Eye on the Amazon

Colombia’s U’wa – Two Decades Later, Fighting On

Help the U'wa Defend Their Ancestral Lands!

Indigenous U'wa leaders must travel to the UN to prevent Colombian government from forcibly entering their lands.


What can we learn from the U'wa? Persistence, for one thing. Decades after they came to the world's attention for successfully protecting their sacred lands from environmental destruction, they have not wavered in their determination. The threats may change – Occidental Petroleum announced their departure from U'wa territory in 2002 later replaced by Colombia's national oil company Ecopetrol – but their vociferous (and strictly nonviolent) self-defense will not.

The latest attacks on their lands and their culture are concentrated in northern U'wa territory. Starting in February of 2014, Ecopetrol intensified oil exploration activities on an oil platform known as Magallanes. While technically outside the U'wa resguardo (reservation), the area is firmly within U'wa ancestral territory. It is also immediately next to the Cubogón River, which holds spiritual significance for the U'wa, in addition to supporting their daily livelihoods.

Berito Cobaría – longtime U'wa spiritual leader and recipient of the 1998 Goldman Environmental Prize – spoke out in a recently published video interview. "We have to pass along the wisdom we have held over many centuries around speaking for and protecting the environment." The U'wa continue to see oil (Ruiria, in their language) as the blood of mother Earth. "What could we do right now if we didn't have blood in our bodies?" Berito continues. "Our bodies would weaken and die. That's what's happening as we are extracting this blood from the Earth, causing the slow death of our natural environment."

Thinking in terms of climate change, the U'wa vision as articulated by Berito and the latest findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are very similar, if couched in different terminology.

In late March, an illegal bombing of the Caño Limón oil pipeline – which runs through part of the U'wa resguardo – created toxic pollution and caused severe health issues for several U'wa individuals. The company and government are eager to patch the pipeline and resume 80,000 barrels of daily transport to the Caribbean coast. But the U'wa, exercising their rights within their own legal territory, have refused to permit any repair to be carried out.

The U'wa are demanding a direct dialogue with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, a group of 50 U'wa are watching over the pipeline's ruptured section near La China. The U'wa are deeply concerned that the government might resort to use of military force to displace the U'wa against their will and repair the pipeline under national security justification.

To safeguard their rights and lives, the U'wa are working in conjunction with allies like Amazon Watch to raise awareness within Colombia and around the world. In addition to their grassroots actions at a local and national level, next month they hope to send a delegation of leaders and legal advisors to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in New York City. International support is critical for the safety of the U'wa people. You can join us and contribute to make the U'wa's trip a reality. Please support their emergency campaign to defend their land and rights!

"The U'wa people are reaching out at a national and international level to ask for the unconditional assistance to our struggle that dates back many years. We refuse to be silent and we are going to mobilize ourselves and once again engage in protest actions against the extraction of oil which will damage our Mother Earth."Berito Cobaría

Map of oil exploration in U'wa territory

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