The Colombian U'wa Indians: Sacred Land and Oil

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The Colombian U'wa Indians: Sacred Land and Oil

The Conflict

The U'wa, a small tribe of Indians in northeastern Colombia, have sued Occidental Petroleum Corporation, because it is removing oil from their land—with the permission of the Colombian government.


  • The U'wa live on the land and object to the destruction of the land, pollution, and dislocation of the U'wa people caused by the oil drilling.
  • FARC, a guerrilla group in Colombia, bombs pipelines and otherwise disrupts the oil production.
  • Environmental groups around the world support the U'wa.
  • The Colombian government supports Occidental, since the government wants Colombia to make money from one of its major resources.
  • Occidental argues that FARC and other rebel groups oppose oil development because it increases government oversight of the area, interfering with their drug trafficking.

The global demand for new sources of oil has pitted the U'wa Indians of Colombia against California-based Occidental Petroleum Corporation. The tribe, which resides in the eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains two hundred miles northeast of Bogotá, has threatened to commit mass suicide if the oil company begins drilling on territory near its reservation. According to the Guardian, one of the tribe's leaders recently proclaimed, "We prefer genocide sponsored by the Colombian government rather than handing over Mother Earth to oil companies." The U'wa believe that "Mother Earth" is sacred—since time immemorial they have lived by a law that requires respect and protection for the earth. Occidental's interest lies in its claim that an area known as the Samoré Block outside the U'wa reservation holds between one and two and a half billion barrels of oil that it wants to extract. If these estimations are correct, the site is Colombia's largest oil field. Juan Myar, Colombia's minister of the environment, has indicated that the social and environmental consequences of the exploration and development within the Samoré Block are acceptable.

Since 1992 the opposing sides have waged their battle on a number of fronts, including the Colombian courts, Occidental Petroleum's headquarters, Washington, D.C., in the United States, and in the mountains of Colombia. Both sides have powerful allies. The U'wa are backed by vocal environmental groups in the United States and, some sources suggest, guerrillas, or rebels, in South America. Occidental Petroleum has the support of the Colombian government, which is eager to increase foreign investment in the country because of the profit it receives from its largest export—oil.

Historical Background

The U'wa People: History, Beliefs, and Land

According to legend, a group of U'wa Indians, led by Chief Guaiticu, killed themselves during the seventeenth century rather than submit to Spanish conquistadors (conquerors) who planned to enslave them. U'wa oral history indicates that thousands of adults placed their children in clay pots and pushed them off a cliff. The adults then walked backward over the precipice and plunged to their death. Although historians and anthropologists have been unable to substantiate a mass suicide off the fourteen hundred-foot-high "Cliffs of Glory" in the Colombian Andes, the U'wa have announced their willingness to repeat the event if Occidental Petroleum removes "the blood of Mother Earth."

The U'wa Indians, one of Colombia's many groups of indigenous peoples, comprise a small but vocal segment of the country's thirty-seven million population. The tribe, comprised of four thousand to eight thousand members, inhabits a vast reservation in the northeastern section of Colombia that includes parts of five departments, or states. Most of the tribe's members live in inaccessible areas of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy-Guican Mountains, part of the Andes range. Oil is only one of the land's natural resources, among which includes a vast array of plants and animals including toucans, jaguars, and spectacled bears. Their subsistence economy is based on agriculture, livestock, hunting, gathering, and fishing. In a statement to the press in 1999 the U'wa claimed, "Our law is to take no more than is necessary; we are like the Earth that feeds itself from all living beings, but never takes too much because, if it did, all would come to an end. We must care for, not maltreat, because for us it is forbidden to kill with knives, machetes, or bullets. Our weapons are thought, the word, our power is wisdom." Because of their tradition, which emphasizes avoiding war and the use of weapons, the U'wa became known as "the thinking people." Despite the changing world around them, the tribe has maintained many of its ancient traditions, including its social structures and language. Most tribal members speak U'wajka, the native language of the U'wa. They also continue to practice their traditional religion. The Werjayás, wise ancients, and Karekas, medicine people, are the tribe's spiritual leaders and serve as a link between the U'wa and their ancestors, as well as between the people and the natural order. The members of the tribe believe that the creator, Yagshowa, endowed the Werjayás with the power to communicate with the gods and spirits.

The Controversy: The U'wa, Their Government, and Occidental Petroleum

Although Colombia's 1991 national constitution requires that the government protect the U'wa and their territory, the government in the capital city of Bogotá controls all rights to the country's oil and any other minerals that lie below the land's surface. Occidental Petroleum's initial contact with the U'wa came in 1988 when the Caño Limon pipeline, which runs near the reservation, was under construction. The current conflict between the tribe and Occidental Petroleum, however, dates to 1992 when the Los Angeles-based Occidental company, along with Royal Dutch/Shell, purchased the right to search for oil within an eight hundred-square-mile portion of the Samoré Block. Throughout 1993 and 1994 the company met more than thirty times with the U'wa. Occidental tried to gain permission to conduct seismic tests within the U'wa reservation, and the two sides arrived at a preliminary arrangement in January 1995. The agreement was to be finalized the following month, but the U'wa failed to appear for the meetings. The tribe claims that the officials did not meet with Indians authorized to speak on behalf of the tribe and discussed education and health issues rather than Occidental's development proposals. Occidental officials and other observers, including Colombia's largest newspaper, El Tiempo, believed that intimidation by guerrillas opposed to development of the country's land persuaded the tribe to change its mind and resist the company's operations. Supporters of the U'wa argue that the suggestion that rebel groups influenced the tribe is dangerous because it places the Indians in jeopardy of reprisals at the hands of the Colombian military. The lack of an agreement prompted Occidental to shift its focus to areas outside the U'wa reservation.

Occidental Petroleum developed the Caño Limón oil field in northeastern Colombia during the early 1980s and helped transform the Latin American country into a major oil exporter. Crude oil extracted by Occidental travels via the 483-mile-long pipeline to Covenas, where it is exported to the United States. Attacks on the pipeline have been a regular occurrence since its completion in 1985. Environmental groups estimate that the pipeline has been the target of more than six hundred attacks in fifteen years. The sabotage has resulted in the release of 1.7 million barrels of oil onto the land and into water sources. Environmental groups assert that that guerrilla attacks on pipelines throughout Latin America cause significant oil spills and contaminate land and water supplies. Activists also argue that the construction of roads and pipelines by multinational companies often force indigenous people to relocate. Occidental and the Colombian government believe that the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest rebel organization, and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country's second-largest rebel group, are the source of the attacks. With some fifteen thousand members, the FARC has waged a long civil war with the Colombian government. Since the group's founding in 1966 it has assassinated more than thirty thousand foreigners and Colombians. Nearly half of the global kidnappings each year occur in Colombia, many of them attributable to the FARC. During 1998 Colombian rebels abducted some forty foreigners. The guerrillas often target outsiders because they know that they can receive high ransoms for them. Groups such as the FARC use the ransom money to fund their activities.

The ELN claims that the nationalization of Colombia's natural resources is one of its primary goals and that it is opposed to the government's oil policies because they lead to environmental devastation. The group bombs oil pipelines to protest the presence of foreign companies in Colombia and is the most powerful group in the eastern part of the country where the U'wa live. Occidental Petroleum believes that both it and the U'wa are the guerrillas' targets, a charge that the Indian tribe denies. In response to the activity of the guerrilla groups, the Colombian government mobilizes right-wing paramilitary groups to protect the interests of the multinational oil companies, a service for which the companies pay a great deal of money annually.

In addition to their opposition to oil exploration in Colombia and to the presence there of multinational companies, many of the guerrillas focus on protecting the Colombian drug trade, especially heroin and cocaine. Occidental Petroleum argues that, while the rebels might claim to oppose oil development for environmental and cultural reasons, the guerrillas oppose them because the presence of multinational companies in Colombia results in greater government oversight in the areas that the rebels dominate.

The Courts and Regional Mediation

In early 1995 officials from the Colombian government met with U'wa representatives about Occidental's exploration plans. The company asked the government to give it an opportunity to discuss the issue with the tribe. The U'wa believed that their request was appropriate and within the bounds of the nation's 1991 constitution, which gives indigenous people the right to voice their opinions about the extraction of natural resources from their lands. The U'wa claimed that the territory targeted by Occidental was within their ancestral lands. During the summer of 1995 Occidental began exploration activity in the Samoré Block. The tribe was upset because Bogotá gave the oil company permission to conduct explorations before the U'wa had an opportunity to complete their deliberations. Colombia's public defender, acting on behalf of the Indians, filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Ministry in the capital's superior court. The action claimed that the government violated the U'wa's constitutional rights by granting the permit and requested that the court revoke Occidental's environmental license.

In September 1995 Bogotá's superior court ruled in favor of the U'wa. Occidental appealed to the country's Supreme Court of Justice, which overturned the superior court's findings. In the wake of the verdict and the resumption of the company's exploration of the area in early 1996, the tribe's elders announced the suicide threat. Upon review of the case in February 1997, however, the Colombian Constitutional Court ordered Occidental Petroleum to suspend operations in the Samoré area because it found that the government did not consult with the tribe and that drilling in the area would threaten the Indians' ethnic, cultural, and economic integrity. The court also ruled that the U'wa be consulted within the following thirty days. In March, Colombia's Council of State, ruling on a separate lawsuit filed by the public defender, contradicted the Constitutional Court and found that appropriate consultation with the tribe had occurred and that the company could proceed with its operations. The council's judges also ruled that their verdict took precedence over the Constitutional Court's order. At the end of May 1997, representatives from twenty-seven U'wa communities, the Colombian government, and Occidental Petroleum met to discuss the company's work in the Samoré Block. The participants failed to resolve their differences.

In the wake of the unsuccessful talks the U'wa made two moves to heighten international awareness of their cause. First, they took their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States and asked it to investigate the matter. Second, Roberto Cobaria, also known as Berito Kuwaru'wa, president of the Traditional U'wa Authority, traveled to Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles on a trip sponsored by U.S. environmental groups. While in California, the chief met with Occidental officials and told them that oil is the blood of "Mother Earth" and therefore should not be extracted. The chief also voiced the tribe's concern that if the company developed wells on the land, the inevitable guerrilla attacks on Occidental's pipeline will harm the U'wa's fishing, hunting, and agricultural activities.

The tribe also fears the Colombian military, which searches for the guerrillas and commits violent acts to drive them out of foreign companies' operation areas. Often civilians are caught in the middle of the civil war. Cobaria claimed that in June 1997, after returning from his U.S. visit, hooded gunmen invaded his home, beat him, and tried to force him to sign an agreement that would allow Occidental to drill for oil in the Samoré Block. The attackers promised to hang him if he did not cooperate, but Cobaria stood firm. The men dumped him into a river and he nearly drowned.

The tribe's efforts to bring attention to its cause were successful. A number of environmental and human rights groups joined forces and formed the U'wa Defense Working Group, originally known as the U'wa Defense Project. Since coming together during the summer of 1997, the nine organizations that comprise the coalition have publicized the Indians' cause in the press, on the Internet, and through protests staged across the United States.

During the summer of 1997, in an attempt to mediate the ongoing dispute, the Colombian Foreign Ministry invited the Organization of American States (OAS) to conduct an investigation into the matter. The OAS, in cooperation with representatives from Harvard University's Center for Non-Violent Solutions, backed the tribe's claim that activity around its legal reservation would have an impact upon the U'wa. Occidental Petroleum agreed with some of the OAS' recommendations, including a suggestion that both sides decrease their public rhetoric, but it refused to commit unconditionally to suspend its exploration and development in the Samoré region. The U'wa were also dissatisfied with the OAS' findings because they believed that the suggestions were based on the assumption that Occidental's operations in the Samoré Block would eventually occur. Their response to the OAS' recommendations indicated that the U'wa demand the final say over any activity on their ancestral lands, a provision that the Colombian constitution does not allow.

Despite the findings of the OAS, in early 1998 Colombia proposed that Occidental develop a smaller section of the Samoré Block than originally planned in exchange for a more favorable profit arrangement with the government. Occidental agreed to abandon the eight hundred-square-mile oil field into which it had invested more than $12 million, but had never dug a single well. Royal Dutch/Shell backed out of the deal citing financial problems, but some observers suggest that the company ceded its control to Occidental because of the controversy surrounding the project. Occidental relinquished rights to seventy-five percent of the new area, but applied for permission to explore the remaining twenty-five percent. The U'wa opposed the agreement and claimed that the smaller parcel was a part of their ancestral lands as well. Once again, the tribe argued that it was not consulted and it continued to maintain that the Colombian government did not have the right to allow Occidental to extract natural resources from its land. The Indians' actions angered government and oil company officials, who claimed that the U'wa were harming the nation's economic interests. Unless exploration in oil-rich territories proceeded, they argued, Colombia would have to begin importing oil by 2004. Occidental Petroleum suspended its plans in the Samoré Block as the OAS continued to mediate the disagreement between the Indians and their government.

Violence Strikes

The U'wa and their cause remained out of the international spotlight until February 25, 1999, when Colombian rebels abducted three U.S. citizens near the Venezuelan border. Terence Freitas, Lahe'ena'e Gay, and Ingrid Washinawatok were returning from the U'wa reservation after spending about a week with the tribe. The U'wa had invited the group to consult with them about developing a tribal education program, because the Indians had recently decided that they did not want to participate in Colombia's educational system. Working under the auspices of Pacific Cultural Conservancy International, an organization based in Hawaii and interested in indigenous rights, the group was led by the thirty-nine-year-old Gay, a resident of Hawaii and the organization's director. Washinawatok, a forty-one-year-old member of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, and Freitas, twenty-four, were New York residents. Washinawatok led the Fund for the Four Directions, a group based in New York that focuses its efforts on American Indian issues. Freitas was well known to the U'wa. He had worked with the tribe since 1996 and founded the U'wa Defense Working Group in an effort to publicize the Indians' cause and assist them in their struggle against Occidental Petroleum. Because of his involvement with the U'wa he had received death threats on his home answering machine and credited them to paramilitary groups in Colombia. Freitas believed that the groups were connected with Occidental. FARC rebels also warned Freitas during a 1998 visit to Colombia that it wanted him to stay out of the region.

Forces working under the sponsorship of the country's main right-wing paramilitary organization, the United Autodefense Groups of Colombia (AUC), have tried to exterminate groups like the ELN and FARC, as well as human rights activists and people it suspects of supporting Colombian rebels. During previous visits to Colombia, Freitas believed that members of paramilitary groups had followed him. The Colombian military once detained him and forced him to sign a statement that released it from responsibility for his safety. He suspected that this was done in an effort to intimidate him.

Freitas, Gay, and Washinawatok had met with the U'wa in an attempt to learn more about the tribe and to work toward preserving its cultural identity. After completing their research with the U'wa, the trio headed out of the remote area to catch a flight to Bogotá. Armed men in civilian clothing detained them at a roadblock, demanded that they explain why they were in the remote area, and forced them from their vehicle. The men abducted the activists but released Roberto Cobaria, who was traveling with them. The U'wa, as well as the American and Colombian governments, blamed FARC for the kidnappings and demanded the trio's release. The incident angered the U'wa, which claimed that the Marxist FARC often invaded its territory. "The indigenous authorities are very upset by this," Cobaria announced according to the Associated Press, "because our territory is not respected. We are humiliated. We are abused."

A week after the Americans' disappearance, their bullet-riddled bodies were found in a wooded area near the Colombian border in Venezuela. Each of the victims had been blindfolded, bound, and shot at point blank range in the face, head, and chest. Marks on their bodies indicated that they had been tortured. Raul Reyes, also known as Luis Eduardo Devia, a high-ranking FARC commander, maintained that his organization was innocent. The AUC also denied any involvement in the killings, as did the ELN, which has a significant presence in the region. In the days following the incident, a war of accusations ensued between the paramilitary groups and the FARC. The AUC wrote a letter to Colombian President Andres Pastrana, which was reported by the BBC, that stated, in part, "The AUC leadership declares that our anti-subversive organization is not guilty, in any way, of the deaths of the U.S. citizens. … [The indigenous people] know that the FARC are the only ones responsible for the regrettable and condemnable action." The kidnapping and execution of the Americans threatened to derail planned peace talks between Pastrana's government and FARC. Colombian officials were concerned about the country's international reputation as a dangerous nation for foreign travel, and wished to end the ongoing struggle with the guerrilla group. FARC believed that it, too, could benefit from an improved international reputation.

FARC finally claimed responsibility for the crime five days after officials discovered the bodies. Senior commander Raul Reyes announced that a guerrilla leader and three of his men abducted and murdered the Americans without the consent of their superiors. Cellular phone conversations intercepted by the Colombian military intelligence between German Briceño, alias Grannobles, the commander of FARC's Eastern Bloc, and his brother, Jorge Briceño, alias Mono Jojoy, FARC's military leader, indicated the gravity of the situation in relation to the group's impending peace negotiations with the Colombian government. Jorge Briceño told his brother, "This is the biggest political screw-up of all. This is a mistake from hell." He suggested that his brother find someone to blame for the killings. Although Colombian military intelligence indicated that Grannobles gave the order to murder the pro-Indian activists, FARC blamed a lower ranking official identified as Commander Gildardo, alias Marrano. Despite the organization's efforts to pass the blame to Gildardo, by the end of May the prosecutor general's office issued an arrest warrant for Grannobles and Gustavo Bocota Aguablanca, an U'wa, claiming that it had sufficient evidence to implicate them in the murders. The government believed that Bocota coordinated the abduction.

Concerns raised in Colombia over the incident focused not only on the troubled peace process between the government and the nation's largest rebel group, but also on actions that the United States might take. Fabio Valencia Cossio, the president of the nation's congress, expressed concern that the United States had been looking for a reason to increase its military involvement in Colombia. Once FARC admitted that it was responsible for the murders, U.S. Representative Benjamin Gilman, a Republican from New York and chair of the U.S. House International Relations Committee, warned that the activities of the rebels "threatens the security of U.S. citizens and must be combatted as such." In April 1999 Colombia received a commitment for $240 million in military assistance from the United States.

Arguments Over Territory Continue

Tensions between the FARC and the U'wa continued to mount after the discovery of the bodies. A month following the murders, Roberto Cobaria fled Colombia as a result of intimidation by the FARC's 45th and 10th Fronts. He had cooperated with government officials in their investigation and had identified the kidnappers as FARC members, and he believed that his life was in danger. Cobaria appeared at Occidental's headquarters in California in late April 1999 and joined representatives of environmental groups in a sit-in protest against the company. They once again called on the company to abandon its plans in the Samoré region, but a company spokesman announced that Occidental would proceed with its operations as soon as it received approval from the Colombian government. In mid-May an appeals court overturned a moratorium, or suspension, on the company's activities in the Samoré Block. This action cleared the way for eventual government permission for Occidental to advance its exploration and drilling. Colombia's government granted the company permission in September to drill a single well. Occidental announced plans to begin the operation in mid-2000 in a five-acre area on private land not far from the U'wa reservation. The ELN promised to oppose Occidental's activity. One of the rebel group's leaders labeled the site a "war zone" and issued threats against the company's employees and equipment.

Good news for the U'wa also accompanied Occidental's victory in the courts. In an attempt to resolve the territorial dispute with the tribe, during the summer of 1999 the Colombian government dramatically increased the size of the tribe's reservation from 98,800 acres to 543,000 acres. Bogotá used a territorial map provided by the U'wa to expand the tribe's landholdings, and claims that it granted the Indians every acre of land indicated on the map. The U'wa agreed to the redrawn boundaries until they discovered that the government planned to allow Occidental to drill immediately outside the new borders of their reservation. They then asked Bogotá to redraw the boundaries. The government refused and the Indians vowed to continue their fight against the project.

Recent History and the Future

Although the Colombian government increased the size of the U'wa reservation substantially during the summer of 1999 the tribe continued to oppose Occidental's exploration and development in the Samoré Block. In an effort to halt the company's progress on land just outside the reservation, a group of two hundred men, women, children, and U'wa elders established a camp at Gibraltar 1, Occidental's twenty-seven-acre drill site, on November 16, 1999. In a move designed to keep land out of the company's hands the U'wa announced that farmers in the area could not sell to anyone but the U'wa. Backed by the ELN and its intimidation tactics the people around the drill site sold their holdings to the Indians for a fraction of what Occidental offered them. The U'wa purchased two farms on the drill site. Upon their encampment, they removed the company's boundary markers and erected a peace flag. Meanwhile, the tribe gained additional support for its cause when representatives from environmental groups held an international summit in Bogotá to demonstrate solidarity for the Indians' fight. Environmental groups have accused the company of establishing operations in a rainforest, a charge the company denies, citing a third party environmental impact report to support its claim.

While the U'wa fought Occidental in Colombia, the tribe's supporters in the United States once again attempted to persuade the company to cease its work near the tribe's reservation. As the U.S. presidential primary season got underway in early 2000, environmental activists attempted to pressure Vice President Al Gore to speak out against the company and to sell the shares of Occidental Petroleum stock that he administers in a trust fund for his mother as executor of his father's estate. Senator Albert Gore, Sr., was a longtime member of the company's board of directors and some U'wa supporters claim that his estate holds as much as $500,000 in Occidental stock. At a January demonstration in Manchester, New Hampshire, activists challenged the vice president to use his influence with the company and "intervene in the situation" involving the U'wa. Despite protests against the vice president's ties to the oil company, the Gore campaign successfully avoided controversy over the issue during the primaries, in part because Gore does not personally own the stock, as activists originally claimed. Atossa Soltani of Amazon Watch, a U.S. environmental group, challenged Gore to take a stand on the Samoré Block issue, stating in LA Weekly that, "If he wants to be an environmental champion, he needs to make a statement on the issue. And he needs to take personal responsibility for his family's fortune." Occidental's opponents revealed further ties between the Democratic Party and the oil conglomerate that suggested that Gore might have influence with Occidental. They claim that Ray Irani, the company's chairman, donated $100,000 to the Democratic Party soon after spending a night in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom and contributing a total of $400,000 during Gore's vice presidency. Activists also targeted Boston, Massachusetts-based Fidelity Investments, which controls about thirty million Occidental shares worth approximately $700 million. The groups called on Fidelity to sell the stock or pressure the company to cease its operations in the Samoré Block. In early February, groups staged protests at Fidelity's Boston headquarters as well as at its offices in cities across the United States. Such protests continued throughout the spring.

By the end of January 2000, Ecopetrol, Colombia's government-owned oil company and Occidental's partner in the Samoré Block exploration project, finalized approval for the California-based company to begin drilling. A judge granted Occidental an eviction order against the Indians who were staging a sit-in at the drilling site because, under Colombian law, the minerals below the soil belong to the government, not to the property owner. Colombian military forces and the Colombian National Police surrounded the protesters on January 19 and prevented food and water from reaching them. On January 25, authorities removed twenty-six Indians and transported them by helicopter to a military base. The U'wa claimed that three children died when some of the demonstrators jumped into a river to escape riot police, but the claim remains unsubstantiated.

Hundreds of U'wa subsequently established a human blockade on the main highway that provided access to the drill site. Police chased them away with tear gas. Fulfilling its threat to act against Occidental, the ELN forced drivers onto the site with earth-moving equipment to dump some of the construction vehicles off of a 200-foot cliff. Police used tear gas and bulldozers to break another roadblock on February 11. The U'wa once more claimed that three children died when the protestors were forced to escape into the rapidly flowing Cubojon River. They also said that eleven adults disappeared. Again, both claims remain unsubstantiated. Clashes between police and the U'wa demonstrators continued into mid-February when authorities reopened the highway and earth-moving equipment entered the drilling area. By the end of the month the Colombian government had more than three hundred soldiers in the area to protect Occidental's project. The U'wa again blockaded the road, but abandoned their act of civil disobedience on April 22 when they returned to the mountains for a spiritual retreat.

Late March brought a short-lived victory for the U'wa and their supporters. Representatives of the tribe confronted Larry Meriage, Occidental's vice president for public affairs, in Washington, D.C., when he arrived for a meeting with Representative Cynthia McKinney. Meriage requested a meeting with the Georgia Democrat because of comments she made about Occidental during discussions concerning a proposed $1.3 billion military aid package for Colombia. The House of Representatives approved the two-year aid bill in late March 2000 and sent it to the Senate. McKinney, who serves on the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, organized a surprise encounter with Roberto Perez, president of the tribe's governing council, and members of U.S. environmental groups that back the U'wa. Following the meeting, the U'wa Defense Working group issued a press release that claimed that Meriage agreed that the U'wa had not been consulted about Occidental's plans to drill the Gibraltar 1 oil well. Occidental, however, claimed it had no reason to consult with the tribe about the operation because it was outside the reservation.

Within days, the 11th Circuit Court of Bogotá decreed that Occidental had to stop preparing the area for drilling. Occidental filed an appeal. In mid-May the Superior Court of Bogotá overturned the Circuit Court-ordered suspension of activity at Gibraltar 1. It found that Occidental had proceeded appropriately and was not obligated to meet with the U'wa. Roberto Calderon, Ecopetrol's president, announced that the site preparation would resume immediately. As quoted by the Associated Press, Calderon stated, "To not go ahead with this exploration when the country needs it so urgently would be enormously prejudicial for the country."

In April demonstrators supporting the U'wa appeared once again at the company's annual shareholders' meeting. Some activists who held stock in Occidental proposed a resolution calling on the company to employ an independent firm to assess the risks to the company's profitability posed by the Samoré Block project and the U'wa suicide threat. Despite pleas from Roberto Perez, shareholders soundly defeated the resolution.

Today the U'wa, Colombia, Occidental, and guerrilla groups remain locked in a struggle that has lasted for nearly nine years. Colombia desperately needs the revenue that the Occidental project would bring in order to reduce its deficit spending and work within the requirements of a $2.7 billion aid package from the International Monetary Fund. The drilling could net the country as much as $900 million annually, but, argue the U'wa and the ELN, at the expense of Colombia's environment. Occidental maintains that the quarrel in the Samoré Block is between the U'wa and the Colombian government, not between the Indians and the U.S. oil conglomerate. It also maintains that the guerrillas' stronghold on the area is at the root of the problem. The tribe firmly asserts that the rebel groups did not influence its actions. It is unclear whether the U'wa have set aside their suicide threat. It appears that they have chosen instead to fight the project in the courts, through the news media, and with civil disobedience. In recognition of the U'wa's efforts the Spanish government in 1998 awarded the tribe the Bartolomé de las Casas prize. It is given annually to people who defend indigenous values. That same year Roberto Cobaria received the Goldman Environmental Award. It is presented each year to grassroots environmentalists in each of the world's six continental regions.

In mid-2000 Occidental was constructing a 1.5-mile access road to the Gibraltar 1 site and planned to begin drilling later that year. If the company finds enough oil to extract, it will apply for another environmental permit. Although protests by the Indians have subsided, the ELN has declared war on Occidental. The rebels extort money from company employees to ensure their safety. Activists in the United States continue to proclaim their support for the U'wa and their opposition to the oil company.


"Battle for the Sacred Oil." Guardian (London), 9 February 2000.

Chang, Chris. "A Leap of Faith," Audubon, January-February 2000, 14.

"Colombia: Guerrillas Admit Killing Three U.S. Citizens,"NotiSur-Latin American Political Affairs, 12 March 1999.

Del Pilar Uirbe Marin, Monica. "Where Development Will Lead to Mass Suicide," Ecologist 29 (January-February 1999): 43.

"FARC Releases Communiqué on the Killing of US Citizens," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 13 March 1999.

Gibson, Bill. "Where Is Al Gore?" LA Weekly, 31 March 2000.

Marchocki, Kathryn. "Gore Headquarters Sit-In Site for Anti-Oil Drilling Activists," Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.), 27 January 2000.

Meriage, Larry. "Misinformation Surrounds Controversy Over Occidental's Colombian Wildcat," Oil and Gas Journal 98 (17 January 2000): 29.

"Native Rights Advocates and NGOs Criticize El Tiempo El Tiempo, 1 March 2000.

Selverston-Scher, Melina. "U'wa Indians Fight Back," NACLA Report on the Americas 33 (January 2000): 47.

Semple, Kirk. "Colombian Tribe Battles Oil Firm's Incursion," Boston Globe, 13 February 2000.

——. "The U'was' Last Stand," U.S. News and World Report, 14 February 2000.

Jeffrey S.Cole


1992 Occidental Petroleum and Royal/Dutch Shell purchase the rights to search for oil within a portion of Samoré Block in Colombia. Guerrillas regularly attack the pipeline, spilling oil.

1995 The U'wa and Occidental reach a preliminary agreement on seismic testing. The agreement, however, is never finalized. Occidental begins exploratory initiatives. The U'wa file a lawsuit in Colombia's supreme court, which rules in favor of the U'wa.

1996 Occidental resumes activities. The U'wa tribe elders threaten mass suicide.

1997 Members of the U'wa, the Colombian government, and Occidental meet to discuss the situation, but fail to resolve their differences. The U'wa Defense Working Group is formed. The Organization of American States conducts an investigation; the U'wa are not satisfied with the OAS' findings.

1998 Colombia proposes Occidental develop a smaller territory; the U'wa oppose the agreement.

1999 Three U.S. citizens, U'wa activists, are murdered near the Venezuelan border. FARC, a rebel group, claims responsibility, threatening the peace talks taking place between the group and the Colombian government.

2000 Occidental announces plans to begin operation in a five-acre area. Rebel groups label the site a war zone.

About Colombia

  • There are eight U'wa clans. The Traditional U'wa Authority, the official ruling council and voice of the entire tribe, is made up of Werjayás and Karekas from all of the clans.
  • The Colombian government requires that each indigenous people group have a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, public prosecutors, and speakers. This is known as a Cabildo system.
  • Spanish conquistadors enslaved many Native Americans during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and forced them to work in gold or silver mines.
  • Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566) was a Dominican friar who worked to end the enslavement of Native Americans. He convinced Spain's Emperor Charles V (1500-58) that the Indians in the New World were rational beings and therefore should not be enslaved. Under the New Laws (1542-43) the emperor abolished Native American slavery. Many Spaniards in the New World, however, resisted his decrees.
  • The U'wa seek to respect what they believe is a natural law of conservation. By observing this, the tribe believes that it will help maintain a balance between the spiritual world and the physical world.
  • The U'wa refer to outsiders as riowa.
  • The Werjayás and Karekas consider all matters pertaining to outsiders and then advise the Cabildos. No decision by the Cabildos is legitimate, the U'wa believe, unless the Werjayás and Karekas have ruled first.
  • Colombian guerrillas commonly receive income from three sources: "war taxes" levied on international companies, the drug trade, and ransom money.
  • Occidental's oil field in the Samoré Block contains enough oil to supply the United States for three months.
  • In Spanish, FARC stands for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia.
  • In Spanish, ELN stands for Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional.
  • Some sixty-five percent of Colombia's oil is exported to the United States.
  • Trade between the United States and Colombia amounted to nearly $11 billion in 1998. U.S. exports totaled nearly $5 billion, or thirty-two percent of Colombia's imports.
  • The United States is Colombia's largest investor.
  • More than three hundred thirty thousand barrels of oil arrive in the United States each day from Colombia.
  • Colombia produces more than eight hundred thousand barrels of oil daily.
  • Oil accounted for about twenty-four percent of the Colombian government's income in 1999.

BartolomÉ de las Casas

1474-1566 Bartolomé de las Casas was a Spanish priest who first exposed European oppression of Native Americans and who called for the abolition of native enslavement. He was born in Seville, Spain, probably in August 1474. After serving as a soldier and studying Latin, las Casas sailed to the West Indies in 1502. He received a land grant, which included the native inhabitants, primarily Indians, as part of the property.

After his ordination in 1513 he took part in the subjugation of Cuba and received another allotment of enslaved natives. As he evangelized to the indigenous population, he began to sympathize with their plight. After several trips to Spain to lobby on behalf of Native Americans, las Casas developed a joint Native-and-Spanish colony in South America in 1520, which quickly failed.

Subsequently, las Casas retreated to religious life. He produced many writings about the enslavement and brutalization of indigenous Americans and the religious implications of colonialization. Eventually, his work led to new laws that somewhat limited native enslavement. To enforce these laws, las Casas was named bishop of Chiapas in Guatemala in 1544. His final religious treatise forbade absolution for slave holders. Father las Casas died in Madrid, Spain, on July 7, 1566.

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The Colombian U'wa Indians: Sacred Land and Oil

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The Colombian U'wa Indians: Sacred Land and Oil