Eye on the Amazon

Protecting Their Sacred Zizuma

Colombia’s U’wa Indigenous Guard Mobilizes

U'wa Indigenous Guard. Photo credit: ASOU'WA

"Now is the opportune moment to leave a historic legacy for our future generations, in the conservation of and care for our Mother Earth. For all the money that man might have, we can't survive eating money if we don't have water for humanity's existence." U'wa letter to the white man

Taking direct action to defend their territory is a deadly serious proposition for Colombia's indigenous peoples. Seared in the collective memory of the U'wa people are the drowning deaths of three U'wa children when they fled a violent police crackdown on anti-oil protests in 2000. As such, the current mobilization of the U'wa Indigenous Guard to stop tourists from entering the sacred snow-capped mountain peak of El Cocuy has grabbed national and international attention.

Zizuma is the U'wa name for the majestic mountain that lords over their ancestral territory, playing a unique and central role in their spiritual cosmovision. This is the resting place of their divine beings, the source of spiritual wisdom for their Werjaya (traditional authorities). The mountain is so sacred that it is not to be looked upon directly and only the Werjaya are authorized on rare occasion to climb its slopes in search of communication with the natural world.

As with many indigenous sacred sites, the mountain's intrinsic beauty and energy has attracted others. Known as El Cocuy, this mountain has become a destination for tourists and alpine mountain climbers. The New York Times called it the "Secret Colombia Above The Clouds". The El Cocuy National Park also overlaps significant sections of U'wa territory.

An incident in late February has brought this clash of worldviews to a head. A group of Colombian climbers summited and played a high-altitude game of soccer, as part of a charity fundraising campaign. The video was broadcast on Colombian media, provoking immediate protests from campesino communities who had previously expressed concerned about the protection of the glaciers.

From the north the U'wa sent members of their Indigenous Guard – unarmed men and women from across their reserve – to block entrances to the sierra nevada. The economic impacts are being felt in the region, with many Holy Week tourist reservations having been cancelled. Unfortunately, recent history shows that the Colombian government does not take seriously the concerns of indigenous and other grassroots communities until protests begin to negatively affect economic sectors.

A high-level meeting was held this past Sunday. So far, no agreements have been reached. The U'wa are understandably suspicious of any agreements since the government has yet to comply with 2014 accords it made following U'wa pipeline protests. To date, the mobilization of the U'wa Indigenous Guard continues, while fresh dialogues are being carried out. We can expect the issue will not resolve itself overnight, but the U'wa are models of patience and long memories.

Following are translations of two U'wa documents: the letter they delivered and read at Sunday's meeting, and the public communiqué the issued thereafter.

This is the word of resistance. Read it. Share it. And support it!

"Today We Cry As Our Zizuma is Condemned to Disappear"

Communiqué for National and International Public Opinion
Cubará, Boyacá – March 22nd, 2016

The U'wa indigenous people would like to inform about a meeting carried out this past March 20th, in the municipality of Cocuy, between governmental and environmental authorities, oversight bodies and indigenous and campesino sectors, with the intention of arriving at favorable conclusions for the protection and safeguarding of the snow-capped mountaintops of Zizuma (El Cocuy) and the political and administrative will for collective understanding to this end. The demands of the U'wa people and campesinos were:

  1. Temporary suspension of tourism in Zizuma, while a diagnostic be carried out about the El Cocuy National Park, a study that should be carried through a public university and financed by Colombia National Parks office.
  2. Compliance with the agreements of 1 May 2014 and 6 June 2014, signed between the Colombian National Government and the U'wa people, in which we agreed on, amongst other things, the total saneamiento (clearing of non-indigenous settlers) of the U'wa United Reservation and no co-administration with Colombia National Parks.
  3. Declaration of the El Cocuy National Park as an area of cultural, spiritual, and vital interest of the U'wa people and all inhabitants of Colombia. It should be a site that is governed by and respects the cultural principles and norms of the U'wa people.
  4. The U'wa people observes with great concern the disappearance of our Zizuma sanctuary through the intervention of tourism, the negligence of the environmental institutions and authorities who are violating and ignoring environmental norms, such as the Precautionary Principle, consecrated in national and international law as a key principle for the protection of the environment, with the goal of orienting the conduct of all agents in order to prevent or avoid grave and irreversible harms to the environment.
  5. We publicly denounce the expressions of Carlos Amaya, governor of Boyacá, who said that if the blockades around El Cocuy Park do not stand down, he would take action through the armed forces. Yesterday in the afternoon members of the National Police inspected the areas where the U'wa Indigenous Guard and campesinos are concentrated.
  6. The collective and peaceful actions of the U'wa people will continue in strategic points around the El Cocuy Park, in order to guarantee compliance with the agreements. We demand respect for everything consecrated in ILO Convention 169, which recognizes and protects the values and social, cultural, religious and spiritual practices of our peoples. Article 13 establishes "In applying the provisions of this Part of the Convention governments shall respect the special importance for the cultures and spiritual values of the peoples concerned of their relationship with the lands or territories, or both as applicable, which they occupy or otherwise use, and in particular the collective aspects of this relationship."
  7. We make a call for solidarity to sister peoples and organizations that defend human, environmental, and social rights, for their accompaniment and assistance in defending our snow-capped Zizuma, in favor of life and the survival of ancestral peoples. We call on the supervision and control agencies of the Colombian government to accompany the process of coordination and dialogue for the protection and conservation of El Cocuy mountain – ZIZUMA.

Association of Traditional U'wa Authorities and Councils – ASOU'WA
Present for the Survival of Indigenous Peoples

Letter to the Colombian Minister of the Environment

CC: Colombian National Parks authority, Governor of Boyacá, Director of Corpoboyacá, Municipal Mayor of Guican

March 20th, 2016

"Now is the opportune moment to leave a historic legacy for our future generations, in conservation, care for our mother earth. Because for all the money that man might have, he can't eat money if we don't have water for humanity's survival."
– U'wa letter to the white man

Through the High Council of the Association of Traditional U'wa Authorities and Councils (ASOU'WA), the public entity of special character which represents the 17 U'wa communities found in the Colombian departments of Santander, Norte de Santander, and Boyacá, and in the framework of our process of resistance and our legitimate right to express ourselves through collective action as a mechanism to claim and defend of our historic patrimonial rights, the U'wa people ratify our position of territorial defense of Kakja-Ika.

Our ancestors have left a historic legacy through our traditional authorities, called Werjayas, to maintain the physical and spiritual world's natural and biological equilibrium through our rituals, dances, and songs carried out during different seasons, preserving the natural life of all existing resources in our Mother Earth and our human beings.

The intervention in our ancestral territory and sacred site Zizuma (called the El Cocuy National Park) has brought an imbalance to our Mother Earth, destruction and pollution, and cultural, spiritual, territorial and social imbalance within the U'wa people, moving us toward a physical and cultural disappearance. For the U'wa people, Zizuma is the principal axis of the human being, of our sacred territory, where the divine beings live who exercise the equilibrium of our blue planet, and where the ancestral and cultural knowledge of our traditional authorities (Werjayas) is materialized.

Given the incompetence of the Colombian National Park authority to administer and exercise control of the El Cocuy National Park, and given their role as tourism operator, they have ignored their function in terms of guaranteeing the protection and conservation of protected areas. Events like what happened on February 28th affect the heart of our belief system and contribute to the climate change that we are seeing today around the world, affecting the most sacred areas for the U'wa people.

As the U'wa people, we are defenders of our Mother Earth and the legitimate owners of our ancestral lands. We ratify our posture of defense and protection of Mother Earth, respect for our sacred sites, life and our survival as an ancestral people. We demand the immediate closure of tourism within the El Cocuy National Park as this is just one small step toward a guarantee for life, culture, and the existence of Mother Earth.

We U'wa people express that we won't renounce our right to resist as it is a legitimate instrument that allows us to demand our collective, territorial, cultural, and environmental rights. The goal is to guarantee the existence of the U'wa people and all other peoples, and to provide future generations with a healthy environment and natural resources that make possible their survival on the blue planet.

With great admiration we look upon our Riowa (non-U'wa) brothers and sisters, the campesinos of El Cocuy and Guican de la Sierra who have taken the initiative to defend and ratify the position we all took in 2013, when the U'wa people demanded the proposal to not allow tourism in the U'wa United Reservation, principally within the sierra Nevada El Cocuy.

Bladimir Moreno, President
Association of Traditional U'wa Authorities and Councils – ASOU'WA

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