South and Meso American Indian Rights Center


(Werjayá: a traditional U'wa Indigenous authority, photo by Oskar B. Gutiérrez)

Colombia: Court Decision Undermines Indigenous Rights: U'wa Threaten Collective Suicide if Occidental Drills on their Land

A recent Associated Press article documented a High Court ruling in Colombia on February 3, 1997, that bars the Occidental oil company from exploiting petroleum on Indigenous U'wa lands. Upon analysis of the terms of the ruling, however, it has become clear that this decision may actually debilitate Indigenous rights in Colombia.

ONIC (National Indigenous Organization of Colombia) calls on organizations to send letters to the Colombian President on this delicate situation.

Although the Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled that the government of Colombia must "consult" the U'wa Indigenous peoples regarding oil activities on their ancestral territory, the ruling may actually undermine Indigenous rights in Colombia. The approximately 4,000 U'wa have threatened to commit collective suicide if the Occidental Oil Company drills for oil on their territory.

1) TERMS OF CONSULTATION NOT DEFINED: The February 3 ruling by the Constitutional Court deemed that at the end of the 30 days period for consultation, the government has the power to decide if the oil activities will continue in the U'wa territory. The terms of the consultation are not defined by the Constitutional Court. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) states, "We gain nothing with the guarantee of the right to be consulted if the government has no obligation to respect the results of the consultation." The clear opposition of the U'wa people to Occidental operations in their territory is apparently not the issue. This case could set a dangerous precedent for Indigenous rights in Colombia.

2) RULING MAY UNDERMINE PREVIOUS DECREE: Decree 1397 (August 8, 1996) was gained after a long battle by Indigenous peoples which included a national mobilization in July and August of 1996. Under the decree the government is obligated to involve and consult communities, peoples, and Indigenous organizations in any project or development plan in their territories. The ruling by the court in the U'wa case circumvents this process and a new decree issued by the government after the 30 day time limit can undermine the process completely.

ONIC has requested that we act on this. PLEASE write letters to the President of Colombia, calling on him to respect the rights of the U'wa people and to respect their decision not to allow Occidental to continue its oil activities in their territory. This case will set a precedent for the future of the rights of the Indigenous peoples to have control over their own territories. Stress that any consultation should include the right of Indigenous peoples to decide whether or not to allow oil production or any other activities on their land.

Please send letters to President Ernesto Samper, fax: 011-571-286-7434 with copies to the Minister of the Interior, Horacio Serpa Uribe (011-571-284-0619), Mnister of the Environment, Jose Vicente Mogollon (011-571-336-2011) and to ONIC (011-571-284-3465 or

(Thanks to SAIIC intern Thomas Mediodia for transcribing the fax from the Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and their Environment)

to the national government and people of Colombia

The U'wa have learned through the media of the verdict of the Constitutional Court regarding the Tutela action brought by the Public Defender, on our behalf, against the Ministry of the Environment, over the license granted to the multinational oil company Occidental of Colombia, OXY, to explore for oil in our territory, within the Samore Project block.

It is said that this verdict is favourable to us, that it recognises that the government did not consult us about the project, and that they will now have to do this within a month. We are pleased that the judges have recognised the violation of our right to be consulted, and that the government should talk, and listen, to us when our life is at stake.

But, we are also aware that the verdict authorises the government to take the final decision, even if it is not in agreement with our way of thinking, or of life. If this is true, we are sorry that those gentlemen judges have not been able to defend our fundamental rights: to the integrity of our territory, to our culture, and, in general, our life. Rights which, besides being recognised by the constitution and both national and international norms presently in force, are ancestral rights. Rights acquired by us by the very nature of having been being born within this territory, by the very fact of being natives of these lands, as our forebears have always lived here, and as when the whites arrived, our grandparents had already been here for thousands of years.

For us, it is therefore not sufficient to say that they should talk and listen to us. It is necessary that the Colombian state recognise that when the life of our people is at risk, it must respect our decisions.

They say that in this consultation the government will sit down with us in order to see how, in our territory, we can live with OXY nd their oil exploration, without our culture, our world, being destroyed. For us, this is impossible. It is as if they had not heard us at all, as if they understood nothing of what we said.

For the U'wa, making decisions implies a long process. We must talk to our ......, with all our people, and with all our councils. Our shamans, who work to maintain the equilibrium of the world, must in turn communicate with the gods, in order to know the correct road and thus guide the people. With their guidance, the U'wa make decisions amongst the whole people. Our spokespeople or representatives are then charged with communicating or carrying them out.

But the whites work in a different way, the speak much, but they talk for the sake of talking, since only a few decide, without taking into account what the others think. Now they say that the government wants to know our thoughts about the oil project, but that if they don't like what we think, they will simply procede with their own decisions.

If this is to be the result of the Constitutional Court's verdict, then we have gone nowhere. We have already made known our thoughts about this project to bleed mother earth, above all in the U'wa Audiencia por La Vida and in the legal proceedings of the Constitutional Court. We have also made them public through the communications media. To the courts, to the Ministries of the Interior, Energy and Mines and Environment, we have sent many papers and films which document what we think. And our thinking has not changed. For us Mother Earth is sacred, is not for violation, exploitation, nor negotiation; it is to be cared for, to be conserved. For these reasons we can not permit oil exploration on our traditional territory.

We do not understand why they will call us to a consultation if they already know that what we have to say, which is what we have been saying since the beginning, will not be taken into account, The only thing that will respected in that meeting is the interest of the foreign companies.

We will continue to fight to defend our right to live in peace within our own territory, with our own ways of thinking and our own customs, and we will not permit ourselves to be manipulated or fooled by trinkets or fine words. We therefore declare that, from now on, only the Grand Council can speak in the name of the U'wa people, and that whatever attempt to distort our thinking through the utilization of isolated groups of bother U'wa, is rejected and stripped of any authority by our traditional authorities, our councils, and by the whole of our people.

To the Riowa (whites) who have accompanied us, and to all those who are conscious that in order to live in peace it is necessary to both respect the rights of all and to act in harmony with Mother Earth, we ask your help so that we, the U'wa, can continue to maintain the equilibrium of the world.

(Original signed)

Grand Council of the U'wa

Roberto Afanador Cobaria, Presidente

Luis Eduardo Caballero, Vice President

GloriM maria Tegria, Secretary

=============================================== OILWATCH
Direcci'on: Paez 118 y Paez
Casilla 17-15-246-C,
Quito, Ecuador
Telefono: (593 2) 527583 / 547516
Fax: (593 2) 543344 / 547516
Tel.: (593 9) 700712

Back to the SAIIC Homepage