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Colombian court blocks Occidental from drilling on Indian territory

February 4, 1997

CUBARA, Colombia (AP) _ In a major defeat for big oil Monday, Colombia’s highest court upheld a petition by a native group blocking Occidental Petroleum from exploiting a field believed worth billions of dollars.

Leaders of the U’wa tribe, which numbers about 8,000 people, had threatened mass suicide if the court ruled in favor of the U.S. oil company.

The Constitutional Court in the capital, Bogota, ruled 5-4 that a Colombian subsidiary of Bakersfield, Calif.-based Occidental could not drill on territory the U’wa tribe considers its own.

It was not clear whether the decision left open the possibility Occidental might still one day win the right to drill on the Samore field, which lies in a remote region just outside the U’wa’s legal reserve.

Tribal leaders began descending Monday from the Sierra Nevada Cocuy mountains 200 miles northeast of Bogota to this and neighboring towns to discuss the court decision. A meeting of tribal elders was scheduled for Tuesday.

The U’wa Indians consider oil the ``blood of mother earth″ and say drilling will destroy their culture. They had refused repeated efforts by Occidental to make a deal.

``What is sacred we don’t sell or negotiate,″ said Ebaristo Tegria, an U’wa lawyer.

Robert Stewart, Occidental’s manager of corporate affairs, said he knew of no legal precedent for such a decision.

He said the field could be one of the largest in the hemisphere. Seismic tests indicated the field could hold between 1 billion and 2.5 billion barrels.

``We wouldn’t have gone through all of this if we didn’t think the field was worth it,″ said Stewart.

If initial projections had proven correct, the Samore field would have yielded billions of dollars for the company and the Colombian government, which receives 80 percent of the profits.

Occidental had invested about $12 million doing seismic tests.

Last year, oil surpassed coffee as Colombia’s chief export. The country produces an average of about 625,000 barrels of oil a day.

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