Dying for Oil

by Camille T. Taiara
The Bay Guardian Interview

22 February 2002

U'wa leader Roberto Pérez speaks about
indigenous resistance to the Colombian oil rush.

Deep beneath the cloud forests of Colombia's northeastern highlands lie 1.4 billion barrels of crude oil, and Occidental Oil is poised to make a killing off of it.

But the path to profits goes through the home of the indigenous U'wa, who, led by Roberto Pérez, are mounting fierce resistance. The U'wa fear that oil development on their ancestral territory spells a death sentence for their culture and the land that sustains them. They say they would rather die quickly, in defense of the planet, than slowly on the streets of Colombia's urban centers, as has been the fate of other tribes that have ceded their land rights to the government. In keeping with a 300-year old precedent in which a group of their ancestors jumped off a cliff rather than fall into the hands of Spanish missionaries and tax collectors, the U'wa have threatened mass suicide if oil drilling is allowed on their lands.

By launching their resistance in 1993, the U'wa incurred the wrath of the U.S.-backed Colombian armed forces, the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world. Before leaving office, President Bill Clinton raised the stakes with Plan Colombia, plowing $862 million into the country (thanks in part to lobbying by Occidental vice president Lawrence Meriage), mostly for military equipment and infrastructure. The country, which sports the hemisphere's worst human rights record, is already plagued by well over a million internal refugees.

"In the news we've been hearing that Colombia will become another Veitnam," said Pérez, president of the High Council of the U'wa Traditional Authority, in a recent Bay Guardian interview. Pérez was in town to pay a surprise visit to Sanford C. Bernstein and Company's local branch office. The investment company succeeded Fidelity Investments last year as the largest stockholder in Occidental and is now the target of a divestment campaign spearheaded by Rainforest Action Network, Amazon Watch, and Project Underground.

Bay Guardian: What does so-called oil development in your lands signify in terms of the U'wa's economic and cultural survival?

Robert Pérez: When we speak of our territory, we speak of our culture, our identity, because they're related to the land. Ours is a culture that has been passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years. We have our own laws. We have our own form of government. What we are demanding is respect, recognition of our culture and our identity. The government talks about development and says that we have placed ourselves in opposition to 40 million Colombians. They say that you can't oppose the exploitation of petroleum. It's a Western way of thinking and a politic of the government and the transnational corporations that they impose on us in our own territory, but the development they talk about won't benefit the campesinos, the public sectors. The only ones who will benefit area few groups that hold economic power. All the resources that have been exploited have benefited them. If the Colombian people had benefited, we wouldn't see the social injustice that we've living in Colombia. The civil war in Colombia arose from that injustice.

BG: What role does oil play in the spiritualism and belief system of the U'wa?

RP: We believe that the oil is the blood of our mother Earth. It's the equilibrium of nature and the world. And [its exploitation] is an attempt against the spiritual base of our culture and against life itself -- against the environment, against the flora and fauna, and against biodiversity. Oil development in the region won't only affect the U'wa but also the campesino sectors, because where they're exploring is high ground, where several large rivers begin that feed the Colombian watershed. It will also affect Venezuelan territory, since we share a border. We believe in preserving the environment because it doesn't belong to us nor to the government, and much less to multinational companies. We believe that the second invasion has arrived in the name of development. The only options that are left us now are violence, death and destruction.

BG: They have already been exploiting oil in areas near your lands, and you've seen the environmental destruction it's caused. How is it that violence follows on the heels of oil development in the area?

RP: In 1986 they discovered oil in Caño Limón, in Arauca. Our Guajira brothers lost all their ancestral territory. Now they ask for handouts on the streets of the municipalities. Their homes were destroyed, their sanctuaries, and Lipa Lake, a source of fish that come down the Arauca river. Now it's all contaminated. Another case is that of our brothers Matilón Bari, in the department of Santander, at the foot of the mountains near our territory. They lost all their best agricultural lands, and they are no longer able to fish. Violence has followed those projects. In Arauca many indigenous and campesino leaders have been killed. The same has happened in Tibú, in northern Santander. The minister of the interior ordered oil exploration in the Samoré mountains in January [of last year], and it has already cost us the lives of several of our children. Three died and 11 disappeared in February. We blocked the highway so they couldn't access our territory. When they arrived to evict us, three children under six months old drowned in Cubujón River trying to escape the tear gas the riot police shot at us. And the oil development hadn't even begun yet. When there are encounters between the guerrillas and the army, we find ourselves in the middle of the line of fire.

BG: How do you see Plan Colombia affecting your struggle?

RP: Plan Colombia is a plan for violence. The Colombian government says its purpose is to eradicate coca production, but that's not the case. It is directed against the guerrillas and against the people. The money the United States is spending in Plan Colombia will go to protecting the international companies by purchasing arms, more sophisticated equipment, and to constructing military bases in the richest zones. And when they say they will eradicate the coca crops by aerial fumigation, they are contaminating the environment, the rivers, and the [agricultural] cultivations for consumption.

When you analyze the regions where they have chosen to apply those resources, their first priority is Putumayo, because it is rich in natural resources. Second is the Colombian Amazon; third, the northeastern forests where our territory is located; and fourth is the Pacific coast. Those are the strategic areas, and that is where they will construct military bases.

BG: I've read that leaders before you have been beaten and have received death threats. Have you also received these kinds of threats?

RP: Violence isn't just a matter of kidnappings and assassinations. There is such a thing as political violence directed by the government in the name of development. The threats begin when people -- whether indigenous or not -- begin to assert their rights. They have labeled us guerrillas, or they say we are subversives who the guerrillas have turned against oil development. And although we haven't received any direct threats yet, I think we will. We know the government is investigating those who are leading the resistance. They know who we are.

BG: Of course.

RP: We will not die on our knees but rather on our feet. We are willing to die in defense of our territory, because it is the only alternative left to us. We've spoken with other indigenous communities. It is imperative that we unite, because this is a problem that affects all of us. If it's not petroleum, it's timber or hydroelectric power. In cases in which indigenous communities have negotiated, they've been deceived and they've lost their best territories, their sacred lands, their places of origin. They've lost their rivers, which have been of central importance to their subsistence. Those indigenous brothers made a mistake by negotiating, because the government never fulfills its promises. We convened with the government on two separate occasions, but while we were talking, they gave the companies the go-ahead to continue their oil exploration activities. So we had to withdraw from the negotiations.

BG: What have been some of your accomplishments in your struggle, both locally and internationally? What have been some of the obstacles?

RP: We can say that we've accomplished something: namely, the expansion of our reservation. This was done by legal resolution, in the Constitution. It expanded our territory by 220,000 hectares [849 square miles]. But only 40,000 [154 square miles] of those are for cultivation. The rest is an environmental reserve. But one month after delimiting those lands, the minister of the environment granted a license for oil exploration.

On the local level we've succeeded in creating an alliance with the campesinos, who have backed us -- not only in words but with actions. They've accompanied us in our blockades. That kind of solidarity is of great significance for the country as a whole. They recognize our autonomous identity, they recognize our rights to our territory, and they recognize the importance of the environment. [Working together] has served as a learning experience for both of us.

At the national level we've won some influence on the universities in Bogotá,in Cali, in Medellín, Bucarama, in the large cities. On the international level we've obtained many environmentalist friends, mostly here in the United States, although we also have a sizable influence in 14 countries in Europe. Now we're discussing organizing an international environmental convention in our territory that could attract media attention.

It isn't just our Colombian territory that's at risk. I attended a conference in Manila [in the Philippines] in which all the participants spoke of the problems they face in their respective countries -- with oil, gold, diamonds, wood -- and these threaten the cultures that still exist. Resistance is the only alternative that we can continue to advance in the long run. When we attain more unity, I think we can do something for the world. So our message to people in the United States would be, first, to exert pressure from here to put a stop to Plan Colombia, and two, to stop all U.S. military intervention in Colombian territory. Plan Colombia is a death sentence for us.

Email Camille T. Taiara at camille@sfbg.com
February 7, 2001
San Francisco Bay Guardian

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