The U'Wa Struggle to Survive

September 25, 2007

Outside the headquarters of Occidental Petroleum Corporation in Los Angeles, about 50 demonstrators gathered on October 20, 1997, carrying placards reading, "Oxy out of - Colombia" and "In Defense of the U'Wa." They were protesting plans by Occidental to begin oil explo- ration on the ancestral lands of the U'Wa, an indige ____ nous tribe of 5,000 which inhabits a vast territory that cuts through five departments in northeastern Colombia. Leading the rally was Roberto Cobaria, the chief of the U'wa, who was in the U.S. to appeal !iiit. A directly to Occidental and its investment partner, . Shell International, to halt the exploration project in I the rich Samore block oil field. Occidental had corn- pleted seismic exploration of the Samore block and U'wa chief Roberto Af anador Cobaria. was ready to begin drilling when the U'Wa and their supporters launched an international campaign to Similar developments can be seen throughout the protest the fact that the Colombian government had country. In the southern department of Putumayo, approved the project without consulting the corn- thousands of Inga, Siona and Kofan Indians were munity, in direct violation of the 1991 Constitution. forced to relocate after the construction of oil roads The U'Wa have threatened to commit mass suicide and pipelines by Texas O il and Ecopetrol contami- if Oxy and Shell go ahead with their exploration nated their fresh water supplies. In 1960, the pop- plans,preferringtodie"withdignity,asopposedto ulation of the region was 65% indigenous, slowly."1 Despite the U'Wa's growing national and numbering about 13,000 . Today, 37 years after the international support as well as the escalating vio- development of oil in the area, indigenous people lence in the region, the multinationals are moving constitute less than 10% of the local population. forward with the project. While they have tem- Following a string of BP discoveries in the mid- porarily suspended oil exploration activities in a 1980s, the municipalities of Yopal, Tauramena, small portion of U'Wa territory, Occidental and Shell Monterrey and Aguazul in Casanare tripled in pop- have refused to recognize the U'wa's full territorial ulation. Thousands of indigenous people were dis- claim or to cancel drilling plans. Occidental officials placed in the process. are currently talking with "other representatives" in The Constitution of 1991 contains explicit provi- the community to see if they can establish a more sions to protect indigenous communities from such agreeable tribal council. The idea is to offer other dislocations. These call for the establishment of members of the U'Wa community some concessions Autonomous Indigenous Ter ritories in which explo- so that they will give Occidental their blessing. ration for natural resources is contingent upon the Legally, however, Oxy and Shell can begin drilling at consent of the com munities where it would take any moment. place. The U'Wa, with the help of the National Given the history of oil exploration in Colombia Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), are and the indifference both multinationals and the demanding that the gove rnment abide by its laws. Colombian government have shown towards Oxy and Shell, for their part, a re insisting on their indigenous communities, the U'Wa have reason to plans to drill in IJ'Wa territory. "How do you expect be concerned. As far back as 1915, the Mares to establish Autonomous Ind igenous Territories in Concession, in the department of North Santander, areas that are rich in mineral resources like oil, led to the rapid extermination of the Yariguie when at the same time you're trying to encourage ulation. Industry reports from the period are filled foreign investment in oil development?" asks with racist images of "headhunters" and "savages," Ruben Dario Gomez, an anthropologist with the which no doubt served to justify the extermination Interior Ministry's Office of Indigenous Affairs. "The of entire communities. The Barco Concession, also in major multinationals recognize this contradiction, North Santander, led to Law 80 of 1931, through and are exploiting it co mpletely. And unfortunately, which the government put "all the protection they have the upper hand."3 Amidst political scan- needed to repel attacks by the Motilon savages" at dat and a deepening economic crisis, it is quite the disposal of oil companies.2 Sixty years later, the unlikely that President Samper will ignore the Motilon tribe has lost two-thirds of its ancestral ter- demands of the multinationals in order to protect ritory and half its original population. Colombia's indigenous people. The U'Wa Struggle to Survive 1. Authors' interview, Roberto Cobaria, October 9, 1997. 2. Colombian National Congress, Impacto hist6rico de las activi- dades petroleras sobre los pueblos indigenas en Colombia (Bogota), 1997. 3. Authors' interview, Ruben Dario G6mez, June 27, 1997.

Tags: Colombia, civil war, U'wa, indigenous politics, oil

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