against oil exploration, as well as by Colombian guerrillas who have been fighting the central government for 30 years.
"We feel as a company that we're caught in the middle," Mr. Meriage says.
Monday of U'wa week begins with a blur of preparations. In addition to the Rainforest Action Network, Project Underground, Amazon Watch and a half-dozen other groups are on the case. Protest planners liaise with local police; publicists rain faxes on journalists; tacticians plot strategy for the annual meeting; senior staff blast into Beverly Hills to brief benefactors.
Through it all, the U'wa doze, rousing only for the odd press call from New York and for a quick stroll on the beach with a San Francisco attorney who hopes to take their cause to court. For Mr. Nuniwa, 35, the beach walk is his first visit ever to the sea. He is familiar with the ocean from tribal lore, as the destination of his people's prayers, borne down the mountains by raging rivers.
He scoops up a handful of seawater and takes a sip.
"Salty," he says. "Our elders were right."
Later, the chiefs huddle with a Colombian adviser in the meditation room, drafting a response on laptop computer to the latest communication from Occidental. The company has just declined an U'wa request for a private meeting with Mr. Irani; now the chiefs fax him a warning that they will protect their territory -- "the heart of the world," the U'wa call it -- "so it will continue giving life to all, including you and your children."
At dinner, the U'wa hold hands during grace with two-dozen American activists around a long table of vegan salads and stews. (Only the chiefs are served meat.) Ancestors are invoked; the spirit of Terence Freitas is summoned by name.
Mr. Freitas was the 24-year-old confidant of the U'wa who popularized their cause among Western activists in recent years. He was murdered in March, along with two other Americans, by communist guerrillas near U'wa land in Colombia. The U'wa say Mr. Freitas, after his death, visited their shamans in their dreams, clutching a white snail shell, a symbol of purity and peacemaking. The shamans declared the apparition a god.
The Freitas murder adds a solemn backdrop to the week's events. At a meeting Tuesday to plan that night's welcoming ceremony for activists, Kelly Quirke of Rainforest Action Network says, "It's time to move from rage [at Occidental] to beauty and love." The U'wa chiefs agree; Mr. Kubaruwa says he'll sing a song at the ceremony about "Mother Ocean and her breath, the wind, which sweeps up our words to the gods." Can the audience sing along? asks Mr. Quirke. No, says the chief.
At the cookout and prayer circle that night, high in the Santa Monica mountains, the incantations are of love and peace and moving Occidental by moral force. A California Indian named Redstar, who visited the U'wa in Colombia last year, sprinkles tobacco on the ground, promising, "We're going to meet the ancestors here tonight." Mr. Kubaruwa sings his solo in the U'wa tongue, but reassures the circle that "the U'wa are here to sustain you."
Finally, a woman with flowers in her hair, strumming a guitar, sings her own song for the U'wa:
We don't need more oil,
We don't need more machines!
All we need is more love,
Love will wash us clean!
The next morning, veteran activist Mike Roselle, rattling around the kitchen in search of coffee, is still smarting from that one.
"Nobody has traveled in more VW vans, with more dogs on their laps, to hear more hairy-legged hippie singers than me," says the co-founder of the radical environmental group Earth First! "But I'm old, I'm cranky, and I don't have to listen to that 'love' stuff anymore. It doesn't work; it never did."
It is Wednesday, protest day. A rally for the U'wa at UCLA and the mile-long march to Occidental's headquarters run smoothly. But as the 200 or so chanting demonstrators descend on Occidental's front door, there's a problem: The company and the police are all too willing to let them occupy the building's main entrance indefinitely. Public access has been routed to a side door, secured by mounted police.
So the two dozen activists who've been planning to blockade the building regroup. They march around the corner, but are met by beefy riot police. With the protest waning, the demonstrators block Wilshire Boulevard, bringing traffic to a halt until they're finally led away to a police bus.
Across the street, the U'wa chiefs, protected by a ring of Native American "harmony keepers," are giving interviews. Mr. Nuniwa still clutches a small basket of white shells he had intended to give to Occidental as a peace offering. He's surprised the protest has lasted so long; in Colombia, he says, police would have beaten them up hours ago.
Mr. Kubaruwa, the other chief, is distraught -- and confused. "I feel pained that Occidental called the soldiers to take these good people away," he says. "Why don't they just finish us off for good, so we don't have to struggle?"
Friday -- annual-meeting day -- begins with another prayer circle, this one at dawn on the beach in Santa Monica. By midmorning, it's back to business. Many of the activists shed their beach clothes for suits and ties, skirts, even pearls.
They fan out across the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium parking lot, greeting Occidental shareholders with information kits about the U'wa. Nearby, dozens more campaigners hold a rally and news conference -- including Mr. Roselle, the grizzled Earth Firster, who happily reports, "no unbearable hippie music today." Plain-clothes security guards, with Occidental lapel pins and Secret Service-style earphones, circle the building.
Inside, Mr. Irani tells shareholders Occidental had a "difficult year" shifting assets from gas transmission to oil and gas production. Colombian operations, he says, should yield "strong earnings and cash flow well into the future." He makes no mention of Occidental's plan, disclosed in its annual report, to drill in the Samore block early next year.
The omission is quickly remedied. During the debate on shareholder proposals, the U'wa chiefs and their allies, the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters -- owners of 100 Occidental shares -- lambaste Mr. Irani and the other company directors, seated on stage beside him. The speeches are peppered with applause from the 1,000 or so shareholders in attendance, many of whom vent their own wrath at Mr. Irani during the meeting over Occidental's share price.
The chairman, growing visibly tense, tries to move the proceedings along. "Let's remember," Mr. Irani says after one long applause, "it's not one man, one vote. It's one share one vote."
Even so, he lets the U'wa chiefs expound at length on the "law of nature" that bars the tribe from ceding a single drop of oil, "the blood of the Earth," from their lands, the chiefs say.
In the end, the Dominican nuns' proposal to force Occidental to hire an outside firm to analyze the potential impact of the U'wa suicide threat on the company's stock price wins approval from holders of 13% of Occidental's shares -- exceeding its sponsor's expectations.
"We usually get 2% or 3% for stockholder proposals, and we rejoice for that!" says Sister June Wilkerson, a Sinsinawa Dominican nun who, in addition to corporate activism, runs a tattoo-removal project for former gang members in Illinois.
After the meeting, Mr. Irani and the other directors slip out a side door to waiting limousines, avoiding protesters on the other side of the building.
Mr. Meriage grumbles in the parking lot. "The U'wa use these activists very effectively," he says. He seems glad U'wa week is over.
As are the U'wa. When he gets home, says Mr. Nuniwa, he will shed his funny Western clothes and head straight to the medicine man for a cleansing ritual of ancient songs and native plants.
"Before I can enter my home to be with my family," he says, "I need to be decontaminated."