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Legal Avenues Fail in Fight Against Oil Prospectors

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An audience attending a lecture arranged by Miami Law's International Graduate Law Programs was treated last week to a riveting account of the plight of the U'wa, an indigenous people in Colombia, and their fight against the extraction of oil from their land.

The speaker was Pablo Rueda, who, as part of the IGLP's International Law Lecture Series, presented excerpts from his dissertation, "Shifting from the Law to the Market: Multi-Institutional Transnational Mobilization in the Campaign of the U'wa People in Colombia (1995-2005)."

Rueda – who holds a Ph.D. in Jurisprudence and Social Policy from the University of California at Berkeley – used the U'wa case to help explain how the interaction between the state, the law and the market influence the tactics and activism of indigenous populations.

The U'wa, who live on the northeastern slopes of Colombia's Andes mountains, are comprised of six different clans in 17 towns. Despite speaking three distinct languages, the U'wa share their myth of origin, their chants and their ceremonies. "They believe that their land is a microcosm, and anything that happens in their land will have repercussions in the rest of the world," Rueda said. "They also believe that Earth is a living being, and that oil is its blood."

Extracting oil from their land, the U'wa believe, will end in disaster. They see themselves as guardians of the planet, and believe they must protect their land from transnational companies bent on plunder.

In his research, Rueda examined three stages in the U'wa resistance to the exploration and extraction efforts of Occidental Petroleum Corporation. The initial strategy was to use domestic legal channels to block Occidental – which refers to itself more colloquially as Oxy. The second stage saw their legal efforts expand to the international stage. Lastly, Rueda explored U'wa tactics such as boycotts, divestment campaigns and the targeting of the company's brands and shareholders. The idea was to persuade the company's management to compromise and abandon the exploration efforts – a goal that was ultimately achieved.

Some tactics failed, however. When the U'wa brought a claim before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, Occidental conceived a counter strategy, effectively framing the U'wa's claims not in human rights or environmental terms but as private issues, beyond the commission's jurisdiction.

When the U'wa and their international supporters "decided to go right to the belly of the beast and to confront the oil companies directly," using market-based tactics, they had to be creative, Rueda explained, because Oxy lacked a public face. There were no gas stations or brands with the Oxy label, which the U'wa could have assailed in a public-relations and marketing campaign.

But U'wa's plan to target shareholders, under which they bought shares in the company so that they could speak at annual meetings, brought results. They were able to persuade Oxy's single largest corporate shareholder, Fidelity Investments, to divest itself of its $400 million stake in the company.

Ultimately, Oxy decided to abandon its exploration of U'wa land, although the company claimed it was "due to business reasons," Rueda said.

Where legal strategies have failed in such efforts to drive transnational companies from indigenous lands, Rueda's research suggests that market-based efforts may be more successful.