Eye on the Amazon

Colombia’s U'wa: Bending the Arc of History Towards Justice

Photo credit: Tatiana Vila / Kinorama CopyLeft

For decades, the U'wa indigenous people of Colombia have been an inspiration to others around the world, including everyone at Amazon Watch. With vision, persistence and courage, they have repeatedly demanded their rights and overcome the daunting forces arrayed against them.

Their admirable qualities were on full display this past week, culminating on Wednesday. Late into the night the U'wa reached a hard-fought agreement with the government of Colombia, securing renewed commitments and resources to strengthen U'wa territory and respect for their rights. How they got there was a long road, and one in which Amazon Watch supporters played an important role.

Beginning in March, the U'wa Indigenous Guard launched a series of nonviolent actions to establish what they call "territorial control" in different locations across their territory. First was the mobilization around Mount Zizuma (El Cocuy), one of the most sacred cultural and spiritual U'wa sites.

Then in June, they occupied lands further north that fall outside their United Reserve but are under collective ownership. This action originally coincided with the Minga Nacional (national indigenous mobilization) but the U'wa held their ground after the national event had concluded.

On July 20th, in the face of stalled discussions with the government, the U'wa took the additional step of occupying the controversial Gibraltar gas plant. They added the permanent closure of the Gibraltar site to their previous demands for expanded control of their own territory – both legally recognized and ancestral.

Taking over the gas plant was very risky. That was made clear this past Monday when Colombia's notoriously repressive ESMAD mobile anti-riot squad arrived on transport helicopters. This was a potent signal to the U'wa that tested their resolve, recalling the violent police repression against an U'wa protest of the Gibraltar site when it was still under construction in 2000 . Three U'wa children died as they fled the police crackdown, drowning as they attempted to escape across the Cubugón River.

Given all this, the context of Wednesday's "intercultural dialogue" between the U'wa and various government ministries and agencies was tense. Over more than twelve hours of negotiations – held in the U'wa headquarters in Cubará – they were able to arrive at an agreement that the U'wa qualified as including concrete advances. Key agreements include:

  • The constitution of the new Kuitua Reserve and work toward creation of the Pedraza Reserve;
  • Suspension of ecotourism within the El Cocuy National Park pending an environmental impact study that will be carried out jointly with the U'wa;
  • Financial resources to purchase properties within the U'wa Reserve and return them to U'wa control, especially areas where the Reserve overlaps with the El Cocuy National Park;
  • Finalize burying the section of the Caño Limon – Coveñas oil pipeline that runs through the U'wa Reserve;
  • No criminal charges against the U'wa for their actions, including "kidnapping" charges related to the occupation of the Gibraltar well; and
  • That the U'wa would suspend their protests at Gibraltar and Zizuma (El Cocuy) effective the following day.

The international support for the U'wa was manifest in the meeting. The UN human rights office sent an observer, as did the newly established Organization of American States' peace mission to Colombia. The U'wa read aloud a solidarity letter signed by dozens of international organizations. And almost 6,000 individuals had sent emails and tweets to President Juan Manuel Santos in support of the U'wa's demands. In their day-after communiqué, the U'wa expressed, "Our gratitude for the solidarity of the human rights and environmental defender organizations, both national and international, that support our just struggle."

Undoubtedly, not all the U'wa demands were met. For example, the Gibraltar gas well not only will not be removed but the agreement will allow for it to continue to operate. That said, the agreement notes that "The U'wa Nation expresses its position in opposition to the approval of current and future environmental licenses [for resource extraction projects] within its territory." In other words, the U'wa are determined to not let up as they continue to bend the arc of their history towards justice.

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