U'wa vs. Oxy

by Charles H. Roberts

CovertAction Quarterly, Summer 2002


Late one night in November 1999, a respected elder from the U'wa Traditional Authorities carried a bottle of blessed water to a hill located near the center of their ancestral lands. This was one of the areas where engineers from U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum (generally known in Colombia as "la Oxy") planned to explore for oil-the sacred substance known to the U'wa as Riuria, or "the blood of our mother earth." The Werjaya (spiritual leader) prayed to the sky, and poured the blessed water on top of a concrete slab: a place that Oxy technicians had marked as a site for exploratory drilling. He asked the U'wa god Sira to "hide" the oil from Oxy's drill bit.

Over the course of the past ten years, the U'wa people have consistently opposed oil exploitation on their territory. Despite their opposition, the Colombian government has repeatedly denied their legal rights to cultural and ethnic integrity and to be consulted about projects impacting their territory.

Over the next few months, the U'wa Traditional Authorities launched a multifaceted international campaign to stop Oxy from finding oil on their well-protected cloud forest lands. They organized mass mobilizations of U'wa men, women and children at the border of the drill site, organized by the upcoming young leaders of their communities. They asked for the support of their ancestral spirits through community fasting, prayers and ceremonies. They pursued all legal avenues open to them to try to revoke Oxy's drilling license. They reached out to grassroots environmentalists around the world, who responded with acts of solidarity.

Two years later, the U'wa's prayers have been answered. On July 27, 2001, Oxy announced that it was ending all of its operations at Gibraltar 1-the exploratory drill site at which the company had invested over 60 million dollars-due to the highly complicated rock structures, which blocked their access to the oil field below. Oxy's drilling bits reportedly broke three times since the drilling began.

U'wa leader Roberto Perez has called this victory a "cultural triumph," explaining: "This is a battle which has been won, although the war of understanding continues, in defense of the life of our Mother Earth and the lives of our non-U'wa brothers and sisters."

In May 2002, Occidental announced it was returning its drilling license to Ecopetrol, the state oil company. "There may be oil there, but not enough to be commercial," said company spokesman Larry Meriage.

Now, the latest battle in this war of understanding is taking shape over the Bush administration's plans, announced in mid-February, to earmark $98 million in military aid to "pipeline defense." The money would go to training and equipment for the Colombian Army's 18th Brigade, entrusted with defending the Cano Limon-Covenas oil pipeline, also operated by Occidental, which has been attacked almost a thousand times by guerrilla forces since it opened in 1986.3 In fact, Occidental has already been collaborating with the Colombian Army, including an incident in which 11 adults and seven children were killed in December 1998 in the village of Santo Domingo, Arauca. Recent revelations about that incident may have contributed to Occidental's apparent decision to reduce its involvement in Colombia.


Almost 5,000 U'wa live in the tropical cloud forest of northeastern Colombia. Their ancestral territory falls within what today are the five departments of Arauca, Boyaca, Santander, Santander del Norte, and Casanare; the U'wa lands are by the border with Venezuela. Of the 82 indigenous communities in Colombia, the U'wa are known for being one of the most traditional. Despite the brutality of centuries of colonization and Western development, the U'wa have been able to maintain ancient practices and complex laws. Practically, the U'wa are guardians of a haven of biodiversiy; their territory also includes headwaters hat feed many Andean and Orinoco basin rivers and tributaries, and the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy National Park. Embedded within the songs that carry the U'wa prayers is knowledge tracing back thousands of years about how to protect these riches.

Under Colombia's 1991 constitution, Indigenous tribal governments are considered official government entities with independent territorial jurisdiction, and therefore have new and important rights to participate in administrative processes. Like most Indigenous communities in Colombia, the U'wa are represented in Colombia's political arena by the Cabildo Mayor, or Traditional Tribal Council. This council is composed of U'wa leaders selected from their indigenous leadership body, the U'wa Traditional Authorities (UTA). Members of the UTA are chosen by the Werjaya, or U'wa wise elders.

One of the central tenets of U'wa philosophy is the need for harmony between human beings and nature, and it is this belief that has led to the ongoing preservation of the cloud forest environment in which they live.


With the entry into force of a new constitution in July 1991, Indigenous communities throughout Colombia won official recognition of many rights, which meant that they now had more legal and judicial levers for waging their struggle for survival and autonomy. In 1992, the equilibrium of U'wa culture and the physical survival of their communities came under attack when Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum, in consortium with AngloDutch Shell, and Ecopetrol, the state oil concern, obtained seismic exploration rights to the Samore block Iying within the U'wa ancestral territory. From the beginning, U'wa elders had categorically rejected oil development within their territory and its periphery. Regardless, in 1995, through Resolution 110, the government approved an environmental license, opening the doors for Occidental to begin seismic exploration on U'wa land. On August 29, 1995, the Defensor del Pueblo (Human Rights Ombudsman) of Colombia filed suit in Colombian courts (Tribunal Superior de Santa Fe de Bogota) on the U'wa's behalf requesting that the license be voided, claiming that the Colombian Government had violated the constitutional rights of the U'wa people. At the same time, the Defensor went before the Council of State (Colombia's highest administrative court) claiming that Occidental failed to meet legal requirements of consultation with the U'wa and asking the Council to invalidate the permit.

On September 12, 1995, the trial court ruled in favor of the U'wa, holding that the granting of the environmental license threatened the U'wa's basic rights and that a proper process of consultation was required. Occidental immediately appealed; the decision was overturned in October 1995 by the Supreme Court. The Defensor then appealed to the Constitutional Court.

Occidental resumed its seismic exploration activities in February 1996. The Constitutional Court handed down its decision in February 1997, ruling that the U'wa had not been consulted and that the issuance of the environmental license threatened their ethnic, cultural, social, and economic integrity. The Court demanded that an appropriate consultation be conducted within 30 days. However, taking advantage of the Colombian judicial system's multiple jurisdictions, Occidental continued to defend its position before the Council of State, which, on March 4, 1997, one month after the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the U'wa, contradicted the ruling of the Constitutional Court, by a 14-to-7 vote in favor of Occidental. The Council held that a valid consultation with the U'wa was held and that Occidental and the government had complied with the legal requirement of prior consultation.

Notwithstanding the second ruling, Occidental stated it would hold consultations. On April 19, 1997, Occidental published an open letter in a major Colombian newspaper reiterating its position that it would not undertake exploration in the U'wa territory without the consent of the U'wa. Yet to this day, such consultations have never taken place and the U'wa have never consented to oil exploration.

In addition to insisting on consultation, the U'wa have sought to expand the area recognized by the government to be under their control, known as the Resguardo Unico, or Unified U'wa Reservation. On August 24, 1999, the government and U'wa traditional authorities signed an agreement expanding the official borders of the Unified U'wa Reservation to encompass 543,000 acres. While the U'wa had sought recognition of a larger area, their struggle for an expanded reservation is framed by the fact that their ancestral territory is so large that it includes, for example, the city of Saravena, with a population of 20,000, and thousands of non-indigenous peasant settlers in rural areas. Politically, then, U'wa claims for a larger territory are bound to be limited to a smaller area. In signing the agreement that expanded the reservation, the U'wa again made it clear that they remained opposed to oil exploration and exploitation anywhere within their larger ancestral territory.

Less than a month later, however, on September 21, 1999, Colombia's Environment Minister, Juan Mayr, granted Occidental Petroleum a permit to begin exploratory drilling in the Gibraltar Area of Exploratory Interest. Occidental then proposed an initial drill site, Gibraltar 1, approximately 500 meters from the newly created Unified U'wa Reservation, and within the U'wa ancestral homeland. Despite requirements in the Colombian Constitution and international agreements, the U'wa were not included in a formal consultation process.

After a visit to the area of Gibraltar 1, two Colombian officials-the deputy director for indigenous affairs and a representative of the Defensor del Pueblo-issued a report confirming the presence of Indigenous communities and sacred sites in the area, contradicting the initial findings of the director for Indigenous affairs, which were the basis of the Ministry of Environment's decision not to consult with the U'wa.

Occidental continued to bring in machinery, cutting roads through U'wa territory. The U'wa were forcibly and illegally evicted from two farms they purchased near the well site on January 25, 2000. In March 2000, the U'wa filed an emergency request for an injunction with the 11th Circuit Court of Colombia, arguing that drilling at Gibraltar 1 would cause irreparable harm to the integrity of the U'wa and that the failure to consult with the U'wa prior to issuing the drilling license violated the Colombian constitution and international law.

The court ruled in favor of the U'wa and issued an injunction with immediate effect. Occidental appealed and won on a motion decided on May 15,2000. Occidental again began activity and moved equipment to the well site. In June 2000, the National Indigenous Federation of Ecuador (CONAIE) denounced Occidental's "inhuman and aggressive attitude" towards Indigenous peoples and called for the company's "definitive exit from Ecuador and Colombia," promising non-violent direct actions against its facilities in Ecuador if it did not abandon plans to drill on U'wa lands. In early November 2000, exploratory drilling began, culminating in the August 2001 abandonment of the site by Oxy.


The U'wa struggle unfolds in the larger context of the 38-year armed conflict that has pitted guerrilla forces against the Colombian government forces and the paramilitary groups that support the government. The U'wa, like other Indigenous peoples and local communities throughout Colombia, have had to contend with all of the armed actors, each of which seeks to assert territorial control as part of its military strategy, and to maintain neutrality visa-vis each of them. In January 2000, for example, when guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (ELN: Ejercito Nacional de Liberacion) threw Occidental equipment off a cliff (four backhoes, four caterpillars, and six containers), the U'wa declared that they "...don't agree with the actions of the ELN to destroy the machinery and equipment of the transnational oil company OXY, since actions like these only make the conflict worse."

International solidarity for the U'wa took a tragic turn in March 1999, when Terry Freitas, a biologist and founder of the U'wa Defense Working Group in 1996, along with U.S. Indigenous leaders Ingrid Washinawatok and Lahe'ena'e Gay, were murdered after visiting the U'wa. The killings, carried out by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the larger of the two main guerrilla forces, evidenced the guerrilla movement's lack of interest in if not hostility to the Indigenous rights movement, and highlighted the challenge of asserting territorial claims amidst a war in which the competing armed factions are vying for territorial control. Accordingly, the Indigenous peoples of Colombia have had a special interest in the success of the peace initiative pursued by President Pastrana from 1998 until the project of peace with the FARC was ended last February 20. Like other actors in Colombian civil society, the Indigenous peoples have complained at the failure of the peace process to include a space for them, as their interests are not represented by the government or any of the other warring parties.

The February 2001 proposal by the Bush administration to expand U.S. military involvement in Colombia to include protection for the Cano Limon-Covenas pipeline, operated by Occidental, and running through the U'wa ancestral territory, is the latest threat the U'wa face. The administration is asking Congress to approve $98 million for fiscal year 2003 to train troops and provide 12 helicopters specifically for the protection of this one pipeline. The 18th Army Brigade, which would receive the support, has been found to be responsible for egregious human rights violations.

In a particularly emblematic case, the 18th Brigade was found responsible for killing 17 people, including 7 children, in the village of Santo Domingo (Tame municipality, department of Arauca) on December 14, 1998.9 The massacre, initially investigated by Colombian civilian prosecutors, and since then bogged down in the military courts, was the subject of an international "opinion" tribunal held in Chicago in December 2000 (for the arguments and findings, see <www.law.northwestern.edu/depts/clinic/ihr/issues/colombia-us.htm>). On January 24, 2002, peasant leader Angel Trifilo Riveros Chaparro, one of the witnesses at the Chicago tribunal, was assassinated, along with Mario Gonzalez Ruiz and Heliberto Delgado, by 12 heavily armed men, who had at the very least the support of military units under the 18th Brigade, according to a communique issued by a coalition of social organizations in the Arauca. According to the same communique, the 18th and 16th Brigades, charged with protecting the oil pipeline, have been directly involved in paramilitary activities, including massacres at La Cabuya and Santo Domingo in November and December 1998, respectively; and military operations in 1999 and 2000, announcing that the paramilitaries were coming.

Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy has noted of the aid proposal: Occidental, which many activists know as the company that has pushed for oil exploration on land claimed by the U'wa indigenous nation in Arauca, has spent years lobbying for additional military assistance to Colombia. The $98 million 'Critical Infrastructure Brigade,' as the Bush administration aid proposals call it, would be protecting a pipeline that, when operational, pumps about 35 million barrels per year. This adds up to nearly $3 per barrel in costs to U.S. taxpayers to protect a pipeline for which Occidental currently pays security costs of about 50 cents per barrel, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Information from the Colombian investigations into what happened at Santo Domingo on December 13, 1998, recently reported in the Los Angeles Times suggests that Occidental, the Colombian Army, and the U.S. military presence in Colombia have already been working to protect the pipeline and to plan attacks on the FARC in the region. The LAT reported on March 17, 2002, that according to the Colombian court records, "...the U.S. government helped initiate military operations around Santo Domingo that day, and two private American companies helped plan and support them." The LAT article reports four key findings:

* The events leading to the battle outside Santo Domingo and to the explosion, began when a U.S. government surveillance plane detected an aircraft allegedly carrying weapons for the guerrillas. In doing so, the surveillance plane may have violated rules that restrict American activities in Colombia to counter-narcotic operations.

* Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum, which runs an oil complex 30 miles north of Santo Domingo, provided crucial assistance to the operation. It supplied, directly or through contractors, troop transportation, planning facilities and fuel to Colombian military aircraft, including the helicopter crew accused of dropping the bomb.

* AirScan Inc., a private U.S. company owned by former Air Force commandos, helped plan and provided surveillance for the attack around Santo Domingo using a high-tech monitoring plane. The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating whether the plane was flown by a U.S. military pilot on active duty. Company employees even suggested targets to the Colombian helicopter crew that dropped the bomb.

* In violation of U.S. guidelines, the U.S. military later provided training to the pilot accused of dropping the bomb, even after a Colombian prosecutor charged him with aggravated homicide and causing personal injury in the Santo Domingo operation.

Finally, the LAT reported: "AirScan officials deny involvement in the incident, saying their plane was used only to survey Occidental's oil pipeline, and the company is not accused of any illegal activity. Occidental officials say they routinely supply nonlethal equipment for military operations in northeastern Colombia but they could neither confirm nor deny their role on the day of the explosion."

According to U'wa leader Roberto Perez, "We see Plan Colombia as an all-out invasion by the United States." The U'wa sent 10 representatives to the city of Arauca in early February to join in protests opposing the $98 million aid plan, and opposing the increased presence of paramilitary groups in the region. Based on their experience and world view, the U'wa have sought to keep all armed actors out of their territory, as the presence of large groups of soldiers, be they guerrillas, army or paramilitaries, brings the encroachment of outsiders, not to mention death and the subsequent massive displacement of communities from lands coveted by the warring parties. They have specifically condemned various actions by the FARC, the ELN, and the Army and paramilitary forces.

According to a February 14, 2002, statement by the U'wa:

The United States is financing Plan Colombia, the struggle against drug trafficking, which signifies the increase of violence in the departments of Arauca, Boyaca, and Norte de Santander, and our Ancestral Territory, allocating $98 million to protect the Cano Limon-Covenas oil pipeline, just because oil was found in the Capachos 1 well, without seeing that what Colombia needs is more investment in social, health, education and employment programs, so that we can live in peace... The government and oil multinationals bear primary responsibility for the social and environmental problem in Arauca and the piedmont, and second are the actors in the armed conflict, for dynamiting the pipeline, causing contamination of the water, pastures, and watersheds of the Arauca river. These actions are affecting climate change and the basic survival of our communities. We have the right to freedom of expression and thought... We want to reiterate to Ecopetrol, the Colombian Government, multinationals, and especially Occidental de Colombia, that we will never step back from territorial defense, and neither will we change our cultural principles, as it is clear that cultures with principles have no price.

Because of their well-grounded legal claims, the unwavering commitment of their leaders, and the international support system they have cultivated, the U'wa are uniquely positioned to compel the Colombian government to comply with its own ground-breaking legislation. The U'wa have served as an example to Indigenous communities worldwide. Today, as they prepare for yet another phase in their self-defense, the U'wa elders have prioritized the need to strengthen themselves internally, working to take care of their greatest assets in this fight. "The youth are the future of the U'wa people" said Roberto Perez in a meeting with the U'wa Defense Project in December 2001 in Bogota, "...our young and emerging leaders must have the necessary technical and organizational skills in this struggle to defend our territory." Though the U'wa have prioritized internal leadership formation this past year, they continue the groundwork for precedent-setting legal cases to establish their land rights as a community. The viability of their projects, however, will be increasingly jeopardized as attempts to increase U.S. military aid persist, and as the armed confrontation continues to spread.

The U'wa consider that the international support that they have received over the years serves them as an invisible shield. Though they declared a cultural victory last September, they once again appeal to the international community, knowing that this new $98 million towards "pipeline protection" means machine guns, boots, bullets, attack helicopters and fighter jets invading their lands and spirits. In particular, since the collapse of the peace talks between the government and the FARC, both sides are engaged in military offensives, further endangering Colombia's civilian populations, especially the rural poor. The continuing collaboration of environmentalists and human rights activists with the U'wa will be increasingly crucial as the challenge of effecting change in U.S. policy has become more complex.


Charles H. Roberts, a member of the Colombia Human Rights Committee of Washington, D. C., is a translator and lawyer. Special thanks to the U'wa Defense Project

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