In Defense of Sacred Lands :

The Uwa People's Struggle Against Big Oil


by The Rain Forest Action Network

For thousands of years, the U’wa,  

a peaceful 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 balance.

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 traditional territory.

U'wa Spirituality

"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 all existence."

-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 Environment 


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 area. 


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

"We are seeking an explanation for this 'progress' that goes 

against life. We are demanding that his kind of progress stop, 

that oil exploitation in the heart of the Earth is halted, that the 

deliberate bleeding of the Earth stop."

-Statement 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 Secoya.

Occidental's 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 goes forward on 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 originally covered.

Since 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 traditionally occupied.

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 States.

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 environmental genocide. 


Under international 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 in Colombia.


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 ever. 

In 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.

Map of U'wa Territory and Occidental Concession


What You Can Do:

  1. Write to the Colombian Government. Urge President Andrés Pastrana to revoke Occidental Petroleum's permit to drill on the U'wa's traditional territory. 
  2. Write 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
        Occidental Petroleum
       10889 Wilshire Blvd.
        Los Angeles, CA 90024
        Fax: (310) 443-6922


      Honorable Presidente Andrés Pastrana
       c/o Colombian Embassy
       2118 Leroy Place, NW
       Washington, DC 20008
       Fax: (202) 387-0176



  1. Uwa: Una Aproximacion Real, Comite Defensa Bogota, 1997.
  2. U'wa Traditional Authority Public Communique, 1995.
  3. 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.
  4. Statement from the U'wa Traditional Authority, 1997.
  5. Reuters, "Guerrillas Bomb Pipeline," January 9, 1998.
  6. Project Underground, Blood of Our Mother: The U'wa People, Occidental Petroleum and the Colombian Oil Industry, 1998, p.13.
  7. Judith Kimerling, Amazon Crude, Natural Resource Defense Council, New York, 1991; FENANACO, RAN personal interviews, Peru; Tierra Consagrada, ONIC, Bogota, 1993.
  8. NACLA: Report on the Americas, "The U'wa Struggle to Survive," March/April 1998, p.45.
  9. Occidental Petroleum Corporation, "Being a Good Neighbor in Colombia," 1998.
  10. John Vidal, UK Guardian Weekly, "A Tribe's Suicide Pact," October 12, 1997.
  11. Testimony of Roberto Cobaría, October 11, 1997.
  12. Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, et al, Estudio Socioeconomico, Bogota, August 1996, p.5.
  13. Edgar Mendez, Presentation to James Neihaus of Occidental Petroleum, Los Angeles, May 5, 1997.
  14. Ann Osborn, "Mythology and Social Structure Among the U'wa of Colombia," Ph.D. Thesis, University of Oxford, England, 1982, p.17.
  15. Project Underground, Blood of Our Mother: The U'wa People, Occidental Petroleum and the Colombian Oil Industry, 1998, p.7.

  January 2001

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 Gomez Aruza

This article is reprinted by Permission 

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