For thousands of years, the U’wa,
indigenous community of 5,000 people, have lived in the cloudforests of
northeast Colombia, protecting their land and culture from outside
encroachment. Now the invasion of their territory by U.S. oil company
Occidental and the U.S.-backed Colombian military is putting the survival
of the U’wa culture and their ancestral homelands in jeopardy.
Since November of 1999 the U'wa have engaged in mass peaceful
protest, blockading oil exploration and mobilizing to protect their land
and way of life despite government violence that has killed three and
injured dozens. The U'wa's inspiring resistance to global fossil fuel
addiction and corporate greed has galvanized a solidarity movement around
the world. Actions against Occidental, its biggest shareholders Fidelity
Investments and Sanford Bernstein, and U.S. military aid to Colombia have
spread to over 20 countries. The future of the U'wa people and other
traditional indigenous communities around the world is hanging in the
The U'wa are an indigenous community of 5,0001
that has lived in the cloudforests of the Colombian Andes for thousands of
years. At the heart of their culture is the belief that the land which has
sustained them for centuries is sacred, and that they exist to protect
that land. Today, the U'wa and their sacred land are threatened by a
United States oil company set to drill for oil on the U'wa's sacred
territory —a project that is slated to begin at any time.
The U'wa's opposition to the oil project is so strong that they
have vowed to commit collective suicide if the project goes forward,
believing that it would be better to die by their own hands than to watch
the destruction of their culture and their homeland.2
Despite this, the Colombian government and Los Angeles-based Occidental
Petroleum are moving forward with plans to drill for oil on the U'wa's
"We will in no way
sell our Mother Earth, to do so would be
to give up our work of
collaborating with the spirits to protect
the heart of the world,
which sustains and gives life to the
rest of the universe,
it would be to go against our own
origins and those of
-Statement from the U'wa People, August 10, 1998
The strong spiritual
beliefs at the core of the U'wa culture are inextricably linked to their
opposition to oil development on their land. The U'wa believe that there
are two worlds, one the physical world that we live in, and the other a
parallel world that sustains spiritual life. The two worlds balance and
sustain each other, and any action taken in either world can upset the
balance between these two worlds. The U'wa believe that their purpose and
responsibility on the Earth is to maintain this balance and thus to
"protect and continue life."3
This belief shapes their daily life and almost every aspect of how they
interact with the world. The U'wa also believe that oil, or ruiria, is the
blood of Mother Earth, the veins of the land. Removing the oil from the
land is to them the equivalent of bleeding the Earth dry. In the words of
the U'wa, "Oil is the blood of Mother Earth. . . to take the oil is,
for us, worse than killing your own mother. If you kill the Earth, then no
one will live."4
Oil and the
The U'wa have
witnessed the devastating impacts of oil projects near their homeland in
Colombia and fear that an oil project on their territory would destroy the
land that they hold sacred. Occidental's Caño Limon pipeline, which runs
just north of the U'wa's territory, has spilled an estimated 1.7 million
barrels of crude oil into nearby soil, rivers, and lakes since it was
completed in 1986. A study of the lakes near Occidental's Caño Limon production facilities
found pollution levels equivalent to the dumping of 5.5 barrels of crude
oil per day into the region's lakes.
In addition to pollution, oil projects inevitably lead to deforestation,
both directly, because forests are cleared for oil exploration and
production, and indirectly, because road systems created by the oil
projects open new arteries into forests which result in colonization of
The U'wa's homeland in Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Cocuy mountains is one
of the most delicate, endangered forest ecosystems on the planet. It is
situated at the headwaters of the Orinoco river basin, which flows through
sensitive cloudforest and rainforest ecosystems and other indigenous
homelands on its way to the sea. The region is also home to numerous rare
and endangered species of plants and animals. As such, Occidental's oil
project poses a grave threat to the health and long-term survival of the
ecosystem. Similar projects have left their mark on ecosystems throughout
South America, including the toxic pollution of air, soil, and water,
massive deforestation, and a changing climate.
Oil's Violent Path
are seeking an explanation for this 'progress' that goes
life. We are demanding that his kind of progress stop,
exploitation in the heart of the Earth is halted, that the
bleeding of the Earth stop."
of the U'wa People, August 8, 1998
In addition to the
environmental damage that oil would bring to their land, the U'wa have
another, more urgent reason to oppose Occidental's oil project: violence.
Throughout Colombia, oil and violence are closely linked. Colombia's
left-wing guerrilla groups view oil industry installations as strategic
targets in a three decade war between guerrilla factions and the
government. In response, the government has militarized oil production and
pipeline zones, making oil industry installations ground zero in
Colombia's ongoing civil war. Oil projects have already taken their toll
on many indigenous peoples of Colombia, including the Yarique, Kofan, and
Caño Limon oil pipeline in Arauca is a vivid example of the connection
between oil and violence in Colombia. Once a peaceful and
sparsely-populated area, the region has been torn apart by violence since
the construction of the pipeline. The pipeline itself has been attacked by
guerillas more than 500 times in its 12 years of existence.
Government records for 1996 show that in addition to the bombings there
were 38 assassinations, 18 massacres, 31 incidents of torture, 44
kidnappings, 151 illegal detentions, 2,360 incidents of harassment, and
150 displacements of people in the region.10
The violence of Colombia's oil war has already begun to spread to
the heart of the U'wa community. In 1997, Roberto Cobaría, the U'wa's
elected leader at the time, was pulled from his bed in the middle of the
night by a group of hooded men with rifles. The assailants beat Cobaría
and threatened to kill him when he refused to sign an "authorization
form."11 Several other U'wa
leaders have also received death threats.
In March of this year, three American activists and supporters of
the U'wa were murdered in Arauca by a leftist guerilla group. One of the
activists, Terence Freitas, was the coordinator of the U'wa Defense
Working Group and had devoted the last two years of his life to supporting
the U'wa in their campaign to halt Occidental's oil project on their land.
The U'wa fear that these murders and the assault on Roberto Cobaría are a
harbinger of things to come if an oil project
their land .
Reclaiming Sacred Lands
For the U'wa, halting
Occidental's oil project is part of a larger struggle to reclaim and
protect their traditional territory and culture. The U'wa were once a
tribe of some 20,000 with a territory that stretched from Southern
Venezuela deep into northeastern Colombia, encompassing more than three
million acres. Over the years, the Colombian government seized eighty-five percent of the
U'wa's traditional territory, giving the land title to colonizers and
ceding control to the church.As a result, prior to
this year the Colombian government officially recognized only 247,700
acres of U'wa territory-ten percent of the area the U'wa's territory
1993 the U'wa have been actively working to reunite several scattered U'wa
communities into one larger territory, known as the Unified Reserve, or
Resguardo Unificado. This August, the Colombian government finally granted
the U'wa legal title to the 543,000 acre Resguardo Unificado. Although the
U'wa view this as an important victory-it is the first time in 500 years
that the U'wa have gained rather than lost land-the Resguardo Unificado
covers less than twenty percent of the full territory that the U'wa have
Occidental Petroleum and the Colombian Government
In April of 1992,
Occidental Petroleum-the company responsible for the "Love
Canal" toxic waste disaster of the 1970's-signed a contract with the
Colombian government for oil exploration on the U'wa's traditional
territory. Occidental estimates that the region, known to the oil industry
as the Samoré Block, contains approximately 1.5 billion barrels of
oil-the equivalent of only three months worth of oil for the United
Despite the U'wa's vow
to commit collective suicide if the project goes forward against their
will, the Colombian Ministry of the Environment approved Occidental's
drilling license for the project in September, giving Occidental the go
ahead to begin drilling its first well site on the U'wa's traditional
land. The drill site, called Gibraltar 1, is located just 500 meters from
the Resguardo Unificado and clearly falls within the U'wa's traditional
territory. The U'wa have denounced this decision as cultural and
and Colombian law, indigenous peoples must be consulted regarding oil
projects on their traditional lands. However, with its drilling license
already approved, Occidental continues to claim that it has no plans to
drill for oil on U'wa territory. Occidental's claims are based on the
narrowest possible definition of U'wa territory, which includes only the
Resguardo Unificado and fails to recognize the U'wa's larger traditional
territory (see map). At a government ceremony intended to celebrate the
creation of the Resguardo Unificado, the U'wa restated their desire to
keep all of their traditional lands free from oil projects, not just the
sections that have been legally deeded to them.
The Role of the United States
Under pressure from
the United States and international financial institutions, the Colombian
government has turned to increased oil production to pay international
debts. Colombia is now the fourth-largest and fastest-growing exporter of
oil in South America.15 A program of debt
forgiveness-preferably in the form of a recognition of the ecological debt
owed by the North to the South-would alleviate the pressure on Colombia to
increase oil exploration to pay debts, and would in turn lessen the
devastating impacts that this increased oil presence has had on the ground
The United States
imports some 260,000 barrels of oil a day from Colombia, making it the top
consumer of Colombian oil. Our national thirst for oil comes at a high
price: expanding petroleum exploration is altering our climate,
endangering fragile ecosystems, and threatening indigenous peoples
worldwide. A coalition of over two hundred top non-government
organizations from fifty countries is calling for a moratorium on all new
exploration for fossil fuels in pristine and frontier areas, and
investments in clean, safe, and renewable forms of energy. Yet despite the
obvious threats posed by continued oil consumption and exploration, the
United States continues to be one of the world's largest consumers of oil
and has failed to seriously pursue renewable energy sources.
Resolution for the U'wa
The U'wa's campaign to protect their land and people from an
unwanted oil project has been steadily gaining momentum and international
support. In 1997, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the
U'wa's petition to nullify the first environmental license for the
project, but the decision was later overturned by the Colombian Council of
State. Also in 1997, the Organization of American States (OAS) issued a
series of recommendations for resolution to the conflict, many which
advocated positive steps to be taken in favor of the U'wa, including
"an immediate and unconditional suspension" of oil activities in
the Samoré Block-a recommendation which Occidental remains in violation
of two years later.
In 1998, Occidental's original partner in the Samoré Block,
Royal Dutch/Shell, pulled out of the project, noting that it didn't want
"another Nigeria"-a reference to Shell's involvement in the
execution of anti-oil activists by the Nigerian government in 1995. At
Occidental's 1999 Annual General Meeting, thirteen percent of Occidental
Petroleum shareholders-representing over forty million shares and eight
hundred million dollars worth of Occidental stock-voted in favor of a
resolution asking Occidental to study the risks associated with the
project. And in March 2000, a Colombian court ruled that drilling at the
Gibraltar 1 well site would violate the "fundamental rights' of the
U'wa people, and issued an injunction temporarily halting Occidental's
work at the site. The ruling was later revoked by the Superior Court of
Colombia, giving Occidental a green light to proceed with the project.
The situation for the U'wa is more urgent than
November of 2000, Occidental began exploratory drilling, building roads
and moving equipment onto U'wa territory, putting at grave and immediate
risk the lives of the U'wa people. The Colombian military has forcibly
removed hundreds of U'wa people from the Gibraltar 1 well site, which the
U'wa had been peacefully occupying in a last ditch effort to prevent
drilling. In February 2000 and again in June, Colombian police brutally
attacked peaceful U'wa protesters in the region surrounding the well site.
Three children died as a result of the attacks, and at least twenty-eight
people have been injured. The U'wa remain strong in their determination to
protect their culture and sacred homelands, but they need your help. At
stake are the U'wa's most basic rights-control over their own development,
a healthy environment, religious freedom, and cultural survival. Please
write to the Colombian government and Occidental Petroleum today. For the
U'wa, it is truly a matter of life or death.
What You Can Do:
to the Colombian Government.
Urge President Andrés
Pastrana to revoke Occidental Petroleum's permit to drill on the
U'wa's traditional territory.
to Occidental Petroleum. Urge President and CEO Dr. Ray Irani to
respect the U'wa's rights and cancel the oil project proposed for the
U'wa's traditional territory.
Dr. Ray Irani, President & CEO
10889 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Fax: (310) 443-6922
Presidente Andrés Pastrana
c/o Colombian Embassy
2118 Leroy Place, NW
Washington, DC 20008
Fax: (202) 387-0176
- Uwa: Una Aproximacion
Real, Comite Defensa Bogota, 1997.
- U'wa Traditional
Authority Public Communique, 1995.
- Ann Osborn, interviewed
in the UK Guardian Weekly, "A Tribe's Suicide Pact," October
12, 1997. Ann Osborn was an Oxford University anthropologist who lived
with the U'wa for more than ten years.
- Statement from the U'wa
Traditional Authority, 1997.
"Guerrillas Bomb Pipeline," January 9, 1998.
- Project Underground,
Blood of Our Mother: The U'wa People, Occidental Petroleum and the
Colombian Oil Industry, 1998, p.13.
- Judith Kimerling, Amazon
Crude, Natural Resource Defense Council, New York, 1991; FENANACO, RAN
personal interviews, Peru; Tierra Consagrada, ONIC, Bogota, 1993.
- NACLA: Report on the
Americas, "The U'wa Struggle to Survive," March/April 1998,
- Occidental Petroleum
Corporation, "Being a Good Neighbor in Colombia," 1998.
- John Vidal, UK Guardian
Weekly, "A Tribe's Suicide Pact," October 12, 1997.
- Testimony of Roberto
Cobaría, October 11, 1997.
- Pontificia Universidad
Javeriana, et al, Estudio Socioeconomico, Bogota, August 1996, p.5.
- Edgar Mendez,
Presentation to James Neihaus of Occidental Petroleum, Los Angeles,
May 5, 1997.
- Ann Osborn,
"Mythology and Social Structure Among the U'wa of Colombia,"
Ph.D. Thesis, University of Oxford, England, 1982, p.17.
- Project Underground,
Blood of Our Mother: The U'wa People, Occidental Petroleum and the
Colombian Oil Industry, 1998, p.7.
The U'wa Defense
Working Group is working to publicize the U'wa struggle and mobilize
international support by organizing institutions and people in defense of
the U'wa. Formed in July of 1997, the U'wa Defense Working Group is
supported by a coalition of environmental and human rights groups
including: Action Resource Center, Amazon Watch, Center for Justice and
International Law, Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and Their Environment,
Colombian Human Rights Watch, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, Project
Underground, Rainforest Action Network, and SOL Communications.
Photos by Carlos
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