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The BBC's Tom Carver
"Environmentalists accuse Al Gore of a major conflict of interest"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 14 March, 2000, 19:36 GMT
Tiny tribe thorn in Gore's side
U'wa people: Trying to defend sacred land
U'wa people: Trying to defend sacred land
By Tom Carver in Washington

US presidential candidate Al Gore has carefully cultivated his image as an environmentalist.

But now he is under fire over his close links to the oil company, Occidental Petroleum, which has begun looking for oil in the Amazon against the wishes of a tiny local tribe called the U'wa.

The tribe is threatening to commit mass suicide if the drilling goes ahead.

The U'wa tribe is trying to stop Occidental Petroleum, from drilling on its sacred land.

With help of authorities, Occidental moves in
With help of authorities, Occidental moves in
But Occidental is undeterred. It has started moving its heavy equipment in, backed by the Colombian Government.

Last year, three American environmental activists were killed by guerrillas while trying to defend the U'wa. They included Terence Freitas.

During an interview in March 1998, he explained what was at stake for the U'wa people.

Terence Freitas: Struggle for
Terence Freitas: Struggle for "life or death"
"The struggle now is simply life or death," he explained at the time.

"It's not whether they will lose 100 hectares or 10 hectares. It's whether or not the blood of Mother Earth or the U'wa is going to be taken out from under their territory and used in a way that they feel is wrong."

Gore reputation at stake

This dispute is threatening Al Gore's reputation as an environmentalist.

He has close ties and a large financial stake in Occidental Petroleum, despite its poor environmental image.

The one company that has helped make him financially whole and has helped him politically is Occidental Petroleum

Charles Lewis, Center for Public Integrity
His father, Al Gore senior, was on Occidental's board for three decades.

As vice president of the United States, his son helped the company win drilling concessions.

Charles Lewis, of the Center for Public Integrity, has examined the ties between Al Gore and Occidental.

"We have looked at the records for 25 years around Al Gore," he says.

Al Gore senior:  Occidental board member
Al Gore senior: Occidental board member
"We've followed every penny he has ever received and I'm telling you that the company he is beholden to, the one company that has helped make him financially whole and has helped him politically is Occidental Petroleum."

Environmentalists accuse Mr Gore of a major conflict of interest. Al Gore refuses even to speak about the U'wa's plight.

Colombia needs oil

Some say that without oil, Colombia would not be able to survive.

According to Lowell Fleischer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, money from companies like Occidental provide much needed foreign earnings.

Al Gore: Reputation as environmentalist on the line
Al Gore: Reputation as environmentalist on the line
"It's going to take more than money to solve all of Colombia's problems, but without the money they can't go forward at all," he says.

"Oil is extremely important to the Colombian economy and I think without it they would be in very serious difficulties."

The US Government is pouring troops and equipment into Colombia to help the fight against drugs and guerrillas.

It is a controversial policy, now complicated even further by Al Gore's financial dealings.

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