Eye on the Amazon

Berito's Vision

How the Goldman Prize Bolstered the U'wa Struggle for Territorial Rights

Berito Kuwaru’wa accompanying us on our November 2016 delegation to U'wa territory. Photo credit: Amazon Watch

If UNESCO designated people as World Heritage sites, Berito Kuwaru'wa would be a leading candidate. On one hand, he personifies the beautiful and poetic U'wa view of the world, deeply connected to the original laws of nature. On the other, he is a unique and visionary human being, with an innate charisma through which he has bridged cultures and inspired global support for the U'wa struggle.

Berito is also one of the 1998 recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. That recognition helped consolidate the movement he led, catalyzing world-wide solidarity that was crucial in pressuring U.S.-based oil company Occidental Petroleum to desist from drilling in U'wa territory in 2002. Beyond the prestige and profile, the Goldman Prize included a substantial cash award, for use at the discretion of the recipient. This is the untold story of how Berito strategically leveraged the funds and how those decisions continue to strengthen the U'wa campaign for territorial defense to this day.

Decades Ahead of Their Time

In recent years, the global climate movement has adopted the rallying cry to "keep it in the ground" - reflecting the scientific consensus that at least two-thirds of known fossil fuel reserves must be left unburned if humanity wants to avoid catastrophic climate change. Several decades ago, Colombia's U'wa people sparked a global solidarity movement based on resistance to oil companies looking to drill in their homelands. For the U'wa, oil is the blood of Mother Earth and must maintain its position underground or upset the natural balance.

As oil companies like Occidental attempted to expand into this corner of Colombia in the 1990s, the U'wa responded with a multi-pronged campaign of resistance. They expressed their vociferous opposition to oil operations publicly. The launched a legal challenge that went all the way to the Colombian Supreme Court, and they won. And Berito began traveling internationally, expanding the audience of U'wa supporters into the U.S, Europe, and beyond.

As the international solidarity campaign to support the U'wa grew, Berito received the Goldman Prize. Whereas the cash component of the Prize has no strings attached - the recipient is free to use the funds as he or she sees fit - Berito invested the money back into the struggle.

Principally, Berito used funds to pre-emptively purchase plots of land where the U'wa believed Oxy wanted to drill. Extraordinarily, some of those precise locations continue to be the epicenter of tensions between the government's extraction plans and the U'wa campaign for self-determination.

One such area is a community called La China. During a recent international gathering in U'wa territory, we accompanied Berito and other U'wa leaders to a number of important sites, including La China. There Berito explained the history, including how he used the Goldman Prize funds he received.

Berito recounting the story at La China, flanked by U'wa colleagues. Photo credit: Amazon Watch

As Berito detailed, "I purchased this finca with Goldman Prize money, before the U'wa Reserve was here. I thought this was where the oil and gas was. I was mistaken, that ended up to be near Magallanes and further. I should have bought the land there instead."

By a twist of fate, the U'wa ownership of La China was a crucial piece of their successful resistance to exploration in Magallanes, some sixteen years after receiving the Prize. In early 2014, the U'wa realized another mega-project was underway within their ancestral territory with the arrival of heavy machinery. The state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, was drilling for gas in Magallanes, just meters outside of the northern border of the U'wa Reserve.

On short order, the U'wa mobilized in resistance, issuing public denunciations against the project and organizing themselves for a mass protest. By pure coincidence, a Colombian armed opposition group bombed the oil pipeline that runs through northern U'wa territory, right in La China. The damage crippled the pipeline, costing the company an estimated US $8 million a day in lost revenues. Instead of protesting directly in Magallanes, the U'wa set up a camp in La China, blocking any effort to repair the pipeline.

U'wa mobilized at La China with banner in English: 'No Oil Exploration Within U'wa Ancestral Territory'. Photo credit: ASOU'WA

The government attempted to claim that La China was not within the U'wa Reserve and that the U'wa couldn't block an effort to repair the pipeline. But the land title Berito had secured with the Goldman Prize funds belied their argument, offering the U'wa legal cover to continue their sit-in. Ultimately, Colombian government ministers came to the U'wa Association's offices and negotiated an agreement, signed on May 1st, 2014. The terms included a suspension of the Magallanes project and government resources to purchase land within the U'wa Reserve currently held by outsiders. In an unprecedented move, Ecopetrol dismantled the Magallanes exploration well in late 2014 and early 2015, an impressive victory for the U'wa. To this day, the U'wa are waging a legal battle to have the environmental license for the project definitively cancelled.

State of the U'wa Struggle

Over the course of 2016, the U'wa took their campaign to defend their territory to a new level. Early in the year, they mobilized to protect their sacred snow-capped mountain, known as Zizuma to the U'wa but El Cocuy to the outside world. The mountain is a popular destination for mountaineers. Where they climb, however, is the resting place of U'wa spirits as their people pass, and only accessible to U'wa spiritual elders under special circumstances. With support from peasant allies, the U'wa Indigenous Guard shut off access to the mountain, which remains closed to this day as they negotiate the implementation of a proper study of the environmental and cultural impacts of tourism there.

Additionally, the U'wa mobilized in June to peacefully occupy the Gibraltar gas production plant, a long-standing point of tension with Ecopetrol and the Colombian state. Though they had protested the plant for years, this was the first time they actually took it over. One of their key demands was governmental implementation of the agreements from 2014, many of which remain out of compliance. The U'wa also raised the fundamental demand that Gibraltar be decommissioned once and for all. Success on that front will likely require years of hard campaigning, but that stone has been cast.

Berito's Evolving Leadership

Over the last ten years, I have had the privilege of connecting with Berito in person on several occasions, both in Colombia and within the United States. Most recently, Amazon Watch joined a number of other Colombian and international allies to the U'wa for a strategic gathering in U'wa territory. Berito's evolving role in U'wa society was on display. Whereas two decades ago he was a key strategist and spokesperson, he is now a recognized spiritual elder. Berito has joined the network of keepers of the U'wa oral tradition, and blessed us at the outset and as we ended several days of learning, friendship building, and intercultural exchange.

Berito blessing the gathering. Photo credit: Amazon Watch

New generations of leaders are following in Berito's footsteps. The U'wa recognize the continued importance of building solidarity networks at local, national, and international levels. Members of the U'wa Association have taken up the mantle of international ambassadors, most recently lawyer Aura Tegría. In 2016 alone, Aura brought the U'wa message to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the World Conservation Congress.

After decades, Berito continues to be an important figure within the U'wa struggle to defend their rights and homeland. Likewise, the legacy of the Goldman Prize is strong. Land titles presciently purchased with the Goldman Prize funds have become one key foundation for the ongoing fight. The success of these battles is never guaranteed. But to some degree the victory over the Magallanes gas project can be attributed to U'wa ownership of specific titles, and future progress to strengthen U'wa control of their territories will likely owe a similar debt of gratitude to Berito's vision.

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