For over two decades, Colombia’s U’wa people have proven experts at the internationalization of their inspiring struggle to defend the rivers, mountains, and cloud forests of their sacred territory. In recent years, they have added the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an annual gathering at the UN headquarters in New York City, to their list of strategic international spaces in which to bring their message of dignity and resistance.
Following in the footsteps of Berito Cobaria and other U’wa leaders, Aura Tegria has emerged as a key U’wa emissary and spokesperson to the international community. Over the greater part of this year’s forum, she was able to participate in a whirlwind of meetings with high-level UN and other government officials, public presentations, and informal encounters with indigenous representatives from around the world.
Serendipitously, recent forums have coincided with grassroots territorial defense actions being carried out by the U’wa within their territory. In 2014, they were protesting the Magallanes gas exploration platform, which was being constructed with zero consultation along a sacred river. (Good news! Their multi-pronged campaign forced the company to dismantle the platform in early 2015.)
Now they are again mobilized to protect their sacred Mount Zizuma, a.k.a. El Cocuy, which has been polluted and desecrated by commercial and touristic interests in recent years. Through her public presentation at a UNPFII side event (video here in Spanish and translation of her comments below) and many bilateral encounters, Aura was able to inform fellow indigenous representatives and other allies of the current situation and recruit their solidarity for the U’wa campaign.
One tremendous advocacy opportunity this year’s forum offered was a working meeting with Vicki Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She is currently investigating the question of the impact of conservation initiatives being carried out within indigenous territories. Ms. Tauli-Corpuz has expressed keen interest in the current tension between U’wa territory and the El Cocuy National Park, and she promised to include it as a case study in an international study she plans to publish in time for the IUCN Congress in early September.
This year the forum’s theme was particularly relevant to the situation in Colombia, focusing on the role of indigenous peoples in war and peace. Whereas the Colombian government and the country’s largest armed insurgency, the FARC, are currently negotiating peace accords, Colombia’s 100+ indigenous peoples (and many facets of civil society) are demanding a meaningful place at the table. Aura joined a host of other indigenous leaders from Colombia, like ONIC’s Juvenal Arrieta, in making that point in meetings and presentations.
Aura’s busy and productive activities at the Permanent Forum were just the start of a multi-city U.S. tour. Currently she is in Washington, DC and will travel to the San Francisco Bay Area before heading home. Her return date was moved up to allow her to participate in a debate within the Colombian Congress about their sacred Mount Zizuma, demonstrating how the U’wa have successfully brought their fight to national political spaces within Colombia, an important compliment to the international advocacy work.
Deep appreciations: Aura’s advocacy trip to the U.S. has received critical support from many organizations and individuals. The core organizing has been shared between three steadfast institutional allies of the U’wa: EarthRights International, Mujer U’wa, and Amazon Watch. In New York, Aura benefitted greatly from the accompaniment of Mujer U’wa members Michelle Gutierrez, Sandra Alvarez, and Abad Leyva. Leo Cerda of Amazon Watch was crucial in getting Aura to priority meetings the first two days, keeping her nourished, and providing expert Spanish – English interpretation. Thank you to Amalia Córdova for receiving Aura upon her arrival and housing her the first night. Ongoing respect and appreciation to Ali El Issa for facilitating Aura’s accreditation to participate in the UN Permanent Forum. And profound gratitude to the Indigenous Biocultural Exchange Fund (IBEX), with funding from the Christensen Fund, for awarding Aura with one of their 2016 indigenous travel grants which covered the costs of Aura’s activities in NYC.