Who doesn’t love a story of reform and redemption? And what a story it would be if LA-based Occidental Petroleum — after causing so much death and destruction in Colombia — could have really changed enough to merit the nomination the company received a year ago. The US Embassy in Bogotá recommended Oxy for the Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence. This prestigious designation, in the State Department’s words, “sends a strong signal of the Department’s commitment to further corporate social responsibility, innovation, exemplary practices, and democratic values worldwide.”
Oxy? You gotta be kidding! But then I read the corporation had started initiatives to work with communities and community organizations in Arauca, Colombia to improve relations for the benefit of all. What a difference for the corporation that’s been accused of complicity in disappearances, killings, and even sued in US court in connection with the massacre of civilians in the village of Santo Domingo. I thought of all the times I’d demonstrated in front of corporate headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard. But that was apparently all in the past.
The extraction of oil and gas has been profitable. While the rest of the world suffered with the economic downturn, Oxy’s annual report for 2008 showed the last quarter’s net profit, production, and sales from Colombian operations at a 5-year high. (Profitability is helped by the fact that US taxpayers — rather than Oxy — foot the bill for military assistance to protect corporate pipelines from sabotage by FARC and ELN guerrillas.) And if the Embassy got it right, maybe these days, success for Oxy means better times for all.
Then, last week, I started getting emails from Colombia. Arauca is one of the most dangerous places in the world to do business and it recently became even more dangerous for Oxy’s workers when the FARC declared the roads closed. Public transport all but ceased but Oxy’s laborers have been required to ignore the threats and report for work or face dismissal. In a country where most people live in poverty and only one-quarter of the population has secure employment, losing a job can be as dire a prospect as guerrilla violence.
To keep the oil and profits flowing, the Colombian army offered armed escorts to caravans of workers, but these are a prime target given that the oil industry is a main focus for guerrilla sabotage. The caravans have come under repeated attack resulting in deaths and injuries in a scary reprise of 2002 when workers were shot dead for obeying Oxy when the FARC guerrillas ordered a stop to movement on the roads. The union representing oil workers, the USO (Unión Sindical Obrera), wants job protection—not military protection–for workers who refuse to risk ambush and death and points out that military commanders and Oxy’s management team in Colombia travel by helicopter. It’s only the ordinary workers and soldiers who risk their lives on roads which are now a war zone. (As for Oxy’s CEO, Ray R. Irani, the only danger he’s faced has been the wrath of shareholders when word got out of his $77.6 million compensation package in 2007.)
I don’t want to minimize how difficult it must be to operate a business and make decisions in the midst of armed conflict. But Occidental Petroleum must decide whether to put the higher value on profit or on human life while the rest of us, as consumers of gas and oil, need to ask once more about the cost of our energy as measured in other people’s blood.
P.S. Oxy made the short list for the Award for Corporate Excellence, but wasn’t chosen. I guess I wasn’t the only one to think you gotta be kidding. ¡Ni en broma!
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