Profile in Courage: Berito Cobaría

"For me, nothing has changed. That's why we have to realize indigenous rights throughout the world, not just here in Colombia."

Roberto Berito Cobaria

So declared Roberto "Berito" Cobaría, the celebrated U'wa spiritual elder, as he turned in his 3-D glasses following a viewing of Avatar. Earlier this year, I accompanied three of Colombia's U'wa indigenous leaders to view the film in a Bogotá multiplex. The link between the U'wa experience and the movie's narrative of indigenous stewardship of nature against rapacious resource extraction was unmistakable.

Astonishingly, for all of Berito's extensive international travels, Avatar was his first big screen film experience.

Berito burst onto the international scene in 1997, when he first traveled to California to face down Occidental Petroleum. The Los Angeles-based oil company had been scheming to drill for oil on U'wa territory, against the vociferous opposition of the U'wa. Berito's charismatic message inspired Amazon Watch – along with dozens of sister organizations and thousands of grassroots activists – to stand in solidarity with the U'wa, defending the blood of our Mother Earth. The collective efforts of the U'wa were recognized in 1998, when Berito was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize. In 2002, following years of withering pressure campaigns, Occidental announced they would withdraw from U'wa territory.

As a Werjaya, or U'wa spiritual elder, Berito is an unwavering spokesman of the U'wa's unique cosmo-vision. Recently, he reiterated that "the U'wa have problems with the petroleum companies because they do not have authorization to utilize our territory. For this reason we always tell them that they must negotiate with Sira (God) and not with us. Natural law says clearly: ‘If you violate, I will punish,' through earthquakes, hurricanes, floods or darkness."

Respect for Berito is not limited to international solidarity activists. Indeed, within Colombia's indigenous movement he is revered as an experienced statesman. When I first met him in late 2007, Berito was serving on a committee of distinguished elders during a quadrennial national congress of the country's indigenous federations. According to Luis Fernando Arias, General Secretary of Colombia's National Indigenous Organization – ONIC, "Berito taught Colombia's indigenous people and the world the importance of the globalization of resistance, how to defend the beloved earth, and how to fight against climate change."

Following a hiatus from formal leadership, Berito was re-elected to the U'wa Association (ASOU'WA) in December of 2009. As the designated International Coordinator, he has since traveled to the United States and Europe, re-connecting with long-time friends and allies. In April, Amazon Watch partnered with the National Museum of the American Indian to bring Berito and the ASOU'WA President, Gilberto Cobaría on a tour of New York and Washington, DC. Berito's message to policy makers and media, environmental organizations and the general public alike was consistent: the unique U'wa culture is alive and well, but at risk. Occidental Petroleum may have divested from U'wa territory, but the list of encroaching threats expands like the mythical many-headed serpent, the hydra.

Any affront to U'wa sovereignty – whether a gas pipeline, a road to Venezuela through their reserve, or increased military presence in their territory – will be challenged by an indomitable Berito Cobaría. After 13 years, through victories and setbacks, Amazon Watch will continue standing with him and the other 6,000 U'wa. We hope we can count on you to join us.

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