Albion Monitor /News

U'wa Tell Court: Mass Suicide Unless Oil Drilling Stops

by Danielle Knight

and related article in this topic
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The U'wa peoples of Colombia, who are threatening mass suicide to stop oil exploration on their land, last week took their case to the Organization of American States (OAS) InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights.

"We are demanding that the Colombian government permanently suspend the oil exploration license of Occidental Petroleum and its associate Shell Oil on our traditional lands," said Roberto Cobaria, President of the Traditional U'wa Authority.

The U'wa have been fighting against the oil giants since 1995 when a Colombian court overturned a previousd decision in favour of the indigenous group. They then threatened to walk en masse off a 1,400 feet cliff in the Andes mountains.

"We would rather die with dignity, protecting what we hold sacred, than lose everything that makes us U'wa," said Cobaria.

A separate report by a commission of experts urged the oil companies to "immediately and unconditionally" suspend exploration
While the OAS commission said it wanted the U'wa to be protected, it would not make any recommendation to the Colombian government until it had completed a full investigation. Colombia is under no obligation to comply with any OAS ruling, although activists hope publicity surrounding the case may put the government under pressure to halt the project.

The commission plans to send investigators to Colombia next month but the U'wa and indigenous rights groups fear the government will obstruct visits to the potentially oil-rich 'Samore block.' The area, in the eastern foothills of the Andes near the Venezuelan border, is home to most of the 4,000 members of the U'wa community.

"We doubt the government will allow investigators to see the area where our land will be destroyed -- they will tell them that it is a dangerous area full of guerrillas," said Abadio Green, President of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia.

Colombian government officials did not present any formal statement at last week's hearings.

In an unexpected turn in the conflict last month, a separate report by a commission of experts from the OAS and Harvard University urged the oil companies to "immediately and unconditionally" suspend exploration activities in the Samore block. The report, commissioned by the Colombia government, was viewed as a major setback for Occidental in its bid to win the rights to exploit the potentially oil-rich territory.

Suspension of exploration plans would be the first step toward creating better conditions for the eventual renewal of dialogue with the U'wa, the OAS/Harvard commission members declared. They accused Colombian authorities of pressuring the indigenous group to agree to negotiations.

Environmentalists and human rights activists, however, criticized this report as it did not call for a permanent halt to oil exploration although they conceded it could influence the OAS human rights commission's recommendations.

Occidental Oil, based in California, volunteered to bring its operations to a temporary halt but maintained that, ultimately, the Colombian government must decide the fate of the Samore project and resolve the U'wa's opposition to it.

Colombia's Ministry of Mining, however, reiterated that "oil activity in the area will not cease."

The U'wa drew attention to this statement at the hearing to prove that the government, even though they called for the report, is really only interested in foreign investment. "The Colombian government is just trying to look good -- it's a publicity stunt," Green told IPS. "They obviously want the oil exploration and drilling to continue."

There is a 300-year-old precedent to the suicide threat
Occidental signed a contract with the Colombian government six years ago to explore the 800 square-mile Samore block which the company estimated could contain some 1.5 billion barrels of oil.

Government officials met with U'wa leaders in January 1995 and the indigenous officials demanded the right to consult their communities -- as stipulated in the constitution -- when resources on traditional lands is to be exploited.

But the U'wa say the government issued an exploration license to the company before the process could be finalized. U'wa lawyers responded the same month by filing two lawsuits against the government.

A Bogota tribunal ruled in favour of the U'wa in October 1995, but the decision was quickly overturned by the Supreme Court. The Werhayas, the spiritual leaders of the indigenous groups, then threatened to commit suicide in a desperate attempt to prevent oil exploration.

There is a 300-year-old precedent to the suicide threat. A community of U'wa peoples from Colombia jumped to their deaths from a local cliff in the late 17th century to avoid colonization by Spanish missionaries and tax collectors. The site subsequently was re-named the 'Cliff of Glory.'

Drilling for oil on indigenous land is direct opposition to the Constitution established in 1991, say the U'wa.

"If the government complied with its own constitution we would not be here in another country asking for support," Cobaria said. "Oil mining is a threat to our home, the animals and plants we eat, the water we drink, and our culture which is based on the forest."

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Albion Monitor October 20, 1997 (

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