On the Fence
Human rights or big oil for Al Gore?
By Matthew Knoester
The League of Conservation Voters recently ranked Al Gore "the most knowledgeable" presidential candidate on environmental issues. But the same man who called car exhaust a "mortal threat to the security of every nation" in his best-selling book Earth in the Balance is now under fire from a coalition of environmental and human rights groups for his questionable ties to Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp.
Gore's cozy relationship with Occidental comes from his father, Al Gore Sr., who became a board member and vice president of the company after he lost his Senate seat in 1970. When his father died in 1998, the younger Gore inherited nearly half a million dollars in stock. Occidental CEO Ray Irani also gave the Democratic Party $100,000 two days after spending a night in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Gore's ties to Occidental were called into question last year when the company pushed to drill on the traditional lands of the U'wa, an indigenous group in northeastern Colombia. Occidental's drilling just west of U'wa territory has become a center of military, paramilitary and guerrilla infighting. The U'wa claim the oil project would bring Colombia's civil war to their region.
The environmental consequences of drilling are well known. The Colombian Institute of Natural Resources charges that, because of Occidental's drilling at Cano Limon, another Colombian site, "rivers and lakes are no longer fit for human consumption." Other direct environmental impacts include deforestation, air pollution, soil erosion and disturbance of wildlife habitat.
The U'wa made international headlines in 1996 when leaders vowed to commit mass suicide if the Colombian government allowed Occidental to drill. "We are willing to give our lives to defend Mother Earth from this project, which will annihilate our culture, destroy nature and upset the world's equilibrium," said Roberto Perez, president of the U'wa Tribal Council.
Despite the U'wa's desperation, in 1999 Occidental placed their first exploratory drill a quarter mile outside the tribe's reservation, but well within their larger ancestral lands. In response, the U'wa council bought the land. But Occidental persisted last fall and acquired a special permit to drill, signed by Colombia's Environment Minister Juan Mayr.
In November, after 200 U'wa set up an encampment on the drilling site, 5,000 Colombian soldiers were deployed to surround them. On January 24, they forcibly removed the protesters--three are now missing. A few days later, Daniel Jordan--a notary public who assisted the U'wa in claiming legal title to their land--was found dead. On February 11, 450 U'wa blocking a supply road were driven away by the Colombian national police using bulldozers and tear gas. Three children drowned when their mothers fled into the Cubojon River and 15 are missing.
All of this comes at a critical time for both the Colombian government and Gore. Colombian President Andres Pastrana met with President Clinton on January 24 to ask for $1.6 billion in U.S. aid; 80 percent of that money is earmarked for the Colombian military.
Gore alone cannot save Colombia from its turmoil. Perhaps he cannot even stop the huge amount of aid to the Colombian military. But he has been presented with an opportunity to show where he stands when push comes to shove: human rights or big oil? As vice president and a major shareholder in Occidental, Gore could stop the drilling and protect U'wa land with one phone call.
But Gore has done nothing. Last fall, Brett Hulsley, executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote to Gore about the U'wa situation. Gore has not responded. On February 3, eight demonstrators were arrested and dragged out of Gore's Manchester, New Hampshire, headquarters after demanding a meeting about the U'wa dispute. "Gore can make the difference," says Atossa Soltani of Amazon Watch. "He can save the U'wa and avert a public relations disaster for himself by intervening now."