U'wa Overcome Oxy
How a Small Ecuadorian Indigenous
and Global Solidarity Movement
Defeated An Oil Giant, and the Struggles Ahead
Multinational Monitor, January/February
"The money king is only an illusion.
Capitalism is blind and barbaric. It buys consciences, governments,
peoples and nations. It poisons the water and the air. It destroys
everything. And to the U'wa, it says that we are crazy, but we
want to continue being crazy if it means we can continue to exist
on our dear mother EARTH.
U'wa Traditional Authority, May 7, 2002
In the Spring of 2001, high in the Andean
cloudforests of northeastern Colombia, a collection of indigenous
U'wa werjayas (elders) and karekas (medicine people) secluded
themselves for a three-month period, fasting, meditating, singing
and praying. Their aim was to "hide" what had been estimated
as over a billion barrels of high-grade Colombian crude from the
diamond drill bits of Los Angeles based Occidental Petroleum (Oxy).
The country's largest discovery in decades was allegedly situated
beneath U'wa ancestral territory. The planned oil project thrust
the U'wa onto the frontlines of resistance to corporate globalization's
quest for oil deep in the frontier ecosystems and indigenous lands
of South America.
The site of this concerted spiritual work
is the same remote highlands where the U'wa, who number roughly
8,000, retreated in the 1600s to avoid being enslaved by the conquistadors
to work their gold mines. According to the U'wa's oral history,
in the face of the ferocious advance of Spaniards and missionaries,
several U'wa bands chose a "death of dignity" by committing
collective suicide rather than a life of slavery that would keep
them from fulfilling their culture's true purpose of existence:
to preserve the equilibrium of the world. Nearly 400 years later,
the appetite for black gold presented the U'wa with the greatest
threat to their existence. Harkening back to their ancestral history,
the U'wa threatened to commit collective suicide if Oxy proceeded
with oil drilling in their territory.
Occidental Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell
first acquired exploration rights to the Siriri oil block (formally
known as Samore) in partnership with the Colombian government
in 1992. The block falls entirely within U'wa ancestral and legally
In 1998, under pressure from human rights
and environmental groups, Royal Dutch Shell pulled out of the
project before it started, fearing a repeat of the human rights
violations and ensuing international pressure that marred the
company's Nigerian operations.
Four years and $100 million later, test
results showed Oxy's highly touted exploratory well was dry. To
everyone's surprise at the company's 2002 annual shareholder meeting,
Occidental Petroleum announced its withdrawal from the project
due to failure to discover commercially viable oil reserves. The
U'wa, and an international network of allies who had campaigned
in support of their demands, had won the first round after a decade-long
While the werjayas and kerekas may have
had the ultimate strategy to prevent oil extraction on their sacred
land, the U'wa's success in keeping Oxy out also had a great deal
to do with an immense and unprecedented outpouring of national
and international solidarity.
The U'wa have repeatedly stated :;: that they are willing to die
to stop oil drilling. In the words of Berito KuwarU'wa, president
of the U'wa Traditional Authority, "We would rather die,
protecting everything that we hold sacred, than lose everything
that makes us U'wa." In response, the U'wa embarked on what
they called a "global crusade to defend all life" -
an unprecedented international campaign to stop the oil project
slated for their ancestral territory and to force Occidental Petroleum
to pull U'wa Cloud Forest.
The cosmovision, traditions, | and peaceful
resistance of the | U'wa captured the attention of a | burgeoning
global justice and solidarity movement.
From the point of view of the U'wa, the
project would result in the "ecocide, genocide and ethnocide"
of their people. The U'wa have long believed that oil | beneath
the earth plays a vital | role in maintaining together the | ~
layers of the physical and spiritual worlds. Called Ruiria by
the U'wa, oil is considered a sacred element that must not be
F removed. In fact, as U'wa ancestors foresaw somewhat accurately,
to extract oil will incite disruption and chaos in the world and
will lead humanity down a path that, if not reverted, will ultimately
lead to its own destruction.
The U'wa resistance also reflects a practical
assessment of Colombia's violent reality. In Colombia, oil brings
violence, and oil operations are strategic targets in the civil
war, with operations of companies like Oxy directly or indirectly
financing all sides of a four-decade-long armed conflict that
kills and displaces thousands of innocent civilians each year.
The U'wa's resistance met with several
episodes of violent repression, in one case resulting in the death
of three indigenous children during a military breakup of peaceful
blockades to keep drilling equipment from entering the company's
exploratory well site. As well, two U.S. indigenous leaders and
a human rights activist were kidnapped and killed by left-wing
guerrillas while working on a bilingual education program with
In Colombia, other indigenous communities
as well as farmers and oil workers syndicates rallied behind the
U'wa by organizing provincial general strikes, blocking the Pan
American Highway and aiding the U'wa in early 2000 in maintaining
nearly three months of sustained peaceful blockades of the drill
site and access roads.
The U'wa and their global allies utilized
diverse tactics ranging from purchasing land in and around the
drill site, filing lawsuits in Colombian and international courts,
presenting shareholder resolutions, calling for divestment and
organizing massive writing campaigns. Their supporters held vigils
outside the home of Oxy's CEO Ray Irani, and conducted non -violent
civil disobedience targeted at both the company and its largest
shareholders, including Fidelity Investment and AXA Financial.
The U'wa even appealed to former U.S. presidential candidate Al
Gore, whose family holds shares in Oxy, to intervene in the dispute.
Celebrities rallied behind the U'wa and the inspirational U'wa
leader Berito Cobaria was awarded both the Spanish Government's
prestigious Bartolome de las Casas Award and the Goldman Environmental
The global campaign turned the oil project
into a flashpoint for the oil industry and a public relations
nightmare for Oxy. The Wall Street Journal covered the controversy
on its front page, and CNN and ABC Evening News ran stories. Fidelity
Investment in 2000 divested nearly $400 million in Oxy shares
after being the subject of 75 protests in just six months.
In July 2001, Occidental announced that
its exploratory drill site-Gibraltar 1-did not contain the 1.5
billion barrels of oil that had been estimated. Less than a year
later, the company pulled out.
While the company claims that the decade
of unwavering opposition from the U'wa, intense international
pressure and permanent damage to their reputation played no part
in the decision, its actions paint a different picture. Instead
of drilling new test wells, as is standard industry practice,
the company declared its plans to return the entire Siriri oil
block to the Colombian government.
ECOPETROL MOVES IN
The U'wa and their supporters understood
immediately 1 that successfully keeping Oxy out of their land
was a major milestone, but not a permanent victory. Indeed, after
a six-month reprieve from oil extraction on their sacred homeland,
the U'wa faced a renewed threat to their lives, land and culture.
In late October 2002, the U'wa reported that machinery had once
again begun to arrive at the Gibraltar 1 well site. Convinced
that oil exists at the site, Ecopetrol, the Colombian state oil
company, moved 40 tractors and heavy drilling equipment to the
site, under heavy military protection. Colombian armed forces
lined the local roads every 500 meters between the towns of Saravena
Ecopetrol began drilling at Oxy's test
well site and shortly thereafter announced a discovery of 200
million barrels of the highest-grade Colombian petrol found in
decades. Embarrassingly, continued tests revealed only water and
gases. Currently, the state-run company is planning to drill another
test well parallel to the Gibraltar site, as well as to commence
seismic testing along the border of and within the Unified U'wa
Reserve, the legally titled territories of the U'wa.
In response, the U'wa have renewed their
vow of resistance: "We know that if Ecopetrol continues its
petroleum project, it will become the principal actor generating
violence in our territory," they stated in a July 2003 communiqué.
"We want Ecopetrol to leave our territory, since its presence
is a form of the violation of our culture. Oil is not development.
Instead, it brings war, hunger, poverty, death and destruction.
The government says that oil brings 'progress and development,'
but the U'wa do not want our territory to become another Iraq."
Given Ecopetrol's advances, and the volatile
security conditions that surround oil infrastructure, the U'wa
will continue to require the eyes and support of the international
community. The werjayas and karekas have again issued an appeal
for people all over the world to join them in their prayers and
rituals to continue their efforts to move the oil. The U'wa "crusade
to defend all life" sends an important message: that cultural
power and grassroots action can overcome the power of multinational
BIG OIL: DOWN NOT OUT
Colombia is the seventh largest supplier
of oil to the United States. The United States now imports more
oil from Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador than from the Persian
Gulf. The Ecuadorian Amazon is California's second largest oil
supplier, with 14 percent of the market. As U.S. companies and
geopoliticians wean the country from dependence on Middle Eastern
oil, and toward reliance on more "stable" sources of
crude in Latin America, the future seems sure to bring heightened
conflict between indigenous populations and oil companies in Latin
At the invitation of kindred indigenous
communities, the U'wa travel to share their stories, experiences
and strategies with other communities affected by oil companies
in the region.
In the last decade, stronger solidarity
networks have formed in support of indigenous peoples rights in
the Americas. Networks such as the Amazon Alliance for Indigenous
and Traditional Peoples and COICA (the Coordinating Body of Indigenous
Organizations of the Amazon Basin) have contributed to the strengthening
of indigenous peoples networks and their linkages to other social
movements. Indigenous peoples have participated in community-to-community
exchanges, sent delegations to U.S. and European capitals, penetrated
corporate board rooms and international institutions such as the
UN, and garnered unprecedented public attention to stories of
conflict and rights abuses.
As a result, oil companies operating in
indigenous territories in South America have suffered unprecedented
In 2003, the stories of indigenous communities
in Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru fighting U.S. oil companies hit the
front pages of the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New
York Times and Washington Post.
In November 2003, Burlington Resources
announced its withdrawal from the Achuar people's territories
in the Peruvian Amazon.
However, the U'wa struggle is far from
over. As the security situation in Colombia deteriorates, the
U'wa's ability to maintain their strong resistance faces new challenges.
The U'wa continue to ask the world to stand with them to continue
their peaceful resistance, and to join in their defense of all
Atossa Soltani is the executive director
and Kevin Koeni, is the campaign coordinator for Amazon Watch,
a non-profit organization working to defend the rights and the
environment of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin.