Occidental Petroleum Corp began drilling a long-delayed test well yesterday in a potentially oil-rich corner of Colombia, where U'wa Indians have threatened mass suicide to defend what they claim as ancestral lands.
The $40 million, 14,300-foot (4,360 meter) Gibraltar-1 test well in northeast
Norte de Santander province had been scheduled to be sunk in the first half of the year.
But drilling was repeatedly postponed because of legal challenges from U'wa
leaders, Marxist rebel attacks and bad weather.
A statement from the Mines and Energy Ministry and state oil company Ecopetrol
said drilling in the so-called Samore block finally got under way early yesterday.
The block has been billed as the country's biggest oil prospect and is thought
to hold reserves of about 2 billion barrels, according to officials at U.S.-based Occidental.
The government statement, which said results from the test were expected "in
the coming months," referred to potential reserves of 1.4 billion barrels of
crude. Occidental has said it will take about seven months to complete the well.
The field could ensure supplies of oil, Colombia's leading source of export
revenues, well into the next decade.
Leaders of the 7,000-member U'wa community have insisted repeatedly that the
Gibraltar well site encroached on tribal lands that belonged to their semi-nomadic forebears.
But Occidental, backed by the Colombian government, maintains the well site is
located just outside the legal limits of an U'wa reservation.
In the past, the U'was, who view oil as "the lifeblood of Mother Earth," have
threatened to commit collective suicide by jumping off a cliff if the Samore
project proceeded.
Tribal leaders could not be reached for immediate comment on their losing
battle with the U.S. oil giant. But they have received strong backing from U.S.-based environmental groups in their struggle against the company, which dates back to 1992.
Environmentalists even used the U.S. presidential election campaign to
publicize the U'wa land dispute, criticizing Democrat Al Gore for owning family
shares in Occidental.
Leftist guerrillas, who operate in the area around the U'wa reservation, oppose
foreign involvement in the oil industry and have repeatedly attacked construction and engineering equipment being moved into the Gibraltar well site.
Colombia is currently producing about 653,000 barrels of crude per day and
exported $3.4 billion of oil in the first nine months of the year.
But proven reserves, which stand at about 2.3 billion barrels, are dwindling
and the country could become a net importer of oil again by 2005 if no major new finds are made.