The U’wa struggle against Occidental Petroleum

By Lena Van Haren


Occidental prepares the site for drilling on U’wa ancestral land


picutres: ww.ran.org





 A young U’wa girl in the sacred cloudforest of northeast Colombia.



           The U’wa people are a tribe of indigenous people who live in the cloudforests of Northeastern Colombia.  They are currently involved in a battle against Occidental Petroleum to save their land and their way of life.  The U’wa, like many other indigenous tribes of Colombia, have been subject to attempts at colonization and conquest throughout history.  When Spanish conquistadors arrived in Colombia several hundred years ago, they enslaved many indigenous people to work as gold miners for them.  Rather than be forced to destroy the very lands that they felt were part of their family, thousands of U’wa committed suicide.  In the past century, the U’wa have continuously fallen victim to European disease, violence over land and natural resource ownership, the forced loss of their land, and efforts to convert them by Catholic missionaries.  In the early part of the 20th century there were 20,000 U’wa, however, today, the tribe is only about 5000 strong (Project Underground, 1998).

           Today the U’wa can only claim ownership to less than 15% of their original territory.  In 1661, the King of Spain issued a Royal Land Deed that gave the U’wa “soil and subsoil rights to their ancestral territory” (www.ran.org).  Then in 1873, the Colombian government announced that all underground minerals were property of the state, except those rights that were previously granted by the King of Spain’s land deed.  This meant that the entire ancestral area on the map at right rightfully belongs to the U’wa.  Today, the government chooses to ignore the U’wa’s legal rights to this entire area and only recognizes less than 15% of their original territory.  The government recognized reservation is not a continuous land area, but is composed of a large reservation and other scattered plots.  The fragmentation of their territory has hampered their traditional methods of sustainable, shifting agriculture (Blood of our Mother).

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Occidental Petroleum, a U.S. based petroleum company, has had its sights set on the 1.5 billion oil barrels that lie beneath the ground in the Samoré Block (the name for the entire cloudforest region within which the U’wa territory lies) since the early 1990s. The oil company’s history is linked to human rights violations and environmental destruction.  Occidental (or “Oxy” as it is commonly referred to) was the parent company of Hooker Chemical, which is the company responsible for the “Love Canal” disaster of the 1940s and 1950s.  The chemical company dumped toxic chemicals into this area near Niagra Falls, New York for over a decade.  Then, the land was sold and homes and a school were built on the previous dumping grounds.  A generation later, the community living on “Love Canal” began experiencing severely abnormal and fatal health effects caused by Hooker and Oxy’s irresponsible waste disposal habits decades earlier (www.ran.org).

More recently, Oxy has set up an oil pipeline north of U’wa territory in the Arauca region, which has been responsible for the displacement of many native people and rendered the water in the region too polluted for human consumption (www.ran.org).  

Oxy began exploring the Samore block region in 1992 and in 1995 they were granted an Environmental License from the Ministry of the Environment.  At this point, the only barrier to Oxy’s financial gain was the U’wa people’s resistance and the resistance of other local, national and international grassroots environmental and indigenous rights activists.

The implications that drilling have for the environment have been well documented and include pollution of the air, waterways, and soil, death of wildlife, land degradation, and climate changes (Chelala, 1998).  The U’wa territory is nestled in the Sierra Nevada de Cocuy Mountains in northeastern Colombia. The area is an extremely ecologically sensitive “bosque nuboso,” or cloudforest.  It is located at the source of the Orinoco river basin and is home to many underground reservoirs and lakes.  Any pollution put in the water at this high elevation will be carried through the entire region until it empties into the ocean.  The area is home to many endangered species, such as anaconda snakes, jaguars, spectacled bears, and toucans that the U’wa have helped to preserve over the years.  Oil spills are unavoidable and speak death for many aquatic animals and plants. Not only does oil drilling directly contribute to pollution, but it also brings the development of infrastructure such as roads, which destroys forest and allows easier access into the forest for future exploitative projects and for colonization of the land (Project Underground, 1998).

Until November 3, 2000, the U’wa’s urgent struggle to prevent drilling from beginning was effective in fending off the oil company’s proposed drilling.  But early this month, Occidental began its first set of test drills on sacred U’wa land (www.ran.org).  This forces the U’wa and other key actors in the fight to readjust their strategies and goals.

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           There are three target groups involved in the U’wa struggle. They are the Target of Mobilization (those that need can be mobilized into action to support the struggle), the Target of Influence (the group towards which the target of Mobilization directs its campaign towards, asking them to change a proposed or current action or policy), and the Target of Benefit (the group of people who will benefit from successful action, which often includes members of the target of Mobilization) (Bryant, 2000).

Ø     Targets of Mobilization

·       The U’wa people

·       Grassroots environmental organizations

Several different U.S. environmental and indigenous rights activists groups have been active in fighting for the U’wa.  Rainforest Action Network, based in San Francisco, works with many environmental injustice cases that indigenous people in Latin America face.  They have a full time staff dedicated to the U’wa cause.  They have been instrumental in fundraising for the U’wa, disseminating educational information and updates, and providing resources for other U’wa activists across the country.

Other U.S. groups that are active in the U’wa campaign include Project Underground, an organization involved in indigenous people’s fights against big oil interests, and Amazon Watch, which works with indigenous and environmental organizations in the Amazon Basin to defend the environment and advance indigenous peoples' rights.

·       Religious organizations

Both in the U.S. and Colombia, religious organizations have mobilized to raise funds, hold vigils and pray for the U’wa (www.ran.org).

·       Surrounding community members

Community organizers in the Arauca area have peacefully blockaded the road used by Oxy to get to the drilling site, and have pledged solidarity with the U’wa (www.ran.org).

Ø     Targets of Influence

·       Occidental Petroleum CEO  Ray Irani

The U’wa themselves have written directly to Irani himself, pleading that he not go through with the drilling.  Many activists in the U.S. have also written to Irani, expressing their concern (www.ran.org).

·       Royal Dutch/Shell

Although this company originally planned to go into the drilling as Oxy’s partner, in 1998 they pulled out of the drilling project when they saw the potential for anti-drilling activists to harm their reputation and impede drilling (www.ran.org).

·       Fidelity Investments

This company’s slogan states, “We Help You Invest Responsibly.” Ironically, Fidelity, a huge mutual fund company, is a major shareholder in Occidental, a company not known for it’s social or environmental responsibility.  Fidelity’s Chairman, Edward Johnson III, has been targeted through letter writing as well (www.ran.org).

·       Vice President Al Gore

Gore and his family have several strong ties to Occidental Petroleum.  His mother is the trustee of a large amount of Oxy stocks, and his father was on the Board of  Directors for 28 years.  Also, Oxy has consistently contributed financially to the Democratic Party (www.ran.org).

·       Colombian President Andres Pastrana

Citing the potential benefits that this drilling project poses for the Colombian international oil economy, Pastrana gave Oxy the permit to drill on U’wa territory.  In general, Pastrana and the rest of the Colombian government see oil as a key role in the “development” of Colombia’s global economic relations.  To this end, he is supportive of oil drilling in the Samoré Block (U’wa ancestral territory) (Project Underground, 1998).

Ø     Targets of Benefit

·       The U’wa people

·       Other tribes and communities living in the Orinoco watershed area

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The country of Colombia has a population of approximately 39,685,655, as of July, 2000.  Of this, the CIA factbook reports the following racial/ethnic percentage composition:  mestizo 58%, white 20%, mulatto 14%, black 4%, mixed black-Amerindian 3%, and Amerindian 1%.  The percent of the total country population below the poverty line was estimated at 17.7% in 1992 (CIA factbook, 2000).

The U’wa are a tribe of 5,000 living in Colombia’s Northeastern cloudforests.  Their territory includes the oil field region commonly referred to as the Samoré Block.  Although demographic information for Colombia never specifically mentions the U’wa, it can be assumed that they compose part of the 1% “Amerindian” category that is typically used to classify indigenous peoples.  The mean income level of the average U’wa tribe member is unavailable also, but it is known that the U’wa are in need of financial assistance from outside groups as they have acquired a large debt in their struggle against Occidental  (www.ran.org).

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           The U’wa themselves have maintained a strategy of non-violently occupying the drilling site in recent months.  However, the battle has been alive since 1992 when Oxy first began exploring for oil on U’wa territory.  The U’wa have filed a lawsuit against the government of Colombia claiming that the land is rightfully theirs and it is unlawful for Oxy to drill against their will.  They have also petitioned the Organization of American States to stand up for them. The OAS responded to the U’wa’s request for help in 1997, with a public statement calling for “an immediate and unconditional suspension” of the oil drilling plans in U’wa territory (Project Underground, 1998).  However, Oxy paid no heed to this request.  The U’wa have also utilized the help of many grassroots activists in the United States to deal directly with Oxy’s chairpeople, key investors and shareholders in Oxy. The Rainforest Action Network has been campaigning for the U’wa throughout their struggle. 

The U’wa have been effective in reaching out to U.S. groups for help.  This strategy was necessary because the U’wa themselves do not have access to the necessary resources and contacts to launch an effective campaign.  The grassroots groups in the U.S. have approached the campaign from a variety of angles.  They have taken on the task of educating U.S. citizens about the situation in Colombia, since the corporate media often ignores the struggles of people like the U’wa.

They have also chosen specific powerful people and investment companies to pressure to speak out for the U’wa.  By targeting Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign, a lot of attention was brought to the issue.  A large part of the campaign waged by U.S. groups focuses on letter writing to Gore, Fidelity Investments, and the Colombian President.  The U’wa also wrote a letter specifically to Al Gore asking for his help in persuading Oxy to halt its drilling plans (www.ran.org).  The letter writing strategy needs to be combined with other actions to be truly effective.  However, due to the fact that corporate newspapers and television do not serve to inform the American public about the planned destruction by large U.S. corporations, the public is largely uniformed as to the U’wa situation.

Without a significant public outcry, companies and individuals like Gore can effectively keep their involvement a relative secret. The letter written to Gore from the U’wa was not published or announced in the media, so it was not effective in pressuring Gore to take action.  In order for protests to properly work, the target of influence needs to feel that his or her own welfare or reputation is at stake.  Because of a lack of education on the issue and the efforts of the targets of influence to prevent mass education, the U’wa struggle took a severe blow when Oxy began drilling in early November, 2000 (www.ran.org). 

Efforts in the drilling area have included peaceful strikes and protests by not just the U’wa, but also by a group of social organizations from the Arauca Province.  On June 29, 2000, a group of these citizens formed a peaceful blockade on the road that Oxy used to move its equipment in.  They spoke of solidarity with the U’wa and in opposition to Oxy (www.ran.org). 

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           Unless the United States discontinues its pattern of lending financial backing to support violence and displacement of indigenous peoples in Latin America, the U’wa will just be a number on a list of hundreds of extinct tribes.  The root of the problem needs to be addressed in order for true democracy to persist.  “The truth on the ground in Colombia is that a US-backed police and military force is using violent tactics to serve a US company-Occidental Petroleum-against a peaceful community, all in the name of oil," said Carwil James from Project Underground, which has been working in support of the U'wa since 1997 (www.ran.org). 

The U.S. currently supplies Colombia with financial aid through Clinton’s “Colombia Plan”, a $1.6 billion “emergency aid” package implemented under the guise of fighting drugs and stimulating Colombia’s economy, particularly through oil exports.  In reality, however, the money is used to insure that Colombia fits in the global economy under the United States’ terms, those terms being, “dominated by elites linked to U.S. power interests that are accorded free access to Colombia’s valuable resources, including oil” (Z magazine, 2000).

           Although drilling has already begun, the U’wa still need to maintain a peaceful fight until the end.  By not stooping to the level of violence that the paramilitary has adopted, the U’wa are making a statement that non-violence is their only option.  It would be misleading to say the U’wa have lost the battle.  Continued pressure by inside and outside groups could affect Oxy’s decision to continue drilling or to drill at another nearby site in the future.  In addition, the fight is important because it raises awareness to U.S. citizens of our country’s corporate ethics and our tendency to destroy other cultures and their environments with our international business.  Third, if Oxy does continue drilling, they need to be pressured to use some of their profits to benefit the U’wa community.

In a report by Project Underground on oil and its effects on indigenous peoples, a list of human rights is put forth.  These rights include the sharing of profits made from oil on indigenous lands and full disclosure by oil companies of their specific drilling plans.  By building schools, medical centers and funding other sustainable community projects, Oxy could involve itself with the U’wa in a positive way.  Also, the U’wa deserve to be informed about the likely impacts of oil drilling on their land, and have a right to be involved in decision-making (www.moles.org).

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           In order to avoid conflicts like those of the U’wa and other indigenous groups involved in battles with oil companies, long-term changes must take place in our current resource-use paradigm.  Patrick Reinsborough, a grassroots coordinator for the Rainforest Action Network, emphasizes the idea that the true solution to the U’wa problem is reduction of fossil fuel dependence by countries such as the United States.  “[Oil] destroys cultural and biological diversity, devastates fragile ecosystems, leads to toxic pollution and other environmental justice issues in the communities where the fossil fuels are refined and finally when we burn the fossil fuels, they destabilize the global climate. (Reinsborough, 2000).”   Reinsborough suggests using the current money spent on fossil fuel exploration to instead research renewable energy alternatives (Reinsborough, 2000).

           While these long-term goals are worked toward, the U’wa must continue their fight against Oxy.  The only way that Oxy may discontinue its drilling is if they feel enough pressure from U.S. investors to feel that their reputation is at stake. This can only be achieved through the continued pressure of current activists and the education of more people.  Through the use of alternative media broadcasts and publications, local teach-ins, direct actions and demonstrations, the U.S. public needs to become aware and angry with the issue.  Then pressure on Oxy could mount significantly enough for the U’wa voices to be heard.      


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Amazon Watch. [www.amazonwatch.org/home.html]


Bryant, B.  2000.  Environmental Advocacy: Working for Economic and Environmental Justice.


Chelala, Cesar.  (1998).  Colombia U’wa face hazards of oil drilling.  The Lancet, 352, 209.


CIA Factbook:  Colombia.  [www.odci.gov/cia/publications/fastbook/geos/co.html]


Project Underground:  Supporting the human rights of communities resisting mining and oil exploitation. [www.moles.org]


NACLA:  Report on the Americas.  (1998, March/April).  The U’wa Struggle to Survive.


Project Underground. (1998, August).  Blood of our Mother:  The U’wa People, Occidental Petroleum and the Colombian Oil Industry. 


Rainforest Action Network. [www.ran.org/ran_campaigns/beyond_oil/oxy/index.html]


Reinsborough, Patrick, grassroots coordinator for Rainforest Action Network.  [interview via electronic mail]. December 5, 2000


Vidal, John.  (1997, October 12). A Tribes Suicide Pact.  UK Guardian Weekly. 


Z Magazine.  (2000, June). 30.


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