The U'wa: Colombia

Located in the Colombia's Santander and Boyacá, The U’wa tribe is composed of 17 communities which amass about 7000 people. Though the U’wa accept the millennial culture, they fight so that others will accept their own.

The U’wa people are in tune with the earth; they believe that there exists no distinction between them and nature. Every living thing is seen as equal in the eyes of the U’wa, for they believe that all beings arise from the earth and are composed of the same essence. The U’wa hold the belief that petroleum is the life force of the earth, therefore, taking petroleum out of the earth is seen as bleeding the earth. This has led them to fight a head-on battle with multinational oil corporations.

U’wa representatives have been adamant about publicly denouncing the oil conglomerate. For them, taking oil out of the ground is synonymous to ethnocide. They call out the state for their negligence in the enforcement of the areas that the law holds as safeguarded. the new Constitution which recognizes and protects the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Colombian nation was passed in 1991, however, the same year a contract between Ecopetrol and other oil companies was signed for wells on lands which belonged to the U'wa.

In 1995, the U'wa showed their disdain for the project, but the Ministry of Environment issued the license to start exploiting the land that was protected by law. About 80 people went to a hearing for a dialogue. The resolution stated the opposite of what the U'wa asked for. The natives wanted the cessation of the activities of the oil companies, but instead they were bulldozed by a corrupt government.

In 1998 the U'wa went to the State to express their fears about the well being of the environment. They were routed out by police and riot teams. The U'wa people were met with violence as a response to their plea for justice.

The U’wa faced years of struggle to recover the land occupied by big oil. The U’wa threatened to take their own lives in protest. This threat of mass suicide had repercussions worldwide and an international effort was taken to block the oil companies from further abusing the U'wa people.

Since then, the U'wa community has not stopped fighting attempts by big oil to lacerate their land. The involvement of the guerrillas has worsened the situation of the U’wa, as they had to suffer attacks by armed groups while big oil tried to simultaneously pillage their land.

Since 2012 Ecopetrol has been prospecting a site called, “Bloque Magallanes,” located just 500 meters from lands that have colossal spiritual meaning to the U’wa. The area is completely surrounded by indigenous-owned lands, safeguards that have a legal existence. Yet, these sacred lands are not recognized by the state.

In 2012 ANLA (National Environmental Licensing Authority) gave license to Ecopetrol to begin working. The U'wa Association spoke out to the Ministry of the Interior, stating that they could not be given the environmental license because the site had indigenous communities that would be affected by the exploitation of the area. The Ministry replied that a commission would be held for inspection, a commitment that so far has not been fulfilled.

At the beginning of 2013 the U'wa sent a letter to the Interior Ministry asking for the discontinuation of the license for the Magellan project. So far the Ministry has not officially responded,

The exploitation of this well would cause irreparable environmental damage to the whole area, it was a wild and pristine place before oil exploitation. Its common knowledge that when drilling the earth and making underground explosions, cracks are formed where the waters that feed births, rivers, streams, ponds deviate. And that exploitation can take up to 95 barrels of water per barrel of oil. In addition, for every barrel of oil, 15 barrels of contaminated water are poured. That would seriously affect the indigenous population already suffering from contaminated water and disease.

The exploitation of the U’wa people is evident. Beyond the clear mistreatment of the U’wa people, what kind of precedent is Colombia creating? One that allows multinational corporations to march in and take whatever they want? The government that is supposed to protect them turns a blind eye as corporations gouge the heart of this struggling culture.