U'wa leader Roberto Pérez speaks about indigenous resist?==?iso-8859-1?Q?ance to the Colombian oil rush

Steve Worker proletarian at SPAMmindspring.com
Thu Feb 8 14:15:43 MST 2001

>From the SF Bay Guardian...
Dying for oil
U'wa leader Roberto Pérez speaks about indigenous resistance to the
Colombian oil rush.

By Camille T. Taiara

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 Vietnam,"
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 Co.'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?

Roberto 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 are a 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're 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

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

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

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.

E-mail Camille T. Taiara at camille at sfbg.com.

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