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Al Gore The Prospector?

One of America's most supportive environmentalists, United States Vice-President Al Gore, is being accused of hypocrisy by conservationists following discoveries that he owns shares in an oil company prospecting in a Columbian rainforest. John Howard reports.

Al Gore has been targeting the environmental and human rights vote as part of his presidential election campaign and was last week rated "the most knowledgeable" presidential candidate on green issues by the influential League of Conservation voters. He has also written books about saving the environment and has been outspoken in International forums.

But a spokesman for the U'wa indigenous tribe in north east Columbia says Mr Gore is inextricably linked with Occidental Petroleum, the US oil group which plans to start drilling on its ancestral rainforest lands in the next few months.

According to Mr Gore's official Public Financial Disclosure Report, the vice-president owns between $250,000 and $500,000 in Occidental stock. His father, Al Gore Snr., became a director of Occidental Petroleum after losing his Senate seat in 1970.

The Centre for Public Integrity, a non-profit group who reports on ethics in politics, says the Occidental chief executive has also made a $100,000 donation to the Democratic National Committee following a stay in the Lincoln Room of the White House.

Neither the White House nor Mr Gore's campaign team has so-far responded to media requests for comment.

The U'wa tribe, who number 5,000, first hit the headlines in 1996 when they threatened to commit collective suicide if Occidental's drilling plans were not halted.

Occidental's drill site falls just 600 metres outside the legally recognised U'wa Unified Reserve but the tribe says it is still within their ancestral territory.

Occidental said earlier this month that it planned to start building roads to the test site at the end of January and would sink its first well at the site in May.

Ken Hufmann, Occidental's vice-president of investor relations, refused to comment on Mr Gore's stock holding in the company or about any political donations the company has made.

He would only say, "We're moving ahead with plans to drill the well but I have no specific dates."

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