Albion Monitor /News

U'wa Tribe: Stop Oil Drilling or we Commit Mass Suicide

by Yadira Ferrer

Conflict between the U'wa and the Occidental Petroleum has reached an impasse
(IPS) BOGOTA, June 19 -- Colombia's U'wa indigenous group, currently on a fast to underline their protest against oil exploration in their homeland, have now threatened a suicide pact if the operations continue.

The conflict between the U'wa and the Colombian branch of Occidental Petroleum has reached an impasse. After meeting government officials, U'wa representatives said they feared that the government and company representatives already had agreed to proceed with exploration, ignoring U'wa requests to cancel this initiative.

Roberto Cobaria, president of the Cabildo Mayor -- the U'wa's chief governing body -- says: "We wanted government representatives to come so that they would hear U'wa law expressed from the mouths of the U'wa people, but it seems they do not understand."

Cobaria declared his community preferred suicide -- "a worthy death" rather than to "die at the hands of those who come to exploit them"
At a recent meeting held at the U'wa reservation in northeastern Colombia, Cobaria explained to environment minister Eduardo Verano and mining minister Rodrigo Villamizar that "petroleum is part of something very sacred" which the U'wa call "ruiria" (earth fluids).

The U'wa say that petroleum is the "blood of Mother Earth," and therefore, its extraction cannot be negotiated. According to their theory on the origin of the universe, "ruiria" is the source of all plant and animal life, as well as the source of human spirit. If "ruiria" is taken from the heart of the earth, the planet will no longer be able to sustain itself and everything will be contaminated."

Cobaria says that if petroleum exploration begins on U'wa land, the whole process of colonialization will follow. "It will destroy the foundation of our traditional thought: 'werjayas' (priests) will stop singing and praying; dancing will cease. Every foundation underpinning our whole way of life will be destroyed."

Cobaria declared his community preferred suicide -- "a worthy death" by delivering their spirits to the god Sira -- rather than to "die at the hands of those who come to exploit them."

The Colombian Constitution of 1991 specifies that decision-making concerning natural resource exploitation ought to be done in consultation with local communities. The government issued an exploration permit to Occidental Petroleum after 30 meetings with indigenous representatives. These talks persuade Colombia's Council of State that legal specifications have been met.

Nevertheless, Native American senator Lorenzo Meulas says that the Colombian government and the Council of State have been ambiguous in their definition of "consultation." He asserts that these decisions must be made "as part of a concerted process" which so far has not taken place.

But environment minister Verano said that as long as there is no clear-cut agreement with the U'wa community, his office will not grant a petroleum development license in their homeland.

He said Occidental Petroleum had received "an environmental license to prospect for oil only in areas outside the U'wa reserve. This license was granted in February, 1995, allowing seismic analyzes in the Samore Block of Colombia's northeastern quadrant -- an area of about 500,000 acres.

The U'wa reservation covers 250 acres and is home to 707 families who dedicate themselves to agriculture, livestock and collecting forest products. The U'wa way of life does not create any excess "product" that might be commercialized.

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Albion Monitor June 22, 1997 (

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