"In the case of the U'wa, the exploitation of a natural resource will result in the destruction of the lives and culture of indigenous peoples. There can be no justification for Colombia's approval of such a project."

-- Martin Wagner, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund

Case Summary

In April of 1997, the U'wa­an indigenous tribe of 5,000 people living in the cloud forests of the Colombian Andes­threatened to commit mass suicide by walking off of a 1,400-foot cliff if the California-based Occidental Petroleum, partner with Royal Dutch Shell, renewed oil exploitation efforts within their territory. In response, an environmental and human rights coalition formed the U'wa Defense Project to mobilize international support for the U'wa pueblo.

Colombia's Constitutional Court found that Occidental's mining violated the U'wa community's fundamental right to consultation, which threatened its ethnic, cultural, social, and economic identity (February, 1997). Less than a month later, a highly controversial ruling by Colombia's Administrative Court re-instated the validity of the mining permit, which included permission to drill on legally recognized indigenous territories.

On October 7, the U'wa Defense Project presented the U'wa case at a hearing of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Representatives from the OAS are now planning an investigative visit to the U'wa territory in December.

Current Situation

Following the hearing, Roberto Cobaría, President of the Traditional U'wa Authority, and Abadio Green Stocel, President of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), explained their case to the US State Department, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The U'wa Defense Project also organized a tour of six major U.S. cities, where Mr. Green and Mr. Cobaría spoke to NGO audiences, and to Harvard University Law School and the Kennedy School of Government.

Despite the publicity gained by the U'wa delegation, U'wa leaders are still in grave danger for their united opposition to oil development. One month after a U'wa Defense Project support team left the U'wa territory in June, U'wa Leader Roberto Cobaría was pulled from his bed in the middle of the night by a group of hooded men with assault rifles. The assailants held the U'wa leader to the ground, demanding that he sign an authorization agreement, or lose his life. When Mr. Cobaría refused, the gunmen beat him, but under the threat of death he continues to speak out.

Occidental personnel in Colombia have exacerbated the situation by publicly claiming U'wa leaders have links to left wing guerrilla movements. Such a qualifier is comparable to a death sentence in Colombia, where the army and its paramilitary proxies presently boast the worst record of human rights abuses in Latin America. Occidental claims that it has suspended exploration in U'wa territory, but company representatives continue attempts to divide the U'wa community.

Knowing full well the power of mining companies to divide even the strongest of indigenous communities, the U'wa Defense Project immediately raised funds to initiate a community organizing project for the U'wa. This project will provide the U'wa with much needed support from ONIC, as well as offer the community resources to assist them in their struggle against multi-national oil development.

The U'wa Defense Project is a collaborative effort between: Amazon Coalition, Amazon Watch, Cabildo Mayor U'wa, Center for Justice and International Law, Colombian Human Rights Commission, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund (Formerly Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund), Earth Trust Foundation's S.E.E. (Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs)., FIAN Germany, National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, Project underGround, Rainforest Action Network, and SOL Communications. The U'wa Project is a registered 501c3 public non-profit through Earthtrust.


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