Eye on the Amazon

Indigenous Diplomacy

Colombia's U'wa Before the United Nations

Aura Tegria at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Photo credit: Abad Leyva, Encinal Oakland

For over two decades, Colombia's U'wa people have proven experts at the internationalization of their inspiring struggle to defend the rivers, mountains, and cloud forests of their sacred territory. In recent years, they have added the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an annual gathering at the UN headquarters in New York City, to their list of strategic international spaces in which to bring their message of dignity and resistance.

Following in the footsteps of Berito Cobaria and other U'wa leaders, Aura Tegria has emerged as a key U'wa emissary and spokesperson to the international community. Over the greater part of this year's forum, she was able to participate in a whirlwind of meetings with high-level UN and other government officials, public presentations, and informal encounters with indigenous representatives from around the world.

Serendipitously, recent forums have coincided with grassroots territorial defense actions being carried out by the U'wa within their territory. In 2014, they were protesting the Magallanes gas exploration platform, which was being constructed with zero consultation along a sacred river. (Good news! Their multi-pronged campaign forced the company to dismantle the platform in early 2015.)

Now they are again mobilized to protect their sacred Mount Zizuma, a.k.a. El Cocuy, which has been polluted and desecrated by commercial and touristic interests in recent years. Through her public presentation at a UNPFII side event (video here in Spanish and translation of her comments below) and many bilateral encounters, Aura was able to inform fellow indigenous representatives and other allies of the current situation and recruit their solidarity for the U'wa campaign.

Indigenous representatives and other allies show their solidarity for the U'wa campaign. Photo credit: Abad Leyva, Encinal Oakland

One tremendous advocacy opportunity this year's forum offered was a working meeting with Vicki Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She is currently investigating the question of the impact of conservation initiatives being carried out within indigenous territories. Ms. Tauli-Corpuz has expressed keen interest in the current tension between U'wa territory and the El Cocuy National Park, and she promised to include it as a case study in an international study she plans to publish in time for the IUCN Congress in early September.

This year the forum's theme was particularly relevant to the situation in Colombia, focusing on the role of indigenous peoples in war and peace. Whereas the Colombian government and the country's largest armed insurgency, the FARC, are currently negotiating peace accords, Colombia's 100+ indigenous peoples (and many facets of civil society) are demanding a meaningful place at the table. Aura joined a host of other indigenous leaders from Colombia, like ONIC's Juvenal Arrieta, in making that point in meetings and presentations.

Aura's busy and productive activities at the Permanent Forum were just the start of a multi-city U.S. tour. Currently she is in Washington, DC and will travel to the San Francisco Bay Area before heading home. Her return date was moved up to allow her to participate in a debate within the Colombian Congress about their sacred Mount Zizuma, demonstrating how the U'wa have successfully brought their fight to national political spaces within Colombia, an important compliment to the international advocacy work.

Presentation of Aura Tegría, U'wa lawyer

"Indigenous Women of the Americas Protecting Mother Earth" event
May 12th, 2016
Co-organized by WECAN, Indigenous Environmental Network, and Amazon Watch

I'm a member of the U'wa Nation, found within five departments of Colombia: Boyacá, Santander, Norte de Santander, Arauca, and Casanare. I would like to remember some of my grandparent's words that are sung in the ceremonies and rituals within our territory. When Sira (God) created the world, he established the natural balance. He created our house, the Blue Planet. And he wrote on our U'wa hearts a mission that we call the Original Law, the mandate. He said, take care of and protect Mother Earth. This is the mission of the U'wa. It is the U'wa philosophy, thinking, heart, and spirit. As we say, the Earth, our territory, is God.

When oil companies arrive in our territory, we have the vision to speak out in defense of life, of the Earth, as Sira commanded us. Oil, for the U'wa indigenous people, is the blood of Mother Earth. It is vital for life. And if we extract this blood, the Earth will die. For the Earth to die, is for humankind to also die. And no one wants to die. In this sense, we should join forces in defense of life – all of you and us, white people, Afro peoples, children, elders, women. Everyone in defense of life.

In the year 2000, with Occidental Petroleum arriving in our territory, we had to unify ourselves and say to the world that we want our territory to remain free of oil extraction. We wanted life, which for the U'wa people is water, the Earth, the sky, the air. Over that process, we lost lives, but this made us stronger. It made us believe that our brothers and sisters, non-indigenous people, could understand the concepts of life and existence.

Similarly, not long ago in 2014, once again Ecopetrol, a Colombian oil company, arrived in our territory wanting to exploit our Cubugón River, which is sacred to the U'wa people. And once again we said, "We're not going to allow this." We were able to force the Colombian government to listen to our word. We were forced to express ourselves, saying, "No more." We were able to dismantle the oil company's project even after the oil platform was constructed and force the government to back up because just as we had said in 2000, we U'wa weren't going to allow any kind of extraction, whether mining or oil, in our territory.

Today, I'm here sharing this with you but my people are once again mobilized. We are on Zizuma, the sacred mountain where many sources of water originate – lakes and rivers which bathe our territory and serve as an important source of water for Colombia.

In this sense, we are calling out for you to understand us and to accompany these important processes that indigenous peoples are leading in defense of our lands and life. I believe if those of us here are able to be conscious, this would be a big contribution toward putting the brakes on climate change because we could change the philosophy of money. If there is no water, no territory, money won't be of any use. We can't eat money. As such, I believe a valiant contribution to change this philosophy and return to ancestral thinking, to our roots, to defend what is important for all human beings: territory, water, air, and the sky.

Thank you.

Deep appreciations: Aura's advocacy trip to the U.S. has received critical support from many organizations and individuals. The core organizing has been shared between three steadfast institutional allies of the U'wa: EarthRights International, Mujer U'wa, and Amazon Watch. In New York, Aura benefitted greatly from the accompaniment of Mujer U'wa members Michelle Gutierrez, Sandra Alvarez, and Abad Leyva. Leo Cerda of Amazon Watch was crucial in getting Aura to priority meetings the first two days, keeping her nourished, and providing expert Spanish - English interpretation. Thank you to Amalia Córdova for receiving Aura upon her arrival and housing her the first night. Ongoing respect and appreciation to Ali El Issa for facilitating Aura's accreditation to participate in the UN Permanent Forum. And profound gratitude to the Indigenous Biocultural Exchange Fund (IBEX), with funding from the Christensen Fund, for awarding Aura with one of their 2016 indigenous travel grants which covered the costs of Aura's activities in NYC.

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