Colombia's U'Wa People: The Real Price of Oil

September 25, 2007

"We are all children of the Earth, help us to defend her." —Berito KuwarU'wa, spokesperson Traditional U'wa Authority

In the remote cloudforests of northeastern Colombia, the brutal history of invasion, ecological devastation and genocide which has shaped the Americas for 500 years is repeating itself. A small, semi-nomadic and traditional indigenous tribe, the U'Wa, has been struggling for eight years to defend its ancestral homelands from the efforts of Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) to drill on their land. U'wa means "the thinking people," and to the U'wa the oil is the "blood of mother earth." To remove it would violate their most sacred beliefs as well as bring ecological devastation and violence to their homeland.

Over the last year, the U'wa have repeatedly raised blockades at Oxy's proposed Gibraltar 1 drill site. They have been joined in nonviolent resistance by thousands of local campesinos, students, other indigenous peoples and striking workers. The Colombian government has pushed Oxy's project ahead by militarizing the region and attacking the blockades, leaving three children dead, 11 people missing and dozens of peaceful protesters injured. Despite the U'wa's rejection of the project, Oxy began test drilling on November 3, protected by the military.

Oil installations are a central target in Colombia's bloody civil war. Occidental's nearby Cano Limón pipeline has been bombed by guerrillas over 700 times in its 13 years of operation. These attacks have resulted in about 2.1 million barrels of crude oil being spilled—eight times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez. These statistics are a grim foreshadowing of what Oxy's drilling will bring to U'wa land.

The U.S. government is fueling the violence with the $1.3 billion military aid package—provided under the auspices of the "War on Drugs." The package was heavily lobbied for by Occidental and other American companies with interests in Colombia (63% of Colombia's oil goes to the United States).

The U'wa resistance has inspired an impressive campaign of international solidarity. U'wa supporters have confronted Oxy's two most important shareholders—Al Gore (who has long-standing personal ties to the company) and Fidelity Investments. Gore continues to maintain silence on the issue. But after an international pressure campaign involving demonstrations at over 75 Fidelity offices around the world, Fidelity has dumped approximately 60% of their Oxy stock—18 million shares worth over $412 million. Fidelity's divestment is a huge step towards permanently stopping drilling on U'wa land because it shows that grassroots pressure can force investors to take the environment and human rights into account.

U'wa supporters have moved to build upon the victory by targeting Oxy's new largest shareholder, Sanford C. Bernstein and Co., LLC. Over the past year, the company increased its shares by ten million to control Oxy stock valued at more than $1.1 billion. On December 12, U'wa president Roberto Pérez, along with representatives of Rainforest Action Network and Amazonwatch, delivered a letter of protest to CEO Roger Hertog. In the letter the U'wa stated, "Occidental's drilling in our ancestral territory runs the risk of destroying the ancient culture of our ancestors...[and] creates social, economic and cultural deterioration that has and continues to lead to violence in our territory. For that reason, we demand...that you divest entirely from Occidental."

The U'wa are also engaging in a number of legal strategies to stop the project. One of the most promising is based on a "Royal Land Deed," signed by the King of Spain in 1661, which gave the U'wa soil and subsoil rights to their ancestral territory. In 1873, the Colombian government claimed all subsurface mineral rights as property of the state except those previously ceded by the "Royal Land Deed" law. In the past, both the Colombian Council of State and Supreme Court have upheld the law.

But the U'wa's best hope for survival is in the growing global movement to confront corporate globalization. The question is, can we act in time? For the U'wa, and for all communities living on the frontlines of the ever expanding corporate global economy, time is running out.

Patrick Reinsborough is Grassroots Coordinator of the Rainforest Action Network. For more information or to get involved in supporting the U'wa people, contact the Rainforest Action Network, 221 Pine St., San Francisco, CA 94104; 415-398-4044/800-989-RAIN;;

Tags: oil, Colombia, U'Wa, indigenous politics, environment

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