U'wa Indigenous Community Peacefully Occupies Ecopetrol's Gibraltar Platform to Demand Cancellation of Oil Project

1,000 U'wa Participate in 3-Day Action Despite Warnings and Intimidation Attempts by Military

Amazon Watch

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Ada Recinos at +1.510.473.7542 or ada@amazonwatch.org


Bogotá, Colombia — Nearly one thousand members of the U’wa Indigenous people from the cloud forests of northeastern Colombia participated in a historic march and peaceful occupation of Ecopetrol’s oil platform in protest of oil project on their sacred ancestral lands. The demonstration, which began Saturday and culminated peacefully today, coincided with what is officially called “Columbus Day” and what growing portion of civil society calls “Indigenous Peoples Day.”

U’wa elders, men, women and children marched for many days from their villages deep in the departments of Boyacá, Santander, and Norte de Santander. They converged on the controversial Gibraltar oil platform, which the U’wa say is within their sacred and ancestral territory. The oil project is fully owned and operated by Ecopetrol, Colombia’s state-owned oil company.

Prior to the demonstration, the U’wa issued a communiqué calling for the cancellation of the two oil blocks known as Sirirí and Catleya and the recognition of their rights to their ancestral lands. The Gibraltar Platform, which is inside the Sirirí block, is located in a contested area that the U’wa claim as their ancestral land but that the government says is outside the boundaries of the U’wa Reservation.

The U’wa defied military orders to cancel their march. In a letter dated 10 October, Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Puentes Sanchez, Commander of the 1st Special Energy and Road Battalion, part of the Colombian military’s 18th Brigade called a mandatory meeting to discuss the cancellation of the protests due to concerns for the “U’wa’s security.” In the context of Colombia’s civil war and the documented collusion between the military and paramilitary forces, this type of communication can often be interpreted as an indirect threat. Despite the warnings and intimidation, on Friday, the U’wa leaders declared their firm decision to move forward with the mobilization.

Ecopetrol took over after the U’wa and supporters forced U.S. based Occidental Petroleum to abandon the project in 2002. Since then, Ecopetrol has been carrying out exploratory drilling from the Gibraltar Platform and has been seeking regulatory approval to explore within the boundaries of the U’wa Reservation.

In addition, the U’wa said in their communiqué that they seek answers and in some cases restitution in three unresolved cases of violence: the assassination of three American Indigenous rights activists including Terence Freitas, founder of U’wa Defense Project by the FARC (March 1999), the drowning deaths of two Indigenous children during a forced removal of U’wa community members from Occidental Petroleum’s drill site (February 2000), and the killing of two U’wa, brothers Siwakubo and Rujkuiso Bocota by military forces (January 2004).

Amazon Watch and other Indigenous organizations in Colombia monitored the mobilization via frequent phone calls over the weekend. The mobilization successfully concluded without incident on Monday afternoon. The action culminated with a meeting between U’wa leadership and Lt. Col. Sanchez, in which the military official attempted to convince the U’wa of the benefits of allowing oil production.

Background

Since the early 1990’s, Colombia’s U’wa Indigenous group has expressed on innumerable occasions their unwavering opposition to any oil operations within their sacred territory, given their cosmological view of oil as the actual blood of their mother Earth and that any “bleeding” of the earth would violate their cultural and religious principles. U’wa leader Berito Cobaria won several prestigious international awards for his activism, including the Goldman Prize and Spain’s Bartolome de las Casas award. Following an international campaign, in 2002 Occidental Petroleum pulled out of the Sirirí project. Shortly thereafter, rights to concessions overlapping U’wa territory, notably the Sirirí and Catleya blocks, were transferred in full to Ecopetrol, which had previously shared ownership with Oxy.

Since Occidental Petroleum’s departure in 2002, Ecopetrol has continued exploratory drilling from the Gibraltar platform. The company has also attempted to get approval for expanded exploration within the U’wa legal Reservation. Given that Colombia’s state-owned oil company Ecopetrol is currently in the process of partial privatization, the U’wa recently called on investors in the United States to not purchase Ecopetrol shares as a result of this controversy.

The company carried out public offerings of stocks on the New York Stock Exchange on September 18th, 2008 offering roughly 10% of the company. JP Morgan Chase bank has been the underwriter of the process, facilitating the sales of shares on the NYSE.

Photos available upon request


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