Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


The U'wa struggle and the recent murders of three indigenous rights activists
Statement of the U'wa people in Colombia

LISN - Uniting Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere

Rainforest action Natwork

U'wa Defence Project

Genocide in Colombia

"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."
"They put their guns to my head and demanded that I sign the agreement or lose my life. I said, kill me, kill me now. I cannot sign anything away for my tribe." - Roberto Cobaría, President of the Traditional U'wa Authority (July, 1997)
United States blamed for deaths of human rights activists

Colombia: Three Human Rights Activists Kidnapped and Slain

Amnesty International report blames FARC for killings

The three indigenous human rights activists murdered in Colombia

The California based Occidental Petroleum is planning to drill for oil in the traditional territory of the U'wa, an indigenous community of 5,000 people living in the cloud forests of the Colombian Andes Orinoco basin. The Traditional U'wa Authority are unanimously opposed to mining on land they consider sacred. If Occidental proceeds with development, the U'wa are threatening to collectively leap from a 1,400 foot cliff in the Andes mountains.

Occidental's oil development plans threaten the physical and spiritual worlds of the U'wa, bringing roads, more colonists, and violent conflict into U'wa territory. Colombia's largest left-wing guerrilla groups (such as FARC, who now control much of the countryside) have declared Occidental a military target. The US trained Colombian army, notorious for its human rights atrocities, publicly declared that it will occupy the U'wa territory to protect oil reserves; which at most would supply the United States for three months.

The violence and environmental devastation surrounding the Occidental/Shell pumpstation in Arauca, just east of the U'wa territory, is a clear illustration of why oil development should not occur in Samore:

  • Occidental's Cano Limon pumpstation and pipeline in Arauca, which controls almost one third of Colombia's oil export, has been attacked by guerrillas 473 times in its 11 years of existence, releasing 1.5 million barrels of oil into fragile wetlands surrounding the pipeline. The Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska was 36,000 barrels.
  • Last year in the Arauca region there were 38 assassinations, 18 massacres, 31 incidents of torture and 44 kidnappings. In July of 1997 U'wa Leader Roberto Cobaría was pulled from his bed in the middle of the night by a group of hooded men with assault rifles. The assailants held the U'wa leader to the ground, demanding that he sign an "authorization agreement" or lose his life.
  • The recent death threat to Mr. Cobaría provides a chilling parallel between the U'wa struggle and the continued repression of the Ogoni in Nigeria, where some 2,000 indigenous people, including Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa, were killed for organizing against Shell. In the U'wa case, the chance exists to prevent the annihilation of indigenous peoples and destruction of the rainforest before it starts. With scant resources, the U'wa are courageously fighting against the combined global powers of the Colombian Government, Occidental Petroleum, and Royal/Dutch Shell.

U'Wa statement - the background to the stuggle for indigenous rights
The U'was, a people indigenous to the Colombian forest, are fighting a life-and-death battle to protect their sacred sites and their traditional culture from a petroleum project scheduled to commence on their land at any moment.

The U'was firmly oppose the digging and have warned that there will be an increase in violence as has occurred in other Colombian petroleum regions. Despite these threats, Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum and the Colombian government are going ahead with their excavation plans.

The U'was have issued a call for help to the international community. Now is the moment for us to answer their call.

The U'was' opposition to the petroleum project is so strong that they have made a pact among themselves to commit group suicide if Occidental and the Colombian government proceed with the project on their ancestral land. The U'was, a tribe of over 5,000 members, explain that they prefer to kill themselves than to die slowly from the environmental and cultural death that petroleum production brings to them. The central cultural and spiritual creed of the U'was is that the earth, which has sustained them for centuries, is sacred. They firmly believe that if oil exploration is allowed on their sacred land, the balance of the entire world will be disturbed.

In the U'was' own words, "Petroleum is the blood of the earth… drilling for oil is for us worse than killing our own mother. If we kill the earth no one will be left alive."

The struggle of the U'was exploded into public view recently with the tragic assassination in Colombia on March 5, 1999 of three indigenous activists: Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok, and Lahe'ane'e Gay. (Lahe'ena Gay was the director of the Hawaii-based Pacific Cultural Conservancy International, Ingrid Washinawatok a native American and Terence Freitas an environmental scientist who had been coordinating the international campaign in favour of the U'wa indigenous group since 1997 and had visited Colombia on several previous occasions).

Terence dedicated the final two years of his life to the U'was' campaign to stop Occidenatal's project, reclaim their ancestral land, and protect their traditional culture. Ingrid and Lahe'ane'e were working with the U'was to start an educational program designed to sustain and promote their traditional way of life.

The U'was fear that the recent assassinations are no more than a precursor to the increase in violence that the petroleum project will bring to their people. In Colombia, oil and violence are inexorably tied together. Occidental's Caño Limón pipeline, just north of the U'was land, has been attacked by guerrillas more than 500 times in its 12 years of existence, spilling approximately 1.7 million barrels of crude oil on the ground and in the rivers. The Colombian government has militarized the areas of petroleum production and the pipelines, often persecuting the local population who the government claims is helping the guerrillas (FARC).

Petroleum projects have already affected other indigenous groups in Colombia, such as the Yarique, the Kofan, and the Secoya.

The present excavation plans threaten the survival of both the U'was and their environment.

The native land of the U'was, a cloudy forest in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy near the Venezuelan border, is one of the most delicate and most endangered forest ecosystems on the planet. The area is rich in flora and fauna unique to the region and the U'was depend on the balance and abundance of the forest for their survival. Other regions of the Amazon basin where oil companies have operated have witnessed cultural decay, toxic pollution, invasions onto private land, and monumental deforestation.

Occidental first received a license to excavate in 1992 for a two-million-barrel oil-field, the equivalent of the United States consumption for three months. Since then the U'was have constantly opposed the project and have taken a variety of actions to stop it, including demands on the Colombian government, petitions asking the Organization of American States to intervene, direct appeals to the top executives at Occidental, and contacts made with that company's shareholders.

At this time the Colombian Ministry of Environment is considering Occidental's request for an excavation license, the next obstacle the company must overcome to continue the project.

Given the growing violence in the region and Occidental's pressure on the government to approve the excavation license, the urgency of the U'was' struggle has never been greater. "We are seeking an explanation for this 'progress' the runs contrary to life. We demand that this kind of progress stop, that oil exploitation in the heart of the earth halt, and that the deliberate bleeding of this planet come to an end."

Statement of the U'wa people, August, 1998

Translation ©2000 by Allen Hougland