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U’wa part of a sad history

The U’wa Indians of Colombia live over a deposit of oil.

In global terms, the estimated 1.3 billion barrels believed to exist two miles underground is nothing much. Worldwide oil reserves are estimated at just more than one trillion barrels. Still, it’s enough oil to make more than a few people wealthy.

The U’wa have what a lot of others in the developed world covet. But they don’t want the oil taken from the ground. They keep saying strange things, such as, “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.”

Their words run into an impenetrable static in our developed ears. We know that you can drill into the earth, and life goes on. In more powerful SUVs and in bigger houses and in faster jets and on and on.

Face it, the U’wa don’t stand a chance to keep at bay those who want to exploit the oil -- all of us. They don’t stand a chance against those who have the big machines, powerful friends and a lot of money.

The Arawak Indians didn’t stand a chance either. They occupied Hispaniola in 1492 and they didn’t even have much of what Columbus and his crowd thought they had. It didn’t take long for the conquerors to exhaust the inconsequential mineral wealth of Hispaniola (the island now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic). And within a century, the Arawaks were no more.

Occidental Petroleum, the Los Angeles-based firm that wants to take the oil, doesn’t believe the story of the U’wa should be cast in such David-and-Goliath terms. The company undoubtedly has met all the legal requirements and received all the necessary permits. The argument can also be made that what they intend to do has benefits far beyond the U’wa tribe and that the U’wa have been duly compensated with other land by the Colombian government.

Conceding the highest motives to all involved in the oil project -- and overlooking for the moment the ominous reality that the Colombian military, part of which is protecting the drilling sites, has just received $1.3 billion in U.S. aid -- the struggle of the U’wa stands squarely in that long and sad colonial history. The simple truth is indigenous populations do not stand a chance against commercial exploiters.

Yet the exploitation goes on for very understandable reasons. Because of the beneficent results to exploiters, the actions are accepted, indeed, demanded. We who benefit salve our consciences as best we can and move on.

We do not have a language, a vocabulary for accepting restraint. As a nation, as an aloof, adventuresome people who believe that we have a right to claim and profit from anything not already under someone’s control, we can’t make the leap of imagination that would place a culture and its history over the commercial benefits of an oil field.

It is easy to rail on the side of the underdogs in such cases. What, though, is the recourse? Where is the justice? Where can the claims of the U’wa be heard?

The oil will be sopped up, so will the coal, the iron ore, the hardwoods, even the water.

The exploiter’s eye will be on the next target.

What’s left behind?

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000