U’wa Overcome Oxy: How a Small Colombian Indigenous Group and Global Solidarity Movement Defeated an Oil Giant, and the Struggles Ahead
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 Samoré) in partnership with the Colombian government in 1992. The block falls entirely within U’wa ancestral and legally titled land.
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 campaign.
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 out.
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 Ruiría by the U’wa, oil is considered a sacred element that must not be 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 bi-lingual education program with the U’wa.
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 Prize.
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.
The U’wa and their supporters understood immediately 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 and Cubara.
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 communique. "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 corporations.
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 America.
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 setbacks.
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 life.
Atossa Soltani is the executive director and Kevin Koenig 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.
© Multinational Monitor Jan/Feb 2004