Date: Thu, 1 Jan 1998 20:57:34 -0500
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: "P. K. Murphy" <bi008@FREENET.TORONTO.ON.CA>
Subject: Black Gold
Search for black gold disturbs ancient gods
By Michael McCaughan, The Irish Times, World Review, Wednesday 31 December 1997
Michael McCaughan reports on the struggle of the Colombian U'wa people to preserve their ancient way of life from the encroachment of 'civilisation'
Oil and guns are the first signs of life in the countryside around Saravena in north-east Colombia, where a small airforce plane dropped a dozen passengers in the middle of a large army base.
Just beyond the airport a row of oil drums and sandbags provide cover for dozens of soldiers crouched in combat position, awaiting the guerrilleros who strike from the hills beyond.
Saravena is at the heart of Colombia's spectacular oil boom, which has transformed the country from a crude importer to a selfsufficient exporter, with annual revenues worth $3 billion. Reserves are low, however, and pressure is on to exploit new deposits.
Roberto Cobaria, president of the U'wa Council of tribal authorities, was waiting inside U'wa reservation land, a further two-hour trek across unpaved roads and rising rivers to the home of Colombia's original inhabitants. The U'wa people have wandered the cloud forests of the Colombian Andes for centuries, shifting home three times a year, rotating subsistence crops between snowcapped peaks, lush jungle forest and scorched, arid lands.
Cobaria's people are standing on top of a billion-dollar fortune in oil, but they couldn't care less. The black gold could bring health clinics, VCRs and washing machines, catapulting the small U'wa tribe into the modern age.
Until recent times U'wa children were tied up and taken from their families by Catholic nuns based in a nearby mission, where they were beaten if they spoke their native language. As a result the "civilised" U'was now live in Chuskal at the foot of the mountain, estranged from their relatives above who reject all contact with the hated blancos, wishing only to live by themselves in peace. Each year the U'wa traditional authorities, called werjaya, sing the world into existence, fasting for weeks on end as they seek guidance from gods above and below the land. Los Angeles-based oil giant Occidental Petroleum and Shell are pulling out all the stops to begin exploration work in U'wa territory, where an estimated two billion barrels of crude are waiting to be extracted.
The U'wa conflict has been played out countless times in Latin America, as Indian tribes from Oaxaca to the Amazon cave in to foreign investors and local politicians who promise prosperity ahead. The results have been catastrophic, as entire communities disappear, swallowed up by the influx of nonIndian labourers, alcoholism and the end of traditional hunting and fishing lifestyles.
In Colombia the situation is aggravated by the presence of two guerrilla armies, who have found in the oil conflict an ideal battleground for their war on transnational gringo capital. In the past decade, pipeline sabotage has spilled 1.5 million barrels of crude oil into nearby forests and rivers, compared with 36,000 barrels spilled by Exxon Valdez. The U'wa have paralysed OXY's latest oil project without firing a single bullet and have declared their intention to commit suicide should the drilling go ahead. "The oil is working right where it is now, it is alive and cannot be extracted. There is no possible compensation for this," Cobaria told the Irish Times. The suicide threat dates back to the arrival of the Spanish, when an entire U'wa community threw themselves off the "cliff of glory" rather than bow to the invaders.
"We do not want to engage in a project that means conflict," said Robert Stewart, OXY's Corporate Affairs chief, interviewed inside the company's bunker-like Bogota fortress. OXY has suspended drilling until the issue is resolved. Colombia's revised 1991 constitution contains some of the most progressive legislation concerning Indian rights, upholding the principle of Indian land as "non-negotiable, not for sale and ineligible for seizure under any circumstances".
Colombia's congress has done its best to roll back the promise of that constitution and government officials make no bones about the final outcome. "You can't compare the interests of 38 million Colombians with the worries of an indigenous community," said Rodrigo Villamizar, Colombia's former energy minister, replaced earlier this month. "The resources belong to all Colombians and the government has the final say on the issue."
The tension has already taken its toll.
Five U'wa werjayas have died in the past two years, compared to just one in the previous decade. Last July five hooded men dragged Cobaria from his bed in Chuskal and pressed a piece of paper into his hands, ordering him to sign. "Kill me now, I cannot sign anything away for my tribe," shouted Cobaria, who cannot read or write. The unidentified assailants flung him into a ditch and ran off.
Colombia's National Indigenous Organisation (ONIC) has a nationwide emergency protest plan ready should the U'wa conflict reach crisis point, while OXY is waiting it out, confident that the drilling will go ahead. "We're under contract with the government. We couldn't leave if we wanted," says Mr Stewart, distancing OXY from any direct role in the process.
In an effort to break the impasse, Colombian authorities commissioned a joint report by Harvard and Organisation of American States (OEA) experts. The Harvard-OEA team recommended a speedy demarcation of U'wa territory, allowing OXY to begin work now within clear limits and discuss exploration inside U'wa land "in the distant future".
In Chuskal women stir pots of corn mash and put their children to bed. Ana Maria, aged 12, shifts restlessly, irritated by measles. Her father died of tuberculosis, while her mother had 15 children, of whom nine survived beyond infancy.
"The U'wa oil would keep the US in gas for three months," says Abadio Green, president of ONIC. "Is it worth it for the extinction of the U'wa people?"
© Copyright: The Irish Times