e-mail us

Cover story

U’wa vs. ‘Oxy’

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Cubará, Colombia

They called it dialogue. Standing barefoot in the sun, the U’wa looked up at the government officials sitting comfortably on a stage six feet in the air.

The delegation from the Colombian government had traveled to this isolated village in midsummer because the U’wa had blocked area highways to prevent trucks belonging to Occidental Petroleum -- known here and in the North as “Oxy” -- from reaching the company’s Gibraltar I drill site at Cedeño.

An awning advertising Aguila Beer protected officials from the tropical July heat. A bevy of aides provided chilled bottles of water for officials, while dozens of soldiers and police ringed the area. The television crews that flew in from the capital with the government delegation captured every official word but turned to film the crowd of Indians only when it broke into a chant of “U’wa si, Oxy no.”

The highway blocking was the latest incident in a life-or-death struggle over land rights between indigenous Colombians, some 7,000 strong, and a powerful U.S. oil company with ties to Al Gore and his family. The ongoing clash, prompted in part by Colombia’s dwindling supply of oil, has implications for the U.S. market, and for church leaders in Colombia, who are trying to determine how best to accompany the U’wa in their struggle.

The current conflict echoes earlier battles throughout the Americas between indigenous cultures and powerful economic interests intent on exploiting natural resources.

The U’wa, whose territory is nestled in the misty forests of northeast Colombia near the border with Venezuela, have been engaged in a struggle with Occidental over land rights since the early 1990s, when scientists from the giant petroleum company found evidence of 1.3 billion barrels of crude oil more than two miles below the tribe’s land. In 1995, the Colombian government granted Occidental an exploration permit, ignoring a constitutional requirement that the U’wa be consulted first.

When tribal leaders complained, the Colombian government tried appeasing the U’wa by dramatically enlarging the U’wa reservation. Yet tribal leaders say the sites where Occidental wanted to drill were left out of the newly configured territory. Moreover, the U’wa argue that the entire area belonged to them until Spanish missionaries and agricultural settlers began systematically encroaching on their land over hundreds of years. That erosion has continued. One recent report shows the Colombian government stripped the tribe of 85 percent of its land between 1940 and 1970.

As company geologists and engineers moved in after 1995 to build roads through the reservation, so did the Colombian army, installing two military bases in the area and harassing local residents. In February, when the U’wa blocked roads leading to company drilling sites, army troops beat and evicted the demonstrators.

In March, the U’wa gained a temporary reprieve in the courts, but a higher court ruled against them in May. When Occidental began moving heavy equipment and materials toward Cedeño, the U’wa and local mestizo peasants (those of mixed Spanish and Indian blood) again blocked area roads. While they permitted other traffic to pass, they lay their bodies in front of Occidental trucks. In June, the government sent in riot police and soldiers; 28 demonstrators were injured and 33 arrested.

Rare show of unity

Undeterred, the U’wa and the mestizos -- in a rare show of interethnic unity -- maintained the roadblocks, forcing government officials to fly July 7 to nearby Saravena, from where they and the Bogotá television crews were ferried by helicopter to Cubará. It was the second such “dialogue” to take place. In August 1998, a similar group of officials came here, but when U’wa leaders began complaining about broken promises, the government representatives got up and walked out.

This year they stayed put, even as tribal leaders read long documents strongly critical of the government and Occidental. This time, confronted by mounting international support for the U’wa cause and unified local opposition to Occidental, the government had to at least make a show of listening. The day ended with an agreement to hold further talks in the capital.

Protesters removed their roadblocks. Tribal leaders weren’t optimistic, but felt they had to demonstrate good faith.

The U’wa remain adamantly opposed to drilling. To emphasize the seriousness of their opposition, tribal elders have raised the possibility of mass suicide if the tribe loses out in its struggle against big oil. U’wa history offers a precedent. In the late 17th century, several hundred U’wa jumped off a 1,200-foot cliff rather than submit to forced colonization by Spanish missionaries and tax collectors. The area was subsequently renamed the “Cliff of Glory.”

“The land is the root of who we are,” Roberto Cobaria, a former tribal president, told NCR. “From the land we were born. To drill into the earth damages the land, the body of the world. Petroleum is like blood, running everywhere throughout the body of the earth. We demand that the government respect our culture and our sacred land. The U’wa people have a culture that goes far back, and land was always what produced life for us. Without land, there is no life. Without land, where are we going to sit? Where are we going to cultivate our crops? Where are we going to educate our children? Without land, there is no life for us.”

Cobaria has traveled through the United States and Europe talking with politicians and activists, explaining the politics of oil. “For the petroleum companies, progress means pumping out all the oil. But when it’s all gone, what are we going to eat? Progress for them means taking all the petroleum to another world, leaving us here poor,” Cobaria said.

The U’wa appeal for solidarity has borne fruit. In the United States, U’wa supporters have spoken out during Occidental shareholder meetings, banged drums outside the Bel Air, Calif., home of Occidental CEO Ray Irani, demonstrated at the Democratic Party’s convention in July and picketed the offices of Fidelity Investments, the world’s largest mutual fund company, urging it to divest an estimated $500 million in Occidental shares.

“We thought for a while that we were alone,” U’wa leader Gloria Tegria said. “Yet we’ve come to realize that a lot of people help us, people who, like us, don’t want to see Mother Earth die. This international solidarity has given us more respect inside the country. It’s forced the government and the military and the insurgents to have to respect us.”

U’wa supporters have also dogged the campaign trail of Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, whose family has long had close business and personal ties to Occidental. Gore has often wined and dined with Occidental officials, but he has rebuffed repeated requests for a meeting with U’wa leaders traveling to the United States.

A generous donor

Occidental has been a generous donor to Democrats in recent years, and the Clinton administration has been responsive. According to an investigative report by Ken Silverstein, published in May in The Nation, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson traveled to Colombia in 1999 to meet with government officials on the company’s behalf. Richardson also hired a longtime Occidental lobbyist, Theresa Fariello, to serve as deputy assistant secretary for international energy policy, trade and investment. While working for Occidental, Fariello had lobbied the Energy Department on behalf of the company’s interests in Colombia. And the revolving door swings the other way: A former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and close aide to Gore, Scott Pastrick, was hired by Occidental in 1997 to lobby the Clinton administration to support its Colombia operations.

For those who support the victims of Occidental policies, solidarity can prove costly. Early in 1999, three U.S. activists were kidnapped and killed while accompanying the U’wa. The three were assassinated by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, called FARC. Rebel leaders blamed a rogue local guerrilla commander for the killings, but both U’wa leaders and independent observers in Colombia suggest more is at stake. They say the rebel forces have constantly opposed the U’wa struggle, unlike Colombia’s other main leftist army, the National Liberation Army, called ELN. That army has grudgingly honored the U’wa request to be left alone.

FARC’s anti-indigenous posture may be influenced by payments from Occidental, a common practice in Colombia for companies doing business in areas controlled by rebel forces. The only Occidental official in Colombia authorized to issue public statements, Legal Director Juan Carlos Ucros, did not respond to repeated phone calls.

Yet Occidental’s vice president for communication and public affairs, Lawrence Meriage, acknowledged before a U.S. Congress subcommittee last February that Occidental personnel regularly pay off guerrillas in exchange for being left alone (see accompanying interview).

Meriage told the hearing that Colombian “guerrillas and the U.S.-based radical NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] are both engaged in the cynical manipulation of the small indigenous U’wa community in order to advance their own agendas,” and claimed that “the U’wa are in no position to speak openly about what is really happening.” Meriage admitted that his remarks about the situation on the ground were based on the observations of “Occidental representatives who have overflown” the U’wa region.

Meriage claimed during the hearing that one benefit of Occidental operations in the U’wa region had been the increased presence of government troops. He said Occidental supported increased U.S. military assistance to Colombia, and even urged the United States to expand its military operations in Colombia -- largely focused on coca eradication efforts in the south of the country -- into Colombia’s northeast, where the U’wa stand in the way of its drilling operations.

Human rights workers and church leaders are increasingly worried, too, about the presence in the area of paramilitary units that are independent but usually closely linked to the military.

Time for church to step in

According to Fr. Luis Fernando Miyan, a Catholic priest from the diocese of Arauca’s indigenous ministry program, “It’s a good time for the church to step up its accompaniment of the U’wa.” As a beginning to that process, the bishop of Arauca, Rafael Bernal Supelano, came to Cubará in February to listen to the U’wa. Miyan has been present since, talking with protesters on the barricades, inviting U’wa leaders to church-sponsored conferences on indigenous themes.

Such accompaniment may help save lives, but Miyan recognizes it certainly won’t be easy. “The church has been present here for more than 50 years. We’re looking for a project of church accompaniment where the indigenous are the protagonists, subjects of their own process of change. In the past, our indigenous ministry made decisions for them, it was very paternalistic. Some of them say we deceived them and destroyed their culture. So our work with the U’wa today isn’t very close. Rather, there’s distance and separation between us. They haven’t told us to leave but neither have they told us to stay. We want to improve the relation. My role as a priest today is to get close to them, listen to them, accompany them, make friends with them, make them understand that the church wants to work with them, that they make the decisions and the church accompanies them,” Miyan told NCR.

The violence that has wracked Colombia for decades seems destined in the coming months to reach more completely into isolated corners of the country. In July, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed a $1.3 billion aid package that further militarizes Colombia’s seemingly endless war. Included in the package is an increased presence of U.S. troops and the provision of 63 high-tech military helicopters to the Colombian military and police.

While most of the rhetoric about the U.S. aid has focused on drugs, petroleum figures into the political equation. In 1999, oil was Colombia’s biggest export, accounting for 31 percent of total exports and 24 percent of the central government’s income. Colombia is the eighth-largest supplier of foreign crude oil to the United States, with more than 330,000 barrels per day shipped primarily to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas and Louisiana. Yet the well is beginning to run dry, and unless new reserves are discovered, Colombian officials claim they will have to import oil beginning in 2005. U.S. officials would like to guarantee a safe and steady supply of crude from neighboring countries like Venezuela and Colombia, thus lessening dependence on Middle East providers.

According to Fernando Montano, a lawyer with the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, the expansion of Occidental’s operations -- with the help of the Colombian and U.S. governments and militaries -- is typical of the effect of globalization on small indigenous groups in the Third World. “Our lands are up for sale to the highest bidder, no matter what we say, and no matter what the constitution says,” said Montano, a member of the Zenu tribe, one of 84 indigenous groups in Colombia. “The government has opened the doors to foreign corporations, inviting them to come and invest in mega-projects that don’t respect our land or our culture. It’s very clear in Colombia that the interests of capital take precedence over the interests of indigenous peoples.”

Occidental has promised the U’wa it will respect the environment and their culture, but tribal leaders say the company’s deeds speak louder than words. They point to the nearby Caño Limón oil field, where Occidental currently extracts more than 100,000 barrels a day but where the Guahiba tribe has paid a high price for Occidental’s profits. After Occidental opened roads into the jungle, mestizo settlers soon followed. Alcohol abuse and prostitution accompanied the construction workers who were brought in from the city. As construction progressed, the Guahiba watched the fish die in their sacred Lipa Lagoon, which indigenous leaders claim was poisoned by contaminated runoff and grew stagnate after Occidental blocked the lake’s outlet streams with its access roads. Protests by the tribe had no effect. Eventually, the Guahiba gave up, their culture and communities destroyed.

“Oxy wants to see the U’wa become like the Guahiba,” said Tegria. “They want to see us reduced to picking up aluminum cans beside the highway. They want our girls and women to work as prostitutes. That’s progress for them. But not for us. We’d rather die than give in.”

For previous coverage of the U’wa struggle against U.S. oil interests, see “Indians threaten mass suicide to safeguard oil-rich land,” June 20, 1997, on NCR Online at www.natcath.org. Click on NCR Online and then Search NCR. Use keywords U’wa and Occidental.

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000