Partner or Pariah
Public Perceptions and Responses to
the Extractive Industries
Christopher H. Chamberlain
On April 14, 1998, millions of readers of the New York Times turned to an unusual advertisement among the typical pitches for lingerie and airfare deals. An “Investor's Advisory Concerning a Controversial Oil Project in the Colombian Amazon, ” the ad read: “Why Occidental's oil project is a death sentence for the U'wa. ” The full-page ad explained that Colombia's indigenous U'wa people were threatening to commit mass suicide, repeating a legendary U'wa action in the face of seventeenth-century colonialism, if Occidental Petroleum Company proceeded with a major drilling project on U'wa lands. “Consider what will actually happen if Occidental and its partners push forward against the will of the U'wa, ” the ad warned. “The U'wa have a simple request: the right to say no. ” Beneath, a photo of a forlorn U'wa girl in the ad makes its message clear: Potential investors beware.
This poignant appeal for the life and land of an indigenous culture undoubtedly shocked many of the Times's readers. But the struggle of the U'wa is hardly uncommon. In recent years, the extractive industries—mining, oil and gas, and timber harvesting—have come under increasing attack as their impacts on the environment and local communities are more widely understood. Affected peoples, environmental pressure groups, labor movements, consumers, and socially conscious investors have all devised sophisticated strategies— and often formed intensive partnerships, as in the case of the U'wa—to reform or halt the destructive impacts of the extractive industries.
Besieged by political pressure, financial hardship, and legal exposure, the extractive industries have been deeply affected by the public