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Victory for the U'wa

by Patrick Reinsborough

We are seeking an explanation for this ‘progress' that goes against life. We are demanding that this kind of progress stop, that oil exploitation in the heart of the Earth is halted, that the deliberate bleeding of the Earth stop... we ask that our brothers and sisters from other races and cultures unite in the struggle that we are undertaking... we believe that this struggle has to become a global crusade to defend life. — Statement of the U'wa people, August 1998

When the story of Colombia's indigenous U'wa people first hit the world stage it was an all too familiar tragic tale: a ruthless multi-national oil company invades the homelands of a traditional culture, threatening their way of life and fragile ecosystem. It was a new twist on the same 500-year-old story of conquistadors, invasion and genocide that shaped the Americas, only this time the gold which the invaders where willing to kill for was black. The oil meant a great deal to both sides of the conflict. To the U'wa people (a name which means "the thinking people") oil is "ruira," meaning "the blood of Mother Earth." To extract it would violate their most sacred beliefs. To L.A.-based Occidental Petroleum (OXY), oil is the lucrative drug of choice for industrial society and the fast-track to record profits.

But on May 3rd at the Occidental shareholder's meeting in Los Angeles, the inspiring story of U'wa resistance turned a historic page. U'wa supporters had a presence at the meeting as they have for the past five years.

Activists from Amazon Watch, Action Resource Center and Project Underground greeted shareholders with giant OXY soldiers carrying weapons emblazoned with American flags and "Plan Colombia" logos. The efforts to educate shareholders about the deadly link between OXY's operations in Colombia and the rising body count of Colombia's brutal civil war continued with questions inside the meeting.

It was in response to these questions that OXY made the historic announcement that they had returned their oil concessions on U'wa land to the Colombian government and had no further plans to drill on U'wa land. Despite assuring investors for 8 years of a major oil strike and only pursuing one drill site in the region OXY now suddenly claims there is no oil in the region. In other words, when you strip away the corporate PR, the resistance of the U'wa and the pressure of the international solidarity campaign demanding peace and justice in Colombia helped force OXY to abandon their efforts to drill on U'wa land!

The significance of this victory cannot be understated. It is a victory not only for the U'wa and their thousands of allies but also a victory for all impacted communities fighting the devastation of resources extraction around the world. Although it is not the final victory for the U'wa it is a major milestone in their decade long struggle to defend their culture and homeland and teach the outside world that "if we kill the Earth then no one will live."

Guided by the spiritual leadership of their Werjayas ("wise elders") the U'wa struggle for survival has become a symbol of resistance to oil exploration, corporate led globalization and American militarism. Over the last 5 years, the U'wa resistance has inspired a massive international solidarity movement that has captured headlines with hundreds of peaceful demonstrations around the world. U'wa supporters confronted OXY's two most important shareholders ñ former Vice President Al Gore (who has long standing personal ties to OXY) and forced OXY's largest institutional investor mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments to dump over 60% of their holdings.

Bush's Latest Oil War

Despite this major victory that U'wa and all the peoples of Colombia are in danger of becoming the next collateral damage in George Bush's global military offensive against "terrorism". Post Sept 11 the Bush administration entered a new phase of the US war in Colombia. No more double speak, no more euphemisms, just good old fashion oil-igarchy straight talk. The Bush administration slated $98 million of the new anti-terrorism appropriations to protect OXY's Cano Limon oil pipeline. This money would go directly to the Colombian military's notorious 18th brigade, which is already being investigated for its links to the growing number of paramilitary killings in the region.

Bush's latest proposal affirms what the U'wa and other indigenous, human rights and environmental groups have been all along - US policy in Colombia is being written by oil companies.

Oil and violence go hand in hand in Colombia as oil installations have become a central target in Colombia's brutal 4 decade old civil war. 1 in 4 soldiers in the Colombian military is protecting oil installations. US oil companies like Occidental pay $1 war tax per barrel produced and new oil development becomes a magnet for the violence. OXY's main Colombia operation the nearly 500 mile long Cano Limon pipeline has been bombed over 1000 times in its 16 year history. In 2001 the pipeline was bombed so frequently that it was shut down for 266 days of the year. These bombings — an effort by leftist guerillas to deprive the government of the oil revenue it uses to fund the military — have created an ecological disaster, releasing nearly 3 million barrels of oil which is equivalent to about 11 times the the Exxon Valdez spill.

The latest policy initiatives are the culmination of over half a decade of behind the scenes maneuvering by energy corporations to hijack U.S. foreign policy towards Colombia. Since they formed the US Colombia Business Partnership in 1996 US energy corporations like Occidental Petroleum, Texas Oil and Enron have lobbied for US military aid to Colombia. In the last three years they have succeeded in winning passage of $1.3 billion in US military aid as part of "Plan Colombia."

Originally the American people were told that this aid package was part of the "War on Drugs" and the stated policy was that the US would not get involved in "counter-insurgency". But starting on September 12th we didn't hear so much about the War on Drugs in Colombia we started hearing a lot more about the "War on Terrorism" and the need to protect US oil pipelines from "terror" attacks. Good thing the Bush administration has switched rationales because recent studies have revealed that Colombia's coca production has actually increased 25% since Plan Colombia was implemented.

Two U'wa leaders, Roberto Perez and Armando Tegria traveled to Washington DC for the April 20th protests against Bush's Endless War and the Mobilization on Colombia. The U'wa had a simple message : Don't let the U'wa lands and culture become the next collateral damage in Bush's "War on Terrorism", stop military aid to Colombia Now! The U'wa participated in rallies, protests and teach-ins and addressed a crowd of nearly a thousand anti-corporate globalization activists in front of the World Bank.

Activists working with ACERCA (Action for Communities and Ecology in the Region of Central America) performed a eloquent skit which showed how corporate globalization and US militarism work hand in hand in Colombia. Amidst chants of "The Earth is not for Sale!" U'wa president Roberto Perez spoke of the need for people to unite and defend the Earth. He clarified that what is called Plan Colombia is really "Plan Washington" because it is a plan written by the U.S. government that serves the interests of US corporations at the expense of the peoples and ecosystems of Colombia.

But as with all victories this one has come with losses. So as we celebrate this victory remember the spirits of those who have given their lives as part of the struggle to defend the U'wa land and culture. Remember Terrence Frietas, Ingrid Washinawatok and Lahe'ena'e Gay, three indigenous rights activists who were kidnapped from U'wa territory and murdered by FARC guerillas in March 1999. Remember the 3 indigenous children who were killed in February 2000 when the military attacked U'wa blockades. Remember the 20 non-combatants who are being murdered in Colombia's war every day as well as the numerous cultures, species and ecosystems that have been lost across the region.

People's Globalization and the Ecological Crisis

The U'wa struggle to defend their cloud forest home is the embodiment of the clash of world-views that defines the globalization era. Across the planet traditional cultures with ancient spiritual traditions of living in balance with the Earth are under attack by soulless multi-national corporations capable of seeing the Earth only as a commodity to exploit and extract. It is up to all of us to choose sides, are we with those who fight to defend the Earth or those who would destroy it for personal profit.

Behind the corporate industrial juggernaut are the elite planners, scheming to globalize exploitation, environmental devastation and corporate profits. They are relying on the citizens of the global north whose consumption drives the global economy to remain ignorant and complacent. But as the U'wa campaign and others like it have shown, the elites are in for a surprise because inceasingly global north activists are weaving their struggles for peace, justice and ecology into a broader framework of people's globalization. More and more human rights, ecology and democracy activists are recognizing that the battle for the future is a battle to articulate values.

The struggle to determine which values will shape global civilization is reaching the crisis point where two very different paths are becoming apparent. Will it be democracy or global corporate rule? Will our thinking embrace the diversity of the planet's life and cultures or will we all be assimilated into consumer monoculture? Will we be subsumed into a fossil fuel driven global economy of build vibrant sustainable local economies? Which will win out ecological sanity or pathological capitalism? Will it be corporate globalization or people's globalization?

As we work for a different world — globalizing solidarity, dignity, and ecological sanity — we must look to indigenous resistance to help us relearn and articulate Earth-centered values. For over 500 years peoples like the U'wa have fought to protect their land and way of life from waves of invaders. Let us learn from their example and stand in solidarity with all the planet's besieged indigenous cultures.

The U'wa will continue to need our support and we will continue to need their leadership, clarity and inspiring example as we show the oil industry that they can no longer invade pristine ecosystems, violate the rights of indigenous cultures and de-stabilize the global climate. We need to let the oil barons who have taken over the White House know that that U.S. military aid to Colombia must stop! We can show them that we will no longer tolerate corporate rule, wars for oil or the doomsday economics that puts the interests of a few multi-national corporations ahead of the future of diverse life on planet Earth.

As the U'wa say in their victory communique "Brother and sisters of the world, the U'wa will continue defending mother Earth. We invite you to continue accompanying us." So celebrate the U'wa victory and let it fuel your passion to defend the Earth. Our work is far from done — but with each milestone, each victory, each action, each celebration we are getting closer and closer. Another world IS possible!

Patrick Reinsborough ( is a long term U'wa supporter and freelance global justice organizer. For ongoing updates about the U'wa struggle check out