U'wa Return to California

Colombian indigenous leaders from the U'wa people visited friends old and new in San Francisco and Los Angeles in late September of 2010. Berito Cobaría and Gilberto Cobaría, elected leaders with the Association of U'wa Councils and Authorties - ASOU'WA, explained how the peaceful-by-nature U'wa are designated by their creator to serve as guardians of Mother Earth. They also outlined the threats to the environment and their culture that they are fighting off, including oil extraction, a gas pipeline, mining, and the construction of a highway to Venezuela right through the heart of their territory.

  • Amazon Watch ED Atossa Soltani with Berito Cobaría, upon arrival in San Francisco. From U'wa territory in northeastern Colombia, the U'wa had to travel 14 hours by bus, lay-over in Bogotá to receive their visas, and then travel another 12 hours by plane.
  • The tour's first public event was a living-room chat with the Bay Area activists who participate in the Colombia Aquí Collective.
  • Martin Wagner, a lawyer with EarthJustice, helped the U'wa file a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the late 1990's. At a dinner, the U'wa spoke with Martin about how to continue leveraging the Commission in defense of their territories.
  • Gilberto spoke to a class of 150 students at UC Santa Cruz. Over the history of the solidarity campaign, UCSC has had a special link to the U'wa. A number of crucial allies of the U'wa have been graduates of the University, and perhaps some people in this most recent audience will emerge as future U'wa solidarity activists!
  • In 1998, the Goldman Foundation, which issues a prestigious environmental prize every year, recognized Berito for his activism against Occidental Petroleum's plans to explore for oil in U'wa territory. We took advantage of our SF stop to visit his friends at Goldman in their Presidio offices.
  • Amongst other friends, Berito and Gilberto re-connected with members of the organization Mujer U'wa, which visited their territory in August of 2010. See (http://www.peacedevelopmentfund.org/page/mujer) for more information about Mujer U'wa's initiatives.
  • While visiting Avatar director James Cameron, the U'wa gifted him one of their traditional bags, known as a chákara. Cameron noted that Western scientists were increasingly agreeing with indigenous calls around the imperative for mankind to respect nature's equilibrium.
  • Interviewing Gilberto for a planned U'wa documentary. Amongst other things, he talked about how neighboring areas of Colombia have been devastated by oil extraction, with severe impacts on indigenous culture and survival. The U'wa are asking for international solidarity before their culture is annihilated, before massacres are carried out against his people as have happened to so many other groups in Colombia.
  • AW board member Andrew Beath hosted an evening presentation at his Malibu residence. The audience, which included a number of LA-based activists who were previously arrested for carrying out civil disobedience at the Occidental Petroleum headquarters, grew to a standing-room-only crowd of 65.
  • Gilberto explained how the U'wa role of guardian of Mother Nature has put them in conflict with economic and political interests, both national and international, that want access to natural resources within U'wa territory. These include corporations, left-wing guerrilla groups, and State security forces.
  • The U'wa were privileged to visit the Chumash Discovery Village, nestled between the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean in Malibu. Their guide was Mati Waiya, a ceremonial leader and founder of the Wishtoyo Foundation (www.wishtoyo.org), an organization dedicated to reviving Chumash culture and defending their environment.
  • Through initiatives like the Discovery Village, the Chumash are resurrecting their traditional culture. Mati expressed his hope that the U'wa would retain their strong culture and never have to revive it.
  • The conch shell is sacred for both the Chumash of southern California and the U'wa of Colombia. After receiving an U'wa pouch, Mati returns the gesture with a conch shell for Berito.
  • Blessing the lunch, U'wa style, at Muse Elementary. The food, which is from our Mother Earth, gives us the strength we need to defend her.
  • Berito addressed the students at Muse Elementary, singing songs and sharing U'wa spirituality with them. The students performed several of their own songs in return. Berito noted that the forests around the U'wa are like their classrooms, and that young U'wa learn how to co-exist with all the animals and plants therein.
  • Another cross-cultural encounter was with Mariana Xuncax of Guatemala. She compared notes with the U'wa, talking about past and present issues facing Mayan indigenous peoples both back home and in the U.S. She also offered advice about how the U'wa could bolster the profile of their struggle through the United Nations system.
  • Enjoying mate de coca with long-time friend and actor Cary Elwes. In the past Cary leveraged his personal contacts within Hollywood to recruit other stars into the U'wa campaign. He also edited and narrated a campaign video about the U'wa. Seeing Berito after a number of years, he is reinvigorated to help out as needed.

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