August 20, 2019
The indigenous U’wa who live in the foothills and forests of northeast Colombia’s Andes perpetuate all life by protecting it. The U’wa believe that their homeland is where the world began, and that everything—land, trees, river and sky—is alive and therefore sacred. Through ritual and dance, and by never wasting, polluting or taking more than the land can bear, the U’wa believe that they are maintaining a balance with Mother Earth. However, their way of life has been threatened over three centuries of contact with European colonists. Their ancestral territory and culture have been severely tested for the past 60 years, as Occidental, Shell, and Ecopetrol each made concerted efforts to extract a sacred resource—oil. The U’was’ opposition to oil extraction is so strong that at one point they vowed to commit collective suicide if drilling plans went forward. They believed it would be better to die by their own hands than to watch the destruction of their culture and their homeland. In May 1997, Berito Kuwaru’wa, president of the Traditional U’wa Authority, declared, “[We] would rather die, protecting everything that we hold sacred, than lose everything that makes us U’wa.”
The Land and Its People
The U’wa people have been protecting the Colombian Andes, particularly the Sierra Nevada’s del Cucouy-Gaican mountains, for thousands of years. After the invasion of Spanish Conquistadors in the 17th century, conflict between settlers and the U’wa escalated when the U’wa refused to convert to Catholicism and submit themselves to slavery. Instead, according to oral history, thousands of U’wa, led by Chief Guaiticu, committed ritual mass suicide. This continues to be a strong story of resistance for contemporary U’wa as they confront neoliberal policies and corporate exploitation by oil companies.
The U’wa lost nearly two-thirds of their population to disease through the devastation of contact with Spanish conquistadors, slave traders and missionaries. In the 1980s, there were only 5,000 U’wa remaining. Now, the population has nearly doubled.
“The U’wa reserve extends 544,000 acres across five provinces and stretches from the glacier peak of their sacred Mount Zizuma to the alpine tundra giving way to the biodiverse cloud forests. Their ancestral territory is at least another million acres beyond the legally-recognized reserve,” according to Atossa Soltani of Amazon Watch.
The U’wa still living in the area believe in a physical and spiritual world in which actions either disrupt or enhance the ongoing balance between the two worlds. Whether drilling for oil or tourism on the sacred mountain, Zizuma, the U’wa see ongoing cultural violence taking place. In U’wa spiritual beliefs, oil is the blood that runs through the veins of Mother Earth. Moreover, sacred mountains should never be touched except by traditional spiritual leaders, Werjaya, who are authorized to communicate with the spirits.
Zizuma is the U’wa word for majestic mountain. The U’wa believe that Zizuma possesses the energy of the natural world and is a place where higher beings rest. The sacredness of the mountain is threatened by economic policies that attract tourism and rock climbers. Environmental impacts include depletion of glaciers and disrespect of U’wa land traditions. As a result, there has been indigenous mobilization on national and international levels to bring attention to these problems. In 2016, the U’wa issued a letter of resistance to the public and the Colombian government, stating demands to better protect the land and culture of the U’wa people and, in particular, the sacred site of Zizuma.
Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts
Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum created an oil field in Caño Limon in the early 1980s to establish the company as one of Latin America’s biggest oil exporters to the United States. Occidental’s initial contact with the U’wa came in 1988, when the Caño Limon pipeline, which runs near the U’wa reservation, was under construction. Then, in 1992, Occidental and Royal Dutch Shell purchased the right to explore for oil within an 800-square-mile portion of the Samoré Block, located in U’wa territory. After a series of failed legal battles, the tribe threatened mass suicide in 1996.
In February 1997, the Colombian Constitutional Court ordered Occidental Petroleum to suspend operations in the Samoré area because the court found that the government had not consulted with the tribe and that drilling in the area would threaten U’wa ethnic, cultural and economic integrity.
In 1999, the Colombian government increased the size of the U’wa reservation from 98,000 acres to 543,000 acres in an attempt to resolve the disputes over the territory. The U’wa agreed with the new boundaries until they learned that the government planned to allow Occidental Petroleum to drill directly outside the new border. The U’wa vowed to continue their battle to protect their homeland.
In 2002, Occidental was forced to pull out and pass rights to the Colombian state and the state-run oil company, Ecopetrol. Ecopetrol continued the pursuits of Occidental Petroleum and found high-grade liquid gas in two wells at what is called the Gibraltar complex. The complex is located on an U’wa sacred spring. In recent years the drilling project has ruptured and polluted the nearby Cobaria River. This has further emboldened the U’wa to protect their entire territory.
The U’wa garnered international support of more than seven NGOs in the U’wa Defense Working Group. Through civil disobedience and legal challenges in the courts they continue to fight exploitation of their environment.
In early 2014, Ecopetrol accelerated their oil exploits in the region, bringing in heavy machinery to drill three wells at the Magallanes site. In June 2014, the U’wa were able to get the government to sign an agreement to cease and desist their state-sponsored exploits in the area. By February 2015, Ecopetrol had removed their heavy machinery from the site, but the U’wa did not believe the government was holding up their end of the deal. In 2016, the U’wa indigenous guard organized a series of peaceful actions over the course of two months, including an occupation of the Gibraltar complex for 49 days.
According to Amazon Watch, in July 2016 “After twelve hours of intense meetings between the U’wa and various ministries, the government agreed to some of the U’wa demands, including advancing the legal recognition for two U’wa reserves (Kuitua and Pedraza) and the suspension of all tourism in their sacred Mount Zizuma, pending further social and environmental impact review.”
However, the government rejected the U’wa demand to close the Gibraltar complex. The U’wa are proceeding with their legal battle to decommission the Gibraltar plant and cancel all oil and gas permits on their lands.
The U’wa continue to lead their own communities into the future and shape what protection of their land looks like. In 2017, they partnered with Empowered by Light, a solar energy company based in the United States, to explore alternative energy solutions that are less invasive and destructive to U’wa territory.
What You Can Do
To learn more about the U’wa and other indigenous issues in the Amazon, visit Amazon Watch.
Dudley, Steven and Murillo, Mario. “The U’Wa Struggle to Survive.” nacla, September 25, 2007
Hill, David. “Will the U’was be forced to threaten to commit mass suicide again?” The Guardian, June 17, 2014.
IACHR, Report No. 33/15, Case 11.754. Admissibility. Pueblo U’wa. Colombia. July 22, 2015.
Izquierdo, Rebeca. “The Thinking People: the U’wa Battle Oxy.” Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, September 2001
Miller, Andrew. “Colombia’s U’wa: Bending the Arc of History Towards Justice.” Amazon Watch, July 29, 2016.
Osborn, Ann. The Four Seasons of the U’wa: A Chibcha Ritual Ecology in the Colombian Andes. Reviewed by Joanne Rappaport
Rueda, Pablo. From the Law to the Global Market: The Campaign of the U’wa Indigenous People in Colombia (1995-2010). Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2012.
Soltani, Atossa. “Colombia’s U’wa Still Teaching Us How to Resist.” Amazon Watch, January 30, 2017
NOTE: There is a photo credit for Atossa Soltani and Berito Kuwaru’wa on the Amazon Watch article with a photograph.
“The Colombian U’wa Indians: Sacred Land and Oil.” History Behind the Headlines: The Origins of Conflicts Worldwide. Encyclopedia.com. (May 20, 2019).
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