The U'wa People of Colombia's Cloud Forests

"Mother Earth, despite being violated, silently continues to feed and sustain us. She doesn't feel envy. She talks but very few listen to her voice. She insists through cries but everything continues the same. This worries us, but we, the U'wa of Colombia and the friends of the U'wa will continue to defend her with our voice, our sacred ceremonies, our songs and our faith." U'wa spiritual leader

Uwa GirlThe U'wa are a peaceful culture of more than 6,200 people who live in the remote Andes of northeastern Colombia, along the border with Venezuela. Both the U'wa and the cloud forest they inhabit are among the last of their kind in the world. However, the U'wa way of life is now jeopardized by oil, gas, and mining concessions condemned by environmental and human rights organizations around the world. Natural resource extraction and the construction of mega-projects in the U'wa territory has already contributed to a climate of violence which is likely to lead to a human rights and environmental disaster.

The U'wa, known as the "people who know how to think and speak," consider themselves guardians of the forest and the species therein. For centuries, they have protected large tracts of forest by prohibiting all human access - including their own. These tracts now function as de facto biological reserves for such species as jaguars, spectacled bears, and toucans. Outsiders marvel at the U'wa ability to sustain themselves without scarring the land. The U'wa are so careful that photos from the air cannot detect where they have planted crops.

The U'wa have no written language; their culture is preserved through song. Their religion dictates that they maintain harmony among the layers of creation: earth, water, oil, mountains, and sky. The U'wa hold that "Oil is the blood of Mother Earth ... to take the oil is, for us, worse than killing your own mother. If you kill the earth, then no one will live."

The U'wa Unified Reserve, located between the departments of Norte de Santander, Santander, and Boyacá, encompasses 17 U'wa communities. The U'wa are led by traditional authorities, known as the Werjayá (males) and Baucariná (females). These spiritual leaders are in charge of communicating with the superior powers found throughout nature, such as the plants, animals, rivers, sun, and stars. There is a parallel authority structure, as mandated by Colombian law, called the Cabildo Mayor, or High Council. In the U'wa case, this is called the Association of U'wa Councils and Authorities – ASOU'WA, which represents the U'wa toward the outside world in all aspects.

The current leadership of ASOU'WA was elected during an U'wa congress in December of 2009. The President is Gilberto Cobaría Bócota, a teacher who has lead efforts to revive ethno-education within the U'wa for the last 15 years. He is joined by Berito Cobaría Afanador, who now serves as the International Coordinator and has received various awards for his advocacy efforts.

The U'wa see their defense of nature as not only on their own benefit, but also for all life and biodiversity in their territory, in the service of all humanity and the planet itself. In addition to being vociferous environmental guardians, they are inherent pacifists by culture: the Uwa, for example, consider the mere presence of weapons in their territory to be violent.

The U'wa case is widely viewed as emblematic of threats faced by indigenous peoples around Colombia and the world. Indigenous leaders from Colombia and other countries have cited the U'wa struggle as a source of inspiration.

Current dangers

Having survived their continent's conquest and colonization, the U'wa now face the greatest threat to their existence in the last 400 years from a new breed of conquistador - the oil industry. The U'wa have repeatedly stated that they are willing to die to keep oil drilling off their ancestral homelands. In the words of Berito KuwarU'wa, currently International Coordinator of the U'wa Traditional Authority, "We would rather die, protecting everything that we hold sacred, than lose everything that makes us U'wa."

The current U'wa struggle against natural resource extraction dates back to 1988, when Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) made initial moves toward entering U'wa territory. Tensions escalated as the U'wa publicly expressed their rejection of oil exploration on their lands in the mid-1990s. The campaign internationalized when the U'wa held their "Forum for Life" in 1996, attended by international NGOs and media. Shortly thereafter, Berito Cobaría traveled to the U.S. in the spring of 1997 to confront Oxy representatives in their own offices. U.S. based allies formed the U'wa Defense Working Group (of which Amazon Watch was a founding member), Berito won the Goldman Environmental Prize, and a withering campaign – leveraging grassroots protests, civil disobedience, shareholder activism, and extensive media coverage – eventually forced Oxy to pull out of U'wa territory in 2002.

Although the solidarity campaign was successful in expelling Oxy, there are an increasing number of threats to U'wa self-determination and control of their own lands. Colombia's state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, is advancing gas extraction in the Gibraltar platform (immediately outside the Reserve borders, but on an U'wa sacred site) and building a gas pipeline that will have social and environmental impacts on the U'wa. Additionally, the U'wa have denounced other mega-projects, such as mining concessions, a bi-national road to connect Colombia with Venezuela, and eco-tourism project to be carried out within the El Cocuy National Park, which overlaps U'wa territory.

There continues to be a strong U.S. connection to Colombia and to the U'wa struggle. Of course, broader U.S. policies like Plan Colombia and the proposed Free Trade Agreement have a negative impact on indigenous territories, strengthening the legal rights of multi-national investor interests over the rights of local groups to control their resources. Expansion of Ecopetrol, already Colombia's largest corporation, has included an initial public offering at the NY Stock Exchange and a recent $1 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Export Import Bank.

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