The vast wetland savanna called Los Llanos stretches thousands of miles into Venezuela but it begins on the U’wa’s traditional territory at the base of the foothills below the cloud forests and paramos surrounding the sacred mountain Zizuma. For the last few years the worst fears of local environmentalists fighting on this forgotten frontline of climate change have come true: excessive exploitation of petroleum in the Casanare region on the eastern border of the U’wa resguardo helped cause the desertification of large tracts of land in the swamps and grasslands across the province. An estimated 20,000 animals have died of thirst as traditional water holes evaporated and cracked under the strain of complete ecosystem collapse. Now, the only sign of life in places that once teemed with native species such as capybaras, deer, foxes, fish, turtles and reptiles, is the occasional vulture.
As Highway 66 snakes around the base of the mountain range, it passes several fortified military outposts guarding bridges and monitoring the flow of traffic towards Cubará in the Boyacá Frontier District. These bridges that once conquered the massive flows streaming down from the paramos above the clouds in the west now overlook small streams of water between riverbed boulders as Colombia plunges into a severe drought.
Seventeen years ago, in the final week of April, 1999, an international event was organized known as U’wa Solidarity Week. It was the early days of climate change awareness when the world was just beginning to understand Global Warming and its potentially devastating effects on the planet. The international campaign against the oil multinational Occidental Petroleum had hit critical-mass after the kidnapping and assassination of Terry Freitas, the 24 year old co-founder of the U’wa Defense Working Group, and the two renowned native american activists Lahe’enda’e Gay and Ingrid Washinawatok, by FARC guerillas in eastern Colombia. Protests against Occidental Petroleom in support of the U’wa were being held in eight cities across the United States as well as in London, Hamburg, Lima and Nairobi. Meanwhile, in the background, the burgeoning power of a very young cyber-network called the Internet had created a space for the remote U’wa nation, heralding a new age of activism that facilitated vital connections between grassroots indigenous movements and environmental activists abroad.
Berito traveled to Los Angeles with another U’wa leader, Mr. Nuniwa, where the two men were received by organizations such as Rainforest Action Network, Project Underground, Amazon Watch and half a dozen other groups that planned to converge on Occidental Petroleum’s Annual Shareholder Meeting on friday, April 30th, 17 years ago.
At a dinner before the shareholder meeting the two U’wa leaders held hands to say grace with the two-dozen American activists around a feast of primarily vegan salads and vegetarian stews for the activists and dishes of meat for the chiefs. With the assassination of the American activists still painfully fresh in the minds of the the protest movement, the U’wa leaders proclaimed that after his death Terry Freitas had visited the dreams of the Werjayá, the shamanic healers of the U’wa in charge of communicating with the superior powers that flow through nature. In the dream Freitas was clutching a white snail shell, a symbol of spiritual purity and peacemaking, and the Werjayá declared the apparition of a god. The two U’wa leaders Berito and Nuniwa invoked their ancestors at the dinner table and summoned the spirit of Terence Freitas.
The following Wednesday, halfway through U’wa Solidarity Week, about 200 or so people marched from the University of California, where Freitas had studied, to Occidental’s headquarters a mile away. Many of the protestors were led away by the police.
“Why don’t they just finish us off for good, so we don’t have to struggle?” Berito told the Wall Street Journal, while his colleague Mr. Nuniwa expressed surprise that their march lasted as long as it did, considering the extremely aggressive tendencies of Colombia’s riot police.
The movement placed an advertisement in the New York Times — endorsed by Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, Oilwatch, Oxfam-America, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the Center for International Environmental Law and others — warning Occidental shareholders of the political and environmental risks of the mining project: “U’wa territory will not be spared the oil wars raging in the nearby Arauca area, where a violent attack on Oxy’s pipeline occurs every eight days. Meanwhile, those familiar with U’wa culture warn that their suicide pact must be taken seriously. U’wa oral histories recount an event four hundred years ago, when an U’wa band leaped from a cliff rather than submit to the Conquistadors.”
As protestors picketed the building hosting the shareholder meeting, inside Occidental’s chairman and CEO Ray Irani, seethed as the U’wa leader Berito lectured him for 45 minutes. Berito sang a sacred song in the U’wa tongue which he told protestors the previous night at dinner would be about “Mother Ocean and her breath, the wind, which sweeps up our words to the gods.” The 1,000 or so shareholders in attendance applauded the U’wa leader. Chairman Irani’s response was to declare: “The fact of the matter is your problems should be discussed with the Colombian government, not here… It doesn’t matter what Occidental does or doesn’t do.”
The Sinsinawa Dominican nuns, who held 100 Oxy shares, proposed that the oil multinational hire an independent firm to analyze the potential impact on the company’s stock if the U’wa people’s pledge to commit mass-suicide was fullfilled. The proposal, which Terry Freitas had helped draft, went on to win approval from 13 percent of Oxy shareholders, totaling over 40,000,000 shares, exceeding the expectations of the activists and forcing those opposed to consider the consequences.
After the meeting, Chairman Irani and the other directors made a stealthy exit out a side door where their limousines waited on the opposite side of the building to the protestors. Irani told the Wall Street Journal, “The U’wa use these activists very effectively.” Meanwhile Oxy Vice President Lawrence Meriage complained that the campaign was a concoction of certain activists up in the Bay Area and suggested the U’wa were being manipulated by U.S. environmentalists dead set against oil exploration, as well as the Colombian guerrillas that his company helped finance since the 1980’s. “We feel as a company that we’re caught in the middle,” said Mr. Meriage.
“We demand an announcement by Occidental that it is canceling its project on our ancestral land,” said Berito, “There is nothing else left for the company to do.”
As outrage over Occidental Petroleum’s behaviour in Colombia continued to grow, the oil multinational pushed ahead with their plans to exploit the petroleum block on U’wa territory. The next year, in February 2000, several hundred indigenous people and thousands of Colombians mobilized to block roads and prevent heavy machinery from arriving at the drilling site. The demonstration ended in tragedy as Colombian security forces violently dispersed the protestors with beatings and tear-gas leading to the tragic death of three U’wa children who drowned in the river while trying to flee government troops.
Occidental Petroleum pulled out of petroleum block on U’wa territory in May 2002, 10 years after the U’wa first threatened to commit mass suicide in protest. That same month, as senior members of the U.S. government publicly rallied against the FARC for the “terrorist murder” of Freitas, Gay and Washinawatok, President George H.W. Bush proposed $98 million in military aid to the Colombian government to protect Occidental Petroleum’s Caño-Limon-Covenas oil pipeline.
“We are dismayed to see the Administration’s cynical and exploitative use of Terence’s murder to justify further U.S. military aid to the Colombian armed forces,” friends and family of Freitas stated in response to the President’s proposal. “Employing Terence’s death as a means to continue perpetuating violence in Colombia grossly contradicts everything Terence believed in.”
“This isn’t about corporate welfare, it’s not about protecting Oxy,” a State Department official said. “It’s a security argument, not a U.S. economic interests argument.” The $4 million dollars that Occidental spent lobbying the U.S. government, however, certainly paid off for the company.
As the U’wa struggle slowly faded from the consciousness of the international community, the oil wars in eastern Colombia continued to escalate with the $98 million injection of U.S. military aid. Despite the U.S. State Department designating the AUC – the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia – as a terrorist group in 2001, these paramilitary death squads formed the vanguard of the Colombian Army’s surge into the ELN stronghold of Arauca province, along the Caño-Limon-Covenas pipeline.
The Colombian army, meanwhile, received additional funds totaling billions of dollars coinciding with the kidnapping and execution of thousands of Colombian civilians, whose bodies were then dressed up in guerrilla uniforms to artificially inflate body counts, a crime known as the “scandal of false positive”. Between 2000 and 2010 the Colombian military kidnapped and executed 164 civilians in Arauca, 122 in Boyaca, 301 in Norte de Santander, 209 in Casanare, the four provinces bordering the U’wa Nation’s territory.
Occidental Petroleum’s direct financial and logistical support to the Colombian military included a specialized meeting room inside the Oxy-fortified compound for the 18th Brigade that operates in Arauca and the Boyacá Fronteir District of Cubara with the mandate of protecting the Cano-Limon-Covenas. Commander César Oswaldo Morales of the military’s 18th Brigade was imprisoned in 2012 for kidnapping and executing civilians years earlier in northern Colombia.
In an effort to deescalate the war, an agreement between the government and right-wing paramilitaries saw the AUC begin to lay down arms in 2003. The demobilization, which is widely viewed as a failure, led to the rise of neo-paramilitary groups called BACRIM that continue to threaten and target the civilian population and indigenous people who protest the contamination of their lands and waters by oil operations in the region.
In 2006, the BACRIM inflicted a reign of terror in the Catacumbo region of Norte de Santander, displacing 8,000 civilians over a few months to the north of the U’wa resguardo’s border. It was the same year that Colombia’s Interior Ministry cleared the way for state-run Ecopetrol to begin new explorations in the U’wa territory on behalf of the Spanish oil giant RepSol, as well as on another site inside U’wa territory to the west of the Gibraltar drilling site.
There is not a pipeline on the planet that has been bombed as many times as the Caño-Limo-Covenas. It is an engineering marvel that reaches deep beneath the war-torn province of Arauca and stretches 780 kms (480 miles) across the country to the Caribbean and the effluent discharged into the rivers and lakes that surround the oil well make them no longer fit for human consumption. The several hundred bombings that have ruptured the length and breadth of the pipeline have also polluted 1,625 miles of rivers with thick cancerous crude, leaving a devastating legacy for the local indigenous and rural populations.
This particular environmental disaster is a symptom of a larger problem in Colombia with roots that reach deeper into a much darker cause. Across the country indigenous men, women and children from tribal nations both large and small are being murdered and displaced to make-way for mega-mining projects. In the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Kankuamo Indigenous Peoples were the victim of twin arson attacks on separate religious temples two days after they canceled consultations with the government to oppose 400 mining projects in the region that will affect 100,000 indigenous people. In the northern state of La Guajira, the multinational el Cerrajon mine is diverting 17 million liters of river water daily during a severe drought that has decimated rural people’s livestock and responsible for indigenous Wayuu children dying of thirst.
For the Wounaan Peoples on the pacific coast, 63 families have been displaced in the past year as petroleum exploration takes place on their ancestral lands. “We know that the peace process will open the way for megaprojects that bring international investments into our territory,” said one member of the Wounaan, “therefore we know that true peace will not come. For Indigenous Peoples the violence will not end with the peace process.”
The ability of the Colombian government to hold multinationals to account for crimes against the civilian population, Indigenous Peoples and the environment is limited while the country attempts to rebuild its crippled economy and frail state institutions after half a century of war. Despite this, predatory multinationals are currently suing the Colombian government for billions of dollars whenever it attempts to protect the environment: such as the $16.5 billion lawsuit that U.S. Tobie Mining and Energy launched against the government when it declared an area in the Amazon rainforest a National Park, where the U.S. company owns a mining concession; or the lawsuits launched by multinationals protesting the new law banning mining in the country’s paramos.
Seventeen years after her murder, Washinawatok’s words in her essay “On Working Towards Peace” now seem increasingly prophetic: “The roots of war and violence go deep, into the Earth herself. As an indigenous woman, I wish to simply state that until we make peace with Earth, there will be no peace in the human community.”
“In the late 90’s the U’wa struggle against Occidental Petroleum resonated with progressive social movements that were fighting corporate domination, the multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank and free trade agreements like NAFTA,” said Andrew Miller, Director of Advocacy at Amazon Watch. “The core U’wa messages have not changed, and once again we see synergies within the global conversations about climate change and the growing movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”
It was the multiple bomb attacks on the Caño-Limon-Covenas inside U’wa territory in March and April 2014, which not only showcased the indigenous nation’s vulnerability but also its strength. The subsequent 40-day protest in which petroleum engineers were prevented from accessing the bomb-site to fix the ruptured pipe cost the Colombian government $130 million dollars. The concessions that the state proceeded to make to the U’wa in exchange for stopping the protest included the dismantling of the gas exploration project in Magallanes; other points in the agreement have since been ignored.
A year later, the pipeline was bombed again on U’wa territory, contaminating the Cubogón and Arauca rivers and creating an environmental emergency that left the entire state of Arauca downstream without water. The Colombian government had still not fulfilled its side of the deal leading 40 organizations to sign an open letter to President Santos reminding him of the agreement.
At the end of March, 2016, two weeks after another twin-bomb attack on the Caño-Limon-Covenas, and only days after the U’wa mobilization surrounding the Cocuy National Park received the threatening photograph of the armed-sheep, Amazon Watch issued its highest red-alert to warn its network of concerned global citizens of the dangers facing the protestors. The International Urgent Action has so far received 5,000 signatures from people around the world supporting the U’wa’s demand of a direct dialogue with Colombia’s former Minister of Environment.
The requests were ignored; however, just two weeks ago, on April 25th, President Santos replaced the minister with Luis Gilberto Murillo, the former Governor of Choco province, who is himself a victim of the war after being kidnapped by paramilitaries. The new Minister for Environment is now presented with the opportunity to mend relations with the U’wa Peoples by handing over the administration of the Cocuy National Park, an act that would protect its precious ecosystems while providing a source of income to the communities via sustainable and responsible tourism. The government’s obligations under Colombian law, however, do not end there. The U’wa still urgently need access to better health-care facilities and clean drinking water to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and dysentery — two basic human rights that the international community can pressure President Santos to fulfill.
As the U’wa leader Berito recovers from tuberculosis in his wooden shack in the cloud forests on the eastern border of the United U’wa Resguardo, he is content at having officially changed his name late last year. The indigenous leader passed IC an original copy of his signed and stamped identification papers, issued to him a year earlier when he traveled to Bogotá to change his name from Roberto Cobaria, the name arbitrarily placed on him by Catholic missionaries. Now, the Colombian government must recognize him by the same name his people call him – Berito KuwarU’wa KuwarU’wa – the wise and powerful Werjayá whose life work has been to guide the people who know how to think and speak through the most violent and longest running armed conflict on the South American continent.
In the coming weeks or months when the FARC and Colombian government are expected to finalize a historic peace agreement, the war will not be over for the U’wa people. The Paramilitaries eventually dispersed, more BACRIM may be imprisoned, most of the FARC will probably demobilize, the ELN may lay down arms, the state military might be disciplined with court-martials, but the Colombian government will never give up its relentless thirst for the sacred blood of Mother Earth underneath the ancestral lands of the U’wa. Once again the U’wa are cornered on all sides with their backs against a cliff, but the question remains if the indigenous group will jump or if they will be pushed.
“The U’wa people are reaching out at a national and international level to ask for the unconditional assistance to our struggle that dates back many years,” Berito announced in 2014, before he became sick. “We refuse to be silent and we are going to mobilize ourselves and once again engage in protest actions against the extraction of oil which will damage our Mother Earth.”
Jake Ling is the founder of www.ecuadorecovolunteer.org and has worked with indigenous communities for several years on conservation projects in the Andes and Amazon. He writes for Colombia Reports and IC and he tweets at @chekhovdispatch