The last time oil companies threatened to drill on indigenous U'wa land in northeast Colombia, the native group threatened to commit mass suicide in protest. Nearly ten years later, U'wa leader Luis Sirakubo says encroachment on his peoples' lands by Colombia's national oil company, Ecopetrol, is not a question of if, but when.
"We don't know what the Colombian government's plans are," says Sirakubo, "we just know that sooner or later they are going to try come in and start extracting oil from our land."
Berito Kubaruwa was an early leader of the U'wa's resistance. (By
Sirakubo and the U'wa have been resisting attempts by oil companies to operate in and around their lands for over two decades. Oil extraction is an unconscionable act for the U'wa, who consider oil to be "the blood of Mother Earth," according to Sirakubo.
Having successfully resisted efforts made by foreign oil companies in the past, the U'wa are now facing off against Ecopetrol, the partially state-owned company. Their latest act of defiance was a thousand-strong march in northeast Colombia in protest of Ecopetrol's plans to prospect for oil on their ancestral lands.
The protest came amid growing signs the company plans to drastically expand its operations. Ecopetrol recently began trading 10 percent of its shares on the New York Stock Exchange—an indication the company is seeking investment for more oil exploration. And in a September 24 luncheon at the Council of the Americas in New York City, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe touted the listing of Ecopetrol on the stock exchange as evidence that his country provides an attractive atmosphere to foreign investors.
Uribe also signaled the public offering would help the company continue its vigorous exploration efforts: "Colombia, when our administration began, explored 10 wells per year. This year, the country will explore more than 100." Ecopetrol president Javier Gutierrez echoed the President's statement saying the company is "greatly increasing exploration." The U'wa fear that at least part of this expansion will threaten their lands in northeastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela.
The U'wa have always been a fiercely independent people. According to their oral history, when the Conquistadors came to subdue the group, hundreds of U'was committed suicide, throwing themselves off a cliff, rather than submit to Spanish slavery. They also fought off missionaries' attempts to proselytize deep within their territory.
In recent decades, the U'wa have become battle-hardened experts in fending off oil companies trying to drill on their land. It started in the 1990s, when the Colombian government awarded the Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum and Shell, a British multinational, the right to extract oil on U'wa land.
'Bloodied' pipeline is installed into Oxy's lobby with three activists locked inside, April 1998. © 1998 Laksmi/Amazon Watch
The U'wa waged an international campaign against the drilling along with their allies abroad, including San Francisco-based Amazon Watch and the U'wa Defense Project. Celebrities from Martin Sheen to Alicia Silverstone have written letters in support of the U'wa. Shell eventually withdrew in 1999, while Oxy pulled out in 2002, publicly citing a lack of proven reserves. But many analysts attribute the oil companies' withdrawal to the international pressure from the U'wa as well as human and indigenous rights groups.
The U'wa not only oppose oil extraction on cultural and environmental grounds, but also for reasons of security. The civil war's armed factions violently contest Colombia's oil-producing regions because of their strategic and economic value.
"Historically, the Colombian war and conflict have really been about resources," says Natalia Cardona of the American Friends Service Committee. "Companies are now realizing that oil is found on indigenous land, they want to go in and explore." When the armed groups—namely, guerrillas, paramilitaries, and army—fight over oil regions, Cardona says innocent civilians "end up being used as human shields by all the armed actors."
The presence of armed groups in the area is certainly not new. In 1999, three U.S. activists were kidnapped and killed by guerrillas after visiting U'wa territory. Last May, U'wa authorities issued a public statement denouncing the presence of armed groups within their indigenous reserve. The statement blamed the groups for stealing harvests from family crops, the sexual harassment of young women, and the illegal occupation of U'wa land. If the oil companies come, say the U'wa, an already deteriorating security situation will only become more violent.
With Ecopetrol looking for new wells, the U'wa have restated their opposition to oil activity on their land. In a statement issued last month, the group denounced the government and Ecopetrol for the implications of the stock offering in New York. It also accused the company of "exterminating indigenous cultures (the Bari and the U'wa), contaminating the environment, and denying the rights that the Colombian native indigenous population has to their ancestral lands."
In the risk section of a report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Ecopetrol acknowledged its plans to drill on U'wa land, but noted indigenous opposition could delay the exploration and extraction:
We may not begin to explore for or produce hydrocarbons in these regions until we reach an agreement with the indigenous communities living on these lands. Generally these consultations last between four and six months, but may be significantly delayed if we cannot reach an agreement. For example, we conduct operations in areas of the Northeastern region which are inhabited by the U'wa community. Commencement of operations on two blocks in this region have been delayed for 16 years and seven years, respectively, and as of June 2008 we have not received approval to undertake activities in these two blocks by the indigenous authorities.
Click on map of U'wa territory for larger version.
The U'wa, however, contest this claim, arguing that in fact Ecopetrol is already operating on their land: "It is not true that Ecopetrol is respecting the U'wa culture, because, in this moment, they are working on the Gibraltar 3 well, which is on our property."
Part of the controversy revolves around conflicting demarcations of U'wa lands. The indigenous group claims a substantially larger area than the government-recognized indigenous reserve. The U'wa also maintain that even if the oil activities are carried out in areas near U'wa land, the increased violence and possible environmental damage would undoubtedly spillover into those living nearby, regardless of whether the activity is on officially recognized U'wa territory.
The amount of oil amid U'wa lands has yet to be determined, but with oil prices at record levels, the interest in exploring in U'wa territory is only going to increase. Meanwhile, the U'wa have refused to participate in the constitutionally mandated negotiation process known as "prior consultation" with Ecopetrol, arguing that the process "does not seek to guarantee the respect of our rights."
The U'wa know they have a difficult battle on their hands. But, according to Luis Sirakubo, their decision has been made: "We will not negotiate our natural resources; without them there is no life, and there are no U'wa."
Bart Beeson is Campaign Coordinator of the Central America Program at the Center for International Policy (CIP) in Washington, D.C.