Sat, Oct 14, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Colombian Indians march to stop oil exploration

RIGHTS VERSUS ECONOMY The protesters laid a plaque to commemorate the destruction of one of their villages in a contested region of the country's oil-rich hinterland


Chieftain Atriybuanina, 55, leads fellow Motilon Bari in a chant in Tibu, Colombia, on Thursday, demanding that the state-owned oil Ecopetrol stop exploratory drilling on land adjacent to the indigenous reserve.


Hundreds of Bari Indians, most clad in loincloths and carrying bows and arrows, came down from the hills on Thursday in the hunter-gatherer group's first march ever to demand that the state-owned oil company stop drilling on sacred land abutting their reservation.

The 700 protesters held a rally in this town in one of Colombia's most war-ravaged regions on Columbus Day -- commemorated as Dia de la Raza or "Indigenous People's Day" in much of Latin America -- to remind the world that they have been decimated and forced into isolation by oil-drilling.

"Don't forget that this is our territory," a one-named Bari chieftain, 55-year-old Atrigbuanina, intoned as the Indians laid a plaque in front of Tibu's heavily fortified police station. "Why is the Colombian state not respecting our rights?"

Ecopetrol is racing against the clock to find new oil deposits so Colombia can avoid losing self-sufficiency in petroleum by 2011. It recently said it wants to sell a 20 percent share to a foreign investor to help spur exploration.

But the Indians demand exploratory drilling be halted. They had hoped for a meeting in Tibu with a government delegation, but authorities canceled abruptly, concerned the march had been infiltrated by leftist rebels.

State government and local military and police leaders attended the assembly nonetheless.

The Bari chose Oct. 12, the date that commemorates Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the Americas, because it's the date Indian rights groups consider the start of a genocide against their peoples.

Activists marked the day in Bolivia, Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic with events promoting a variety of causes.

The plaque laid by the Bari in Tibu commemorates the 1932 destruction of a Bari settlement there. The town is surrounded by some of Colombia's richest oil and coal reserves -- and extensive illegal coca cultivation -- and borders Venezuela.

"Fuera Ecopetrol" (Ecopetrol out) the Indians chanted as they marched down Tibu's main street carrying banners and thrusting their bows and arrows into the air. Naked children marched with their elders, and some of the women wore only skirts.

Deputy Interior Minister Maria Isabel Nieto said on Thursday that military intelligence indicated members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were accompanying the Bari, and that government and Ecopetrol officials had to leave the area.

But state and local officials, as well as human rights groups and UN representatives, were present for the peaceful march, and there was no evidence of outlawed armed groups.

Javier Marin, an activist with the Minga human rights group, said the claim of guerrilla involvement was an excuse to avoid talks.

"They're capable of negotiating with criminals but not with Indian communities," he said, referring to a 2004 peace agreement with right-wing militias, made up mostly of landowners.

Some 30,000 have officially demobilized, but many have re-armed and now work closely with the police and military.

The Bari want Ecopetrol to halt drilling and planned seismic probes in an area where -- although outside their reserve -- they pay tribute to the environment, holding noncompetitive marathons of 30km to 40km.

The Bari's religion involves "paying tributes to nature for providing air, water, fish and other elements that allow people to live," said Ashcayra Arabadora, 27, a member of the Bari's ruling council.

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