Eye on the Amazon

How They Won

What we can learn from the U'wa and Achuar Victories in 2015

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

Excerpted from Amazon in Focus

In 2015, several indigenous peoples announced important advances in their decades-long struggles to defend their sacred homelands. The Achuar people of the Northern Peruvian Amazon and the U'wa people of the Colombian cloud forest both embody the power of grassroots resistance in the face of multi-billion dollar corporations.

In March, the Achuar announced a settlement against Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) for deadly damage caused by decades of oil pollution. Additionally, the U'wa – taking a preventive approach – stopped a new gas project in its tracks, forcing Ecopetrol to dismantle an exploratory platform constructed within U'wa ancestral territory.

How did they both do it? These battles were hard-fought and part of a long-term process of resistance that dates back decades. Here we examine strategies and tactics that worked for both the Achuar and U'wa, who consider their battles as part of one integral effort.

Base campaigns on indigeneity: The U'wa people root their actions in natural law, which long predates (and trumps) the laws of men. For them, extracting oil, or the “blood of Mother Earth,” generates a cosmic imbalance, provoking drastic environmental repercussions for mankind. The spirit Sira designated the U'wa people as the guardians of the planet. This indigenous cosmovision has both guided the U'wa themselves and inspired world-wide solidarity.

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 doorstep in Los Angeles. Along with support from Peruvian organizations, they partnered with groups like Amazon Watch and EarthRights International to ensure their voices resonated far beyond the borders of Peru.

Mobilize on the ground: Grassroots mobilization to protest megaprojects can be a powerful, albeit risky strategy. Stopping major economic activity like oil extraction gives the communities leverage. However, governments may respond with violent repression. During such mobilizations – as with the 40-day U'wa sit-in along the Caño Limón pipeline – external solidarity and media coverage can make the difference between a violent eviction or peaceful negotiations.

Attack the corporate image: Corporations spend billions on public relations and advertising. Exposing the company's problematic practices in the media can be an effective way of underscoring the corporation's “reputational risks” posed by a drawn-out battle with indigenous peoples. The U'wa are masters of the art of media relations, in part because they are crystal clear in their determination and position.

Launch a lawsuit: National and international legal action remains an important tool within indigenous peoples' modern toolbox. Lawsuits aren't appropriate in all cases – they require a lot of time and money and don't guarantee success. But the successful Achuar case against Oxy demonstrates that legal action remains an important option in the face of corporate arrogance and intransigence.

Confronting the largest corporations on the planet is an asymmetrical battle. The companies have unimaginable financial, legal, and public relations resources at their disposal. But indigenous peoples have other resources: deep spiritual power, intrinsic legitimacy within their homelands, a strengthening international rights framework, and global grassroots solidarity.

There is no magical formula for winning corporate campaigns. But it is important to look at concrete examples of indigenous Davids confronting corporate Goliaths. 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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