Eye on the Amazon

Beautiful Solidarity: Our Historic Visit to U'wa Sacred Territory

U'wa indigenous leaders and Amazon Watch representatives in front of the Gibraltar gas plant. Photo credit: Amazon Watch

Over our twenty-year history, Amazon Watch has entered into many relationships with indigenous peoples across the Amazon. One of the first such relationships was with the U'wa people from Colombia. Since the initial visit to the U.S. of legendary U'wa spiritual leader Berito Kuwaru’wa (previously known as Roberto Cobaría), we have accompanied U'wa delegations, raised international awareness, pressured multinational companies, risked arrest in direct actions, supported capacity building, and raised funds for the U'wa.

What we hadn't done is visit the storied U'wa homeland, located in the mountainous region close to Colombia's border with Venezuela. Amazon Watch teams regularly visit indigenous partners in Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil, but the very real security concerns related to Colombia's armed conflict required that we meet U'wa leaders in the capital city of Bogotá or elsewhere when we visited the country. Last weekend, that all changed.

I had the deep honor and privilege of accompanying Amazon Watch founder Atossa Soltani to the Summit in the Defense of Life, Territory, and Natural Resources, held November 28th and 29th within the U'wa United Reservation (U'wa Resguardo Unido). Our travels followed weeks of detailed coordination with U'wa leaders, in addition to painstaking preparations to mitigate the risks associated with the region's still-complicated security situation.

The participation of a multinational delegation of allies to U'wa sacred territory demonstrated the broad support for the U'wa struggle. The delegation served as a representative sample of the dozens of organizations, social movements, and individuals that over the last twenty years have become aware of the U'wa and offered their solidarity. We made the trip to reaffirm our solidarity in-person at a crucial juncture in Colombian history, as the government and armed insurgent groups try to make peace.

Over the course of the weekend we heard how the U'wa case continues to be emblematic of broader indigenous struggles, both nationally and across the globe. The U'wa resistance to oil development in their territory reflects patterns seen in so many other places: dirty energy mega-projects imposed on indigenous lands without the consent of local communities. Fortunately, over the years the U'wa have had inspirational victories. They successfully kept Occidental Petroleum from drilling in the late 1990's, and more recently they stopped the Magallanes gas exploration plant in its tracks.

After having supported those struggles from afar, we were honored to visit the epicenters of those struggles, starting with the Gibraltar gas plant, run by Ecopetrol and the focus of the U'wa collective peaceful action earlier this year. We then traveled to the nearby Magallanes gas exploration site, which today is nothing but a series of concrete pads close to the sacred Cubugón River. Despite such victories, the campaign to defend their territory from oil and gas extraction continues. The U'wa are ramping up demands to cancel the Magallanes environmental license and that the Gibraltar plant be decommissioned for good.

Additionally, the U'wa case is a clear example of the on-going tension between indigenous territorial rights and the imposition of natural protected areas. Throughout 2016 we have supported the U'wa mobilization around Mount Cocuy in Colombia's Cocuy National Park, which for the U'wa is a sacred site they call Zizuma. "Eco-tourism" on the mountain threatens U'wa spiritual rights and also endangers the rare and fragile highland páramo ecosystem. This dynamic of national parks and other preserves not taking into account indigenous peoples replicates itself across the globe, as detailed in the recent thematic report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The report cited the U'wa case and the Special Rapporteur invited U'wa spokeswoman Aura Tegria to join her on a panel before the World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.

The regional tourist industry is mounting political pressure for the national authorities to reopen the Cocuy National Park to tourists. Meanwhile, the government has not followed through on promises to carry out a proper environmental and cultural impact study with the U'wa, though dialogues continue. We must continue to follow the Zizuma conflict and support the U'wa demands, both for the sake of the U'wa and the protection of Zizuma, as well as for the powerful precedent the case will set for similar conflicts near and far.

Over the weekend, the name of the three U.S. citizens who were killed by armed actors involved in the country's civil armed conflict while visiting U'wa territory in 1999 – Terry Freitas and Native Americans Ingrid Washinawatok, and Lahe'ena'e Gay – were invoked many times. U'wa leader Elmer Tegría said the three haven't died because they are still very much present in the hearts of the U'wa people and will never be forgotten. Unfortunately, we know from experience that they are also emblematic of the grave risk indigenous leaders and environmental defenders face in their search for justice, like Kimy Domicó (Katio-Emberá, disappeared in Colombia), Berta Cáceres (Lenca, killed in Honduras), Edwin Chota (Asháninka, killed in Peru), and so many others.

At Amazon Watch we are extremely proud of the relationship of solidarity we have built with the U'wa, who continue to amaze and inspire us. We have personally learned and grown tremendously over the course of this alliance, thanks to lessons taught by U'wa spiritual authorities, leaders, and the next generation of activists. Visiting U'wa sacred territory and meeting face-to-face with so many U'wa friends and colleagues, we reaffirmed our commitment to accompany them for many more years.

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