Eye on the Amazon

Resistance! Facing Down Goliath Oil Companies

U'wa spiritual leader Berito Cobaría has shared the U'wa cosmovision with solidarity activists in over 30 countries. Photo credit: Amazon Watch

The Achuar and U'wa indigenous peoples have me in awe of the immense power of grassroots resistance in the face of multi-billion dollar corporations. Years after graduating from university, I find myself once again a student. Throughout my tenure at Amazon Watch, I have been honored to "informally apprentice" under our wise and humble indigenous partners.

Today's teachers are the Achuar people of the northern Peruvian Amazon and the U'wa people of the Colombian cloud forest. In recent weeks, both have informed the world of important advances in their decades-long struggles to defend their homelands.

Last week, the Achuar announced a settlement against Occidental Petroleum for deadly damage caused by decades of oil pollution. The U'wa – taking the preventive approach – were able to stop a new gas project in its tracks, forcing Ecopetrol to dismantle an entire exploratory platform that had been constructed within their ancestral territory with no consultation process.

So how did they do it? These battles were hard-fought and part of much longer processes of resistance that date back decades, if not centuries. Here I shall attempt to break them down, even if the Achuar and U'wa would see them as part of one integral effort.

Base campaigns on indigeneity: The U'wa people root their actions in natural law, which long predates (and takes precedent over) the laws of men. For them, oil is the "blood of mother earth" and its extraction generates a cosmic imbalance, resulting in drastic environmental repercussions for mankind. Sira (God) designated the U'wa people as the guardians of the planet. This indigenous cosmovision both serves as a guiding principle for the U'wa themselves and as an inspiration for many people around the world to stand in solidarity.

Achuar community leaders attending the Oxy shareholder meeting in 2010, accompanied by actress Daryl Hannah. Photo credit: Amazon Watch

Organize internally: Maintaining internal cohesion is crucial for success. That's why corporations and governments work hard to sow division. At regular community assemblies, the Achuar people exchange information, come to consensus, and hold leaders accountable for straying from their mandate. Bringing people together from remote communities is often costly and time-consuming, but essential for keeping strong in the face of external pressures.

Recruit national allies: Within Colombia, the U'wa cause has traditionally maintained a high profile due to efforts to find allies at local and national levels. Solidarity has come from trade unions, campesino groups, students, environmental organizations, human rights defenders, and others. Colombia's National Indigenous Organization ONIC has been a long-time support for the U'wa, most recently sending a media team and featuring the U'wa in the broadcast of Colombia Nativa, a national news program dedicated to indigenous issues.

Internationalize the campaign: When confronting a multi-national oil corporation, it is crucial to go global. Following in the U'wa's footsteps, the Achuar brought their campaign to Oxy's doorsteps in Los Angeles, California. Along with support from Peruvian organizations, they partnered with international organizations like Amazon Watch and EarthRights International to ensure their voices resonated far beyond the borders of Peru.

Attack the corporate image: Corporations spend billions trying to project a positive image toward the public. Exposing the company's problematic practices in the media can be an effective way of exposing what the finance world calls the "reputational risks" posed by a drawn-out battle with indigenous peoples. The U'wa have been masters of the art of media relations, in part because they are crystal clear in their determination and position. Their central message has not wavered over more than 20 years, even as the offending party shifted from Oxy to Colombia's Ecopetrol.

U'wa lawyer Aura Tegría denouncing Ecopetrol via regional news network NTN24 in May of 2014. Photo credit: Amazon Watch

Pressure shareholders: Publicly-traded companies like Occidental Petroleum host annual meetings of shareholders. These can be excellent opportunities for community leaders to make their voices heard in a way that corporate leadership finds hard to ignore. Socially responsible investors can help facilitate entry of those leaders into the meeting (offering their "proxy") and issuing shareholder resolutions around issues like human rights and environment. Over the years, Oxy has heard from both the U'wa and then the Achuar at these times, ramping up pressure for a change in policy.

Mobilize on the ground: Grassroots community mobilization to protest and stop megaprojects can be a powerful, albeit often risky, strategy. On one hand, a group can literally stop major economic activity like oil extraction, exacting concrete pain on a company's bottom-line and governmental revenue. On the other hand, governments may opt for violent repression if initial efforts to mollify the protesters are unsuccessful. During these nonviolent actions, like the 40-day U'wa sit-in along the Caño Limón pipeline last year, external solidarity and media profile can make the difference between peaceful negotiations and a violent eviction.

U'wa community protests against oil exploration in 2014 - 'No oil exploration or extraction within U'wa ancestral territory.' Photo credit: U'wa Association of Traditional Leaders and Councils - ASOU'WA

Launch a lawsuit: Finally, an important tool within indigenous peoples' modern toolbox is legal action. This can happen at both national and international levels. Lawsuits are certainly not appropriate in all cases – they require a lot of time, financial resources, and focus, and are by no means a guarantee of success. But they remain an important option in the face of corporate arrogance and intransigence.

Going up against some of the largest corporations on the planet can seem like an asymmetrical battle. It is. The companies have unimaginable amounts of money, large legal teams, and high-powered public relations firms on retainer. But indigenous communities often have other resources at their disposal: deep spiritual power, intrinsic legitimacy within their homelands, a strengthening international rights framework, and in many cases the solidarity of grassroots people around the globe.

There is no magical formula for winning corporate campaigns. Many attempts have ended in less-than-decisive outcomes. But it is important to look at concrete examples of indigenous Davids confronting corporate Goliaths. For the moment, let's recognize the leadership of the Achuar and the U'wa, learn what we can from them, and apply their wisdom to future battles.

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