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U'wa in Crisis: The Oily Ones: Part One

Excerpt from "Blood of Our Mother," August 1998

Published onApr 07, 1998
U'wa in Crisis: The Oily Ones: Part One

Excerpted from "Blood of Our Mother", August 1998

Riowa - the outsiders

The U'wa word for outsiders is "Riowa," which literally means "the outsiders or the people from far away." To the U'wa, the connotation of the word for "outsider" is highly negative and is best interpreted as "those who are in conflict with the law of Nature." After surviving the first wave of Spanish conquests, a second wave of missionaries wanting to "civilize the savages," and a third invasion by colonizers who dynamited rivers to kill fish and cut down swaths of forest for cattle, the U'wa have come to the conclusion that, more often than not, the Riowa are "the people who don't think well."

The Riowa involved in the U'wa territory can be broken down into six groups: Oil companies, Armed Forces, campesino farmers, Colombian government agencies, international bodies and NGO's. Occidental, Shell, and Ecopetrol make up the oil company consortium. The armed actors include the Colombian Military, the National Police, two left-wing guerrilla groups (ELN and FARC) and right-wing para-militaries. Campesino farmers and displaced peasants currently occupy large portions of U'wa territory. Government Agencies include the Ministries of Mines and Energy, the Interior, the Environment, and Agriculture/INCORA (Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform). The Organization of American States, its Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Harvard Group on Non-Violent Conflict Resolution are the international bodies. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) and the Colombia Is U'wa Committee (CCEU) are the two central Non-Governmental Organizations/Actors in Colombia who have acted as advocates for the U'wa cause, while a variety of NGO's in North America including Colombian human rights groups and members of the Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and Their Environment have played similar roles in the States.

The presence of Occidental's oil projects heightens the conflict for virtually all of these groups. Since October 20, 1983, when Oxy struck oil in the nearby Cano Limon region of the Arauca province, conflict between these groups has been growing. Without oil, the tensions in the area would be much more manageable.

Yiwara - Beyond Order

U'wa resistance has prevented the drilling of a single well in the Samore block, but not without painful repercussions for the indigenous community. U'wa interests are in conflict with the interests of most of the groups identified above. The mere idea of oil development in this largely impoverished rural area of Colombia has further fueled the armed conflict between the guerrillas, the paramilitaries and the Colombian military. In the last year, U'wa leaders have reported a marked increase in military presence throughout their territory, particularly in the towns of Cubara and Samore, both of which border the Unico Resguardo. In 1996 three guerrilla bombings spilled 9,000 barrels of crude oil in Campo Alecia, which is in the municipality of Cubara. Residents in Cubara reported that the last bombing flooded R鈥檕 Gritona (the Screaming River) with oil, "on the top of the water there was only petroleum and dead fish."

Violent activity in the region stepped up dramatically in June of 1997. Not even two weeks after U'wa leaders had made a unanimous declaration opposing oil development in front of Occidental and ministers of the Colombian government (May 28, 1997), Berito KuwarU'wa was awakened at night by seven men with hoods. They pulled him from his bed and dragged him over to a small dirt road. The men put rifles to Berito's head, shoved a piece of paper into his hands and demanded that he sign an agreement or die. Berito, being unable to read or write, could not understand the contents of the agreement, so he simply said, "Kill me, kill me now, I cannot sign anything away from my tribe." Berito was beaten, threatened with hanging, and then pushed into a river where he nearly drowned but was able to escape.

While Occidental's representatives try to portray U'wa resistance as linked to guerrilla influence, the reality is that the U'wa defense of their environment and culture is a process that has been consistently maintained for centuries. Exploitation of natural resources, as defined by outsiders, is antithetical to the U'wa culture. Ann Osborn, a British Anthropologist who spent 10 years living with the U'wa, explained that the U'wa consider it taboo to harm in any way a wide variety of insects, plants and animals that they consider integral to the eco-system;"They would not, for instance, cut down a tree for firewood whose fruits are eaten by forest animals,"Osborn wrote. The U'wa opposition to Samore is yet another decision made by "The Thinking People" to protect all life that depends on the forest - the animals in the surrounding mountains, the campesino farmers who rely on clean water and fertile soil, and all other Colombians in the region who want to live in peace.

The Guerilla Factor

There are two major guerrilla groups operating in Colombia and both are active in the oil rich area around the U'wa territory, through which the strategic Cano Limon pipeline passes. The National Liberation Army (ELN) boasts 4,000 soldiers and was led by Manuel Perez - a renegade Spanish Catholic Priest - until his death this year. The ELN strongly opposes all multinational development activities in Colombia, and has concentrated its efforts on destroying Occidental's pipeline and facilities. The 8,000 strong FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) is Colombia's oldest guerilla group. The two groups are organized into more than 90 fronts throughout Colombia - there are five immediately surrounding U'wa territory.

The guerrillas commonly levy their own version of "war taxes" on multinational companies - extortion - reaping immense economic gains. Their other major source of income is the drug trade, although the ongoing characterization of FARC and ELN as "narco-guerrillas" by the US government and oil companies simplifies and dismisses what many in Colombia see as a legitimate political struggle. Both groups are notorious for kidnapping oil executives and government officials for ransom - the Colombian government estimates that kidnapping generated $530 million in 1995 at an average of $248,000 per hostage. The rebel organizations also frequently kidnap and kill individuals employed by multinational companies and civilians they claim hold close ties to the military or paramilitary organizations. The two guerrilla groups have at times joined forces to bomb oil pipelines, and since 1986 the sum of all their attacks has spilled more than 1.7 million barrels of oil.

In July of 1998 it was revealed that the ELN and the government were in negotiations for a potential cease fire. It remains to be seen whether or not this will break the cycle of oil violence.

The Military and the Para-Military

Military and para-military groups play a central role in many of Colombia's rural regions, especially in oil rich areas such as Arauca/Cano Limon (East of the U'wa Reservation), Barrancabermeja (North of the U'wa Reservation), and Casanare (South of the U'wa Reservation). Gaining political control in these areas rich in natural resources is key because of the "regalias" - profits from the production of oil which are often channeled into municipal coffers. Government officials, large land owners, and narco-traffickers commonly use para-military groups to enforce their political will on defenseless rural and civil populations.

The primary roles of the region's military are to counter guerrilla attacks on Occidental's pipeline and pumpstation and to provide protection for the communities that surround them. The presence of oil and guerillas threatens a dramatic militarization of the U'wa territory and surrounding municipalities. When asked about the ability of the military to protect the environment in Samore, the Captain of the 39th Counter Guerrilla Forces replied, "for the environment, there are no guarantees."

Guerrillas and paramilitaries - the latter backed by the Colombian military - are waging an ongoing battle for territorial control. Although all sides are active in the region, the area around U'wa territory is increasingly considered to be under guerrilla control. However, according to the 1997 report from the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) "Rarely, do these groups actually fight each other. Their violence is mostly directed at unarmed civilians."100 With a level of legal impunity that has brought widespread attention from the international community, the Colombian army, police, and their para-military proxies disappear, kill, threaten, torture and massacre non-combatant civilians viewed as ideological or political allies of the guerrilla forces. The 1996 U.S. State Department report on Human Rights in Colombia affirmed that "the armed forces and police continued to be responsible for serious (human rights abuses) including, according to credible reports, instances of death squad activity."

Campesino Farming Communities

The first road through U'wa territory was built in 1945, and it paved the way for colonization. Many of the U'wa communities on the outskirts of Santander and North Santander have been strongly affected by the encroachment of peasants displaced by Colombia's many wars. In the last decade alone violence has displaced more than one million Colombians, primarily from rural areas. The most recent reports on the conditions of Colombia's displaced demonstrates a pattern of government neglect and abandonment. They are subjugated to violence, rampant malnutrition, and lack of access to clean water sources being the primary concern to human rights monitors.

Campesinos and displaced peasants currently occupy over 250 farms and ranches within the proposed Unico Resguardo. These communities are in a precarious position with the looming prospect of violence and associated pollution that will accompany oil development in Samore. Both the U'wa and campesinos are particularly vulnerable to the pollution because they rely so heavily on the land to survive. One oil spill could easily destroy the water supply for hundreds of families. The U'wa have an open invitation to many of the campesinos living in the proposed Unico Resguardo to stay exactly where they are. If the campesinos agree to become part of the Unico Resguardo, then their lands will receive the full protection of an indigenous reservation, which cannot be sold or exploited for natural resources. If a campesino family chooses not to become part of the Unico Resguardo, they run two major risks: The first is that the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INCORA) can annex their land for natural resource extraction and only be required to pay a small percentage of the actual value. The second risk is that para-military forces with petroleum exploitation in mind will enter the region and "clean the zone."


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.

This document last modified on 04/07/98
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