Eye on the Amazon

Portraits of Resistance: Inside the Peaceful U'wa Uprising

Today, the Colombian government and the FARC left-wing guerrillas sign a final peace accord, after four years of negotiation; on October 2nd, all Colombians will vote in a referendum to approve the accord. Amazon Watch celebrates the signing of the peace accord as an important and necessary step for ending the violence that has produced over 6.5 million victims of forced displacement, killing, enforced disappearance, and more, in over 50 years of conflict-related violence.

We also know that peace is more than the silencing of guns, and that the peace accord will not address all sources of violence in the conflict; many still remain, like the smaller insurgency, the ELN; successor groups to the right-wing paramilitaries; and economic interests that don't hesitate to use violence to achieve their goals. Already, at least 35 human rights and environmental defenders have been killed in 2016. At particular risk will be indigenous communities, as the peace accord opens up new avenues to large-scale investment projects like gold mines, oil wells, highways, and tourist infrastructure. Amazon Watch will continue to stand with partners in Colombia as they defend their territories and ways of life.

To that end, we share with you this guest blog from Bogota-based activists working with our partners of the U'wa Nation in Colombia, recounting the U'wa's recent struggle to recover their ancestral territory from oil drilling.

"The environmental crisis is a crisis of civilization. It is a crisis of the economic, technological, and cultural model that has preyed on nature and denied alternative cultures. The dominant civilizing model degrades nature, undervalues cultural diversity and denies The Other (indigenous, poor, women, black people, the South) while privileging an unsustainable mode of production and lifestyle that have become hegemonic in the process of globalization" Manifesto for Life: Toward an Ethic of Sustainability, 2002

The U'wa Nation, an indigenous people that lives between the Colombian departments of Norte de Santander, Santander, Boyacá, Casanare and Arauca, decided as of May 30th 2016 to launch a peaceful collective action outside the Gibraltar gas production plant. This was a consequence of the Colombian Government's noncompliance with agreements made with the U'wa on May 1st and June 6th of 2014. Following 57 days in their mobilization, with it having been impossible to coordinate a high-level dialogue with the government, the U'wa people decided on July 20th ( Colombia's independence day) to recover and exercise territorial control within the properties of Santa Rita, Bella Vista, and Vega Rica, within which the Gibraltar plant, owned by [Colombian public-private oil company] Ecopetrol, has been constructed.

What does it mean that the U'wa recovered this ancestral territory?

We're talking about an indigenous people that was opposed to the construction of the Gibraltar project 16 years ago. Through time, the U'wa people have been characterized for the conservation, care for and protection of their territory through their traditional uses and customs. They are radically opposed to the exploitation of natural goods and services, such as the extraction of oil and gas, which the U'wa consider to be the Blood of the Mother Earth. "When these drills are inserted kilometers down into the earth, they are raping our mother," explains U'wa leader Berito Cobaría.

We're talking about a people that 16 years ago were evicted from their properties with guns, tear gas and a lot of violence. Obligated to abandon their ancestral territories, they saw two girls drown in the sacred Cubugón River as they fled. And while their bodies were being buried, the U'wa saw the arrival of heavy equipment that would construct the Gibraltar gas plans in the area of Samoré, Norte de Santander department. And now, those of us writing this article had the opportunity to accompany the peaceful mobilization in which these lands were recovered 16 years after the eviction. This experience changed our lives!

That's how it was when the U'wa Nation - with much prior collective and organizational effort, strategically in collaboration with 17 community councils and alongside the Sikuani indigenous people – kicked off their nonviolent action starting at 5am on July 20th of this year, in the midst of heavy rains. According to the leader Daris Cristancho, "This is how Sira, the U'wa god, accompanied us and manifested himself." Following a dark and cold night, just 5 minutes from a military base, the U'wa and Sikuani peoples descended from the mountains via different routes to enter en masse the Gibraltar plant. Once again, through nonviolent means, they walked on ancestral lands – a territory on which they had not been allowed to enter, or walk on, or carry out their own cultural practices for over 16 years.

To have closely accompanied and lived the day-to-day of this peaceful mobilization in which these lands were recovered will be an unforgettable experience. We were profoundly impacted to feel up-close the air they breathed as they were once again within a sacred site for the U'wa people. We learned so much about love for territory, about taking care, being organized, and being patient, about what can be achieved when there is unity and the nefarious consequences of outside forces that are able to break territorial defense processes. We remember the moment with great happiness, in the midst of a press conference offered from within the gas plant, when the campesino (rural small-scale farmer) community and the Mass Movement of west central Colombia publically announced that they were joining this just struggle and had decided to mobilize the Campesino Guard as a show of solidarity with the U'wa.

That's how the following day more than 300 campesinos arrived to set up watch at the 5 control points around the gas plant, helping shield the U'wa people within the plant who were under threat of forced expulsion. Those campesinos were ready to stay there for as long as necessary in order to protect their U'wa brothers and sisters. Representatives of other indigenous communities arrived, including Lucho, the national Indigenous Guard representative, with words of encouragement and courage, with the message that many indigenous peoples around Colombia were paying attention and supported the process. We breathed in an environment of unity and strength as hope grew, in this way a beautiful sharing was born between campesinos and indigenous: community kitchens, fishing runs, rotation of the guard, night shifts, conversations and the bonds of friendship and brotherhood.

Under the light of the sun we will never forget the strong tension felt when a possible forceful eviction was announced, above all the moment when the threat foretold materialized and helicopters arrived to drop off the armed outsiders [the National Police's Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squad – ESMAD]. The first to be ready to confront a possible violent scenario were the children of the Indigenous Guard, including one kid on crutches who was missing a leg. He was one of the most courageous guards we met, being one of the first at the entrance of the gas plant ready to defend his people up to the final consequences.

We learned then that courage and love for one's territory don't know fear. Amidst the chaos and deep anxiety of not knowing what would happen next, we heard members of the guard saying, "We will walk the talk and stick with the position of protection of our culture and exercise of our internal governance according to our Original Law. That's how it was established by Sira and that's how we will do it." In this way, they held up their ceremonial batons and yelled out, "Guard! Guard! Strength! Strength!"

The U'wa guard strategically placed themselves at different points to peacefully defend their native land that they had always inhabited. They did so with a singular clarity that they would not allow themselves to once again be thrown out by force, as happened 16 years earlier and under a decision to take things to the ultimate consequences, including collective suicide if necessary. The U'wa have always said, "Our dignity as an ancestral people has always been the flag of our process of struggle and resistance, to preserve the balance and all life on the Blue Planet, Kajka-Ika."

Following the arrival of the ESMAD helicopters, we traveled to the military base at Samoré alongside leader Aura Tegría and Yimy Aguablanca to confront the situation. They asked the national military commander in charge what was happening and what was the order they had received regarding an eviction from the Gibraltar gas plant. Over the course of the next three days there were many moments of high tension and uncertainty regarding what could possibly happen. The guard was intensified and many were unable to sleep at night, given the fear of having to confront the armed outsiders at any point.

Fortunately, in the end dialogue triumphed. On July 27th, in the Ubasha House of the U'wa Association (AWOU'WA), after more than 12 hours of negotiations with high-level government officials, in which both sides had to make concessions in order to arrive at agreements, they were able to agree. Peacefully the Gibraltar gas plant was handed back over to functionaries of Ecopetrol. To turn their ancestral lands back over was extremely hard for the U'wa people. However the priority was achieving an agreement in which the government would finally comply with all the points of prior agreements.

Through this experience we understood the importance of dialogue and the will to arrive at a political exit to the conflicts that exists in our country – the armed conflict, the social conflict, and the environmental conflicts that we are dealing with in Colombia. Today we are living a historic moment with the signing of a peace agreement with the FARC and we hope soon with the ELN. This is the opportunity to finally show we are capable of solving Colombia's internal armed conflict, the resolution of which is crucial for the triumph of the much wished-for peace. We are certain that it is our generation that will say Yes to the construction of a new Colombia.

Amongst many other people, this process was led by the young leader Aura Tegría, an indigenous leader who with barely 26 years of age has started to appear on the public stage and is being recognized internationally as a political actor who is spokeswoman for this just struggle. With her dedication and persistence she has been able to strengthen the U'wa Nations process to survive. She is clear that peace is an inalienable right and that, "our origin story, our ancestors and our spirituality are all based in the search for plentiful living with dignity, as such our struggle is for the defense of live, water, and Mother Earth." Aura's role in this process has captivated us and she has been a strong inspiration, motivation, and example toward us wanting to help and strengthen this process of defending their territory though the conservation of Kajka-Ika (U'wa ancestral territory) through what we can offer: communication, painting, dissemination.

Through time the U'wa Nation has organized many collective actions in defense of their ancestral territory and their legally-designated reserve. This position has become even more radical with the incursion of the forces of neoliberal globalization, through corporations and institutions of the State. This is a people who – regardless of the sadness and pain, regardless of the violence they have been subjected to since the colonial era, regardless of the different evictions they have suffered as they defend their collective rights – can be characterized by the peaceful struggle in defense of live and their survival as one of Colombia's ancestral people.

The U'wa are a people who would prefer to carry out collective suicide before being enslaved, who won colonial land titles, that have been able to expel extractive mega-projects from their territories and continue re-existing from their cultural and spiritual place, even if their ancestral territory is continually reduced and with it the balance and strength of their Werjayas [spiritual authorities]. This is a people that ratified their position to defend their territory and collective rights afforded them as an indigenous people from a vision of conservation of natural resources, the right to life, and the right to live in a dignified way maintaining all their uses and customs as they have from their historic legacy.

Today, once again, this people continues demanding justice and respect for their culture. They continue walking with their heads held high and with a profound hope that they will be able, one day, to inhabit their ancestral territory with the peace they deserve. Their struggle for survival is an inspiration and worth underscoring in this age in which it is "development" to which we must attribute much death and displacement of many indigenous, Afro, and campesino peoples of Abya Yala Latin America. As such the U'wa struggle is a huge example to be followed by other peoples in resistance.

As affirmed by Berito Cobaría in the middle of the meeting with high-level government officials: "Peace is the possibility of inhabiting our Mother Earth, within our territories in dignity, and for that the protection of our territories, the eco-systems, the water, the forests, the sources of life that are born out of Mother Earth. This includes protecting the river, that is home to the fish, or the snow-capped mountain tops that where our ancestors reside. Our mother isn't something to be sold, she has no price; that's why whenever it is necessary we will always mobilize ourselves in her defense and care."

We have known for some time of the day-to-day struggles that face the U'wa Nation in the midst of the war. We accompanied the victorious process in which they were able to kick out the Magallanes exploration drilling well. We accompanied the peaceful mobilization to defend their sacred Mt. Zizuma, a territorial dispute which continues with the El Cocuy National Park. These opportunities to accompany the struggles of the Uwa Nation has been a tremendous learning process for us about dignity, the re-existence and the love that a people can feel for their territory, a homeland that they have always inhabited and are willing to do whatever necessary to conserve it. As explained by the Werjayas, "we are the land on which we walk and that we defend. We are her guardian sons and daughters. Our struggle is for our existence and for that of all peoples." This all inspires us to closely follow the U'wa territorial defense process, amongst other important struggles around Colombia.

To that effect, the artist Luis Forero comments, "I feel very honored and blessed to associate myself with this struggle, to get to know their customs and worldviews, to share their coca leaf, and everything that their knowledge has cemented within me and my art work. This motivates me to continue learning and making visible through my paintings – everything that it means to be U'wa, their fertile land where water runs free and clean between beautiful mountains, where the first music are the sounds sung by nature and where they tell us the story of their ancestors. This is life in its maximum expression, for me this is paradise."

The U'wa people are clear about the importance of their alliances with national and international friends, which contribute by supporting and strengthening their struggle for indigenous relational autonomy. Therefore we are strategically helping out the U'wa re-existence using the tool of communication. We are working so that it is known at a mass level the underlying causes of the U'wa Nation's social and cultural nonconformity and therefore their mobilizations – the reiterated affronts and violations of their sacred sites and the determination of an entire people to maintain position of conservation and protection according to what is determined by their Original Law.

The message is for all to join this ancestral people who understand that to defend natural goods and services is to guarantee the existence of life upon this blue planet. The invitation is for all to commit oneself, for anywhere in the world, to defending nature and taking care of her in the face of an ecocide generated by natural resource extraction policies and by a mining-energy dictatorship that desecrates the land and threatens life itself on Earth.

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