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The U’wa Continue their Struggle for Justice and Recognition of Cultural Rights after Victory over OXY

"The money king is only an illusion. Capitalism is blind and barbaric. It buys consciences, governments, peoples, and nations. It poisons the water and the air. It destroys everything. And to the U'wa, it says that we are crazy, but we want to continue being crazy if it means we can continue to exist on our dear mother EARTH." – U’wa Communiqué on the Withdrawal of Oxy from U’wa territory.

In its most recent “Drillbits & Tailings” bulletin, Project Underground highlighted the statement of the U’wa people to the international public on the withdrawal of the United States-based Occidental Petroleum Company (Oxy) from their territories. After ten years of peaceful resistance to OXY’s activities in their lands, the U’wa peoples are celebrating the preservation of their cultural principles and “that mother earth is alive, that the U’wa are alive, that the coming together of many voices, hands, cries, writings, meditation, feet, thought, etc. make people free from aggressors and destroyers.”

Numbering around 5,000 people, the U’wa live in the Departments of Casanare, Arauca, Boyaca, Santander, and the north of Santander in the Colombian Andes. The U’wa mounted a decade-long effort of peaceful resistance and opposition to OXY’s activity in their territories. At one point, they vowed to commit collective suicide if the project went forward, in the logic that it would have been better to die rather than to observe the destruction of their culture, and denial of their right to a dignified life and respect for the “mother earth”. Like many indigenous peoples, their strong spiritual beliefs are closely defined by a singular bond with their territory. In words of the U’wa: “Oil is the blood of Mother Earth…to take the oil is, for us, worse than killing your own mother. If you kill the earth, then no one will live.”

During those ten years they dealt with the situation through different channels. A national and international legal battle took place, which included two resolutions of the domestic courts in favor of the U’wa, in 1997 and 2000 - both were revoked later. These various decisions, the first by the Council of State, the latter by the Superior Court, and a recommendation of the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of the American States (OAS), in 1997, for “an immediate and unconditional suspension of oil activities in the Samoré Block”, were not taken into account either by the Colombian authorities or by OXY. Paradoxically, since Colombia has ratified the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, under Colombia law indigenous peoples must be consulted regarding to oil projects that are going to be executed in their lands.

The U’Wa developed a national and international permanent campaign supported by many diverse human rights organizations, indigenous organizations, and environmental groups.

The U’wa’s long struggle started in April 1992 when Oxy signed a contract with the Colombian government for oil exploration in the Siriri Block (formally Samoré Block), which is situated in the U’wa’s territory. In 1998, OXY’s partner Royal Dutch/Shell, abandoned the project stating that it didn’t want “another Nigeria,” an obvious reference to its past troubles in the Niger Delta, and its involvement in different violent actions and its implication in the execution of environmental activists by the Nigerian Government-. During 2000 different violent confrontations took place between the Colombian police, who were protecting OXY’s activities, and the peaceful U’wa protesters. Three children died as a result of the clashes and at least 28 people were injured, according to Rainforest Action Network.

In May 6, 2002 OXY announced its plans to return to the Colombian government the controversial Samoré Block. Although the company cited economic reasons for returning the Block, it was clear that the pressure, lobbying and protests of the U’wa people and their national and international allies had strong weight in this decision.

This announcement signified a major triumph for the U’wa, but they are determined that their fight will continue. They are demanding that the government return lands that were taken by force; end certain oil and mining projects in their territories; make reparations for the cost of land titling for their reserve and compensate the families of the supporters who lost their lives in this process. “The U’wa will show the government that we are dignified and fair, that we are not asking for anything that isn’t ours, and that mother earth and their children are sacred.”

The U’wa’s struggle serves as an important lesson and inspiration for many indigenous peoples and activists around the world, demonstrating that peaceful resistance can achieve even the most improbable of goals.