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Guns, Farms, and Oil: How Colombian Tribes are Being Driven to Extinction

At least 1,800 Indigenous people have been killed and 84,000 more displaced in Colombia in the past 10 years

The tin-roofed, off-the-grid clinic at Chuscal – deep within the U’wa tribe’s reserve in the mountains of northeast Colombia – is packed with patients on a stormy afternoon. There aren’t enough chairs to go around, and some of the sick are sprawled out on the cracked floor tiles. Most of them are without shoes. Many waiting to see the doctor are young U’wa children, here to be treated for malnutrition, their bellies swollen taut with hunger. Other common maladies include tuberculosis, dysentery and leishmaniasis, a parasite spread by sandflies which enters through the skin to attack internal organs. Several families will sleep in the Chuscal clinic tonight when it closes, because they’ve lost their homes to the civil war violence that rages through this remote region, and have nowhere else to go. 

photo of a womanphoto by Jeremy KrytAn U’wa mother waits to see a doctor in the reserve’s lone, tiny clinic at Chuscal. Due to lack of funding, basic health care is hard to come by, especially in far-flung parts of the reserve.
Click or tap this photo for a slideshow of images from Colombia.

“We’re short of everything,” says Eusebio Carceres, the head nurse at the tribe’s lone healthcare outpost. “Antibiotics, vaccines, lab equipment – we’re even short of clean drinking water,” he says, as thunder shakes the flimsy roof, “because the oil spills have poisoned so many sources around here.”

The U’wa are one of Colombia’s most iconic, high-profile tribes, famous for their decades-long struggle to prevent Big Oil from drilling in or around their reserve. Hollywood celebrities like James Cameron have publicly endorsed their cause, but fossil-fuel extraction efforts continue to pose an Avatar-esque quandary for the U’wa. Despite years of tribal protests, Texas-based Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) still runs the Caño-Limon pipeline through their reserve, and Oxy’s local partner operates a pair of gas wells on land the U’wa say is part of their ancestral territory. A recent surge in bombing attacks by insurgents – with the most recent blast coming on November 27 – is the latest crisis to engulf the tribe’s cloud-forested homeland. Bombs made from farm chemicals and detonated by cell phone have repeatedly ruptured the Caño-Limon over the last year, causing oil spills that foul delicate riverine ecosystems, tainting the watersheds that support local communities. The U’wa say several members of the tribe were also injured or traumatized in pipeline attacks in 2014.

Bogota’s response to the costly bombings has been to send in more troops – in effect turning the U’wa reserve into an occupied zone where checkpoints and body searches are common.

“The Occidentals [Westerners] would like to make slaves of the indigenous,” U’wa Werjaya,or shaman, Roberto Cobaria told Earth Island Journal, during a recent visit to his mountain-facing, riverside home on the reserve. “They take the blood of the Earth Mother without our consent, and make the land sick with the blood they spill,” says the 65-year-old Goldman Environmental Prize winner, whose long, dark hair belies his age.

The U’wa once numbered in the tens of thousands, but centuries of land conflict and oppression have cut their numbers down to about 6,000. “Without the land there is no life,” Cobaria says. “Without the land there can be no U’wa.”

Other tribes in trouble  

It’s not just the U’wa who are at risk.

Armed conflict and forced displacement pose grave problems for dozens of Colombia’s native groups, according to a recent report by Colombia’s Indigenous rights organization, ONIC. “Threats, attacks, killings, forced recruitment, sexual violence and torture” afflict tribal reserves throughout the nation, the ONIC report states. At least 1,800 Indigenous people have been killed, and some 84,000 more displaced from their homes in the past 10 years.

“It’s been a terrible war,” says Lisa Haugaard, director of the Washington-centered Latin American Working Group, “and the indigenous have been absolutely brutalized by both sides.”

Other recent reports, including studies cited by Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, indicate that at least 34 different tribes – more than a third of the nation’s Indigenous – are in danger of physical and cultural “extermination” due to “violent incursions into indigenous territory, forced displacement and the imposition of megaprojects.”

Haugaard says the US-backed Colombian military has a history of persecuting Indigenous peoples, and independent studies have linked the army to thousands of extrajudicial killings. The US has sent some $7 billion to Colombia since 2000, much of it in the form of military aid, despite the well-documented human rights violations committed by the armed forces. “We’d like to see Congress authorize a new package… that focuses more on humanitarian aid,” Haugaard says. “But it’s not easy.”

Leftist insurgents have also admitted to targeting Indigenous communities. But trigger-happy combatants are only part of the problem. Observers say tribes living in relatively peaceful regions – where angry guerrillas no longer scare off outsiders – are more and more vulnerable to activities like slash-and-burn farming, megaprojects, and development for tourism.

“What’s happening is emblematic of issues other [ethnic] groups are facing around the world,” says Amazon Watch director Andrew Miller, who has spent eight years working closely with the U’wa. “A lot of resources are found in Indigenous territories because the Indigenous are good at taking care of their lands.”

Spike in oil-related violence

Most of Colombia’s 800,000 native people still live in rural areas where fighting between government forces and Marxist insurgents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Army of Liberation (ELN) is fiercest. Fitful peace talks between Bogota and the FARC, aimed at ending more than five decades of conflict, have been ongoing since 2012. But the showdown with the ELN has escalated over the last few years, as the rebels have increasingly targeted oil infrastructure.

“In Colombia, as in many other places, extraction activities serve as a magnet for armed conflict,” says Amazon Watch director Miller.

Much of the U’wa reserve sits atop vast oil and gas deposits in the state of Boyaca, near the Venezuelan frontier. Oxy’s 480-mile Caño-Limon pipeline can transport up to 220,000 barrels of crude oil per day, all the way from the U’wa’s northeastern highlands to the Caribbean coast. The nation’s second-largest pipeline spans three separate watersheds in or near U’wa territory, including the Arauca River, which marks the border with Venezuela. Oxy’s local partner, the state-owned but publicly-traded Ecopetrol, also runs gas transport lines through the reserve.

“The undulating terrain here makes defense [of the pipeline] difficult,” says Colonel Jaime Ariza Rojas, of the 18th Energy Brigade – an elite Army unit permanently stationed beside an Ecopetrol drill site in Boyaca. Rojas trained at Fort Benning, GA, where he specialized in counter-insurgency tactics. “The terrorists use extortion and kidnapping to fund their attacks,” Rojas tells EIJ, while on a tour of the Ecopetrol-funded base. “They [the ELN] are the ones responsible for all the ecological damage and human suffering.”

Although the left-leaning rebels claim to represent native interests, their tactics often don’t match the rhetoric.

“Neither guerrilla group has a strong environmental record, beyond promoting peasant agriculture,” writes Adam Isacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America, in an email to EIJ. “Talk to any Afro-Colombian or indigenous leader, or any bottom-20%, informal-sector person forced to pay extortion to the guerrillas, and you'll hear a huge contradiction between declared values and actions.”

That contradiction has been starkly apparent of late, as insurgents scored dozens of attacks on the Caño-Limon and other pipelines in 2014, including five bombings in or around the U’wa reserve. When the U’wa protested the violence, and blocked repair crews after a blast on March 25, the Colombian defense minister threatened to use military force against the tribe.

According to Isacson the ELN has stepped up its bombing campaign because the 50-year-old insurgency is pushing for independent peace talks with Bogota.

“With oil making up so much of Colombia's export revenue and economic growth these days, hitting oil infrastructure is one of the easiest ways to make the Colombian government feel maximum pain,” Isacson writes.

Oxy saw revenues dip last quarter, and even Colombian GDP was impacted by the sheer number of guerrilla strikes against the extraction industry. But the cost to Indigenous groups like the U’wa can’t be measured in dollars.

“The U’wa maintain a tremendously strong connection to the land,” says Amazon Watch director Miller, who recently returned from a research trip in Colombia. “They believe they were charged by their creator with defending nature. And they see human activity – not just in their own lands, but globally – as knocking nature out of equilibrium.”

Cliffs of Glory

The U’wa first came to international prominence in the late Nineties, when they threatened to commit mass suicide rather than submit to oil drilling inside their reserve. According to legend, several hundred of the U’wa once hurled themselves from a sacred site called the Cliffs of Glory, to escape enslavement by the Conquistadores.

Clashes with government troops over oil exploration left three children dead and dozens of adults wounded in 2000. The fight for tribal autonomy has claimed other, non-U’wa lives as well. In 1999, three American activists who’d been working with the U’wa to keep Oxy out of the reserve were kidnapped and executed by insurgents – sparking an international outcry that eventually caused Big Oil to back down. Oxy gave up its plans to drill within the boundaries of the reserve, and turned over its existing Gibraltar 1 site to Ecopetrol, while maintaining ownership of the Caño-Limon pipeline. Ecopetrol still operates the Gibraltar drilling platform, which sits on the edge of the U’wa reserve, and now produces gas instead of oil. Ecopetrol also opened a new gas well at a nearby site called Magallanes, in March of 2014, touching off a wave of protests and marches by the U’wa. (Ecopetrol declined multiple offers to be interviewed for this article.)

photo of a drilling operation in a tropical clearingphoto by Jeremy KrytState-owned Ecopetrol opened this new gas well at a site called Magallanes on the edge of U’wa territory last year sparking multiple marches and protests by the tribe.
Click or tap this photo for a slideshow of images from Colombia.

The U’wa contend that both the Gibraltar and Magallanes sites are within their ancestral territory – even if the sites are technically outside of the government-designated reserve – and are therefore illegal under the Colombian Constitution and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Bogota, however, refuses to recognize the tribe’s claim to the economically valuable real estate in question. The U’wa also fear more exploratory drilling in the region is likely in the works, as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has licensed dozens of new oil and gas concessions over the past few years to offset falling output.

In spite of the powerful military and economic forces arrayed against his people, Roberto Cobaria – who has also served as governor of the tribe and traveled to more than 40 countries as an environmental ambassador – remains optimistic. “History is its own kind of law,” Cobaria says. “They say the land is dead, but it lives yet. It is only wounded by the taking of the oil. The dignity of native peoples comes from the land – and like the land it can be saved.”

Cobaria adds that his people haven’t forgotten the Cliffs of Glory. If pushed too hard by Big Oil, Colombian troops, and Marxist revolutionaries – the U’wa are still ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

“We have a right to protect the land of our forefathers – and that right can’t be negotiated.”

The price of peace

Armed conflict and fossil-fuel extraction aren’t the only threats to Colombia’s Indigenous groups. The Kogui people, linguistic cousins of the U’wa, live in a peaceful, insurgency-free cordillera on the Caribbean coast. The Kogui’s homeland, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is the highest coastal mountain range in the world. The jagged topography makes for a broad range of unique ecosystems, ranging from shallow coral reefs to lowland deserts, to dry forest, rainforest, and tundra. A 2013 meta-study by the journal Science named the Sierra the most “irreplaceable” protected area on earth. Insurgent activity has declined in Kogui country since a major offensive by the army in the early 2000s – but for this lost tribe, peace has come with a price.

The rebels' presence in the mountains had acted as a deterrent to developers and subsistence farmers in the past. The guerrillas are gone now, and the shy and isolated Kogui find themselves reeling from the local, post-conflict economic boom. Factors like deforestation, road-building, and mass tourism are the current threats to the Kogui’s traditional values and way of life. The tribe’s once-pristine territory is now visited by nearly 300,000 people a year, and scores of hotels, tent-cities, and restaurants are going up to service the growing number of visitors.

“Nature cries out and weeps and complains at how she’s been treated,” Kogui Governor Jose de los Santos Sauna told EIJ during an interview in the tribe’s Cabildo, or headquarters, in the city of Santa Marta. “But the Occidentals don’t hear the Earth Mother crying. They have no respect for the laws of nature, life, or the planet.”

Tairona National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage site that covers about 58 square miles of land in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range, and 12 square miles of the Caribbean Sea – encompasses much of the Kogui’s range. The park also shelters hundreds of rare endemic species, like mountain tapir. But both marine and terrestrial ecosystems in the park are in danger of being overwhelmed. In addition to a glut of tourism, the local ceasefire has also led to an invasion of landless peasants and fisherman – many of them displaced by violence elsewhere – and unscrupulous developers looking to turn a profit. The result is a devastating combination of overfishing, slash-and-burn agriculture, illegal logging, and poorly-planned construction sites.

Scientists say as much as 80 percent of original forest cover in Tairona Park has already been lost; the population of mountain tapir has crashed to about 50 individuals. “The decline of coral cover in the park is just as bad [as the deforestation rate],” says Nuphar Charuvi, a marine biologist from Jorge Tadeo Lozano University, who runs a local reef restoration project in the nearby town of Taganga. “Tourism and fishing – they’re both growing. But the regulations aren’t being enforced out here,” says Charuvi, gesturing toward the trash-strewn beach at Taganga. “That kind of growth just isn’t sustainable over time.”

Pre-Colombian culture at risk

While the U’wa have sent leaders like Cobaria around the globe to garner support for their cause, the Kogui have taken an opposite tack, retreating from the world and shunning contact with most outsiders in a last-ditch effort to safeguard their language and traditions. The borders of Kogui country are officially closed to tourists and even health care workers from the outside world are often turned away. The result is a society and culture that has remained almost unchanged since the Stone Age.

“They know every brook and hilltop and sacred site and what ancestral spirits live where,” says Berkeley anthropologist Peter Rawitscher, who has spent years studying the tribe, and compares the culture’s mountainous isolation and spiritual focus to that of the Tibetan Buddhists.

The Kogui don’t have a written language, so their stored wisdom must be passed on orally by their Mamas or shamans. “The Mamas also know where to cultivate [crops], and where to build communities,” Rawitscher says. “They’re more like technical functionaries than shamans.”

photo of people in ceremonial garbphoto by Jeremy KrytSalé Salabata, 80, a traditional Kogui Mama, or shaman, and his wife Jaba Maria.
Click or tap this photo for a slideshow of images from Colombia.

“We don’t want to be wiped out, and we don’t want to lose who we are,” says Governor Santos Sauna, who is also a Mama. “We don’t want tourists coming here either – too much tourism damages the psychology of the tribe. The only thing we want,” he says, “is to be left alone.”

A message for “Younger Brother”

The Kogui and the U’wa, like many other Colombian tribes, refer to non-indigenous people as “Younger Brother” and to themselves as “Older Brother.” U’wa shaman Cobaria says that for better or worse, “Older Brother’s future is now in Younger Brother’s hands.”

According to Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, the US Congress is likely to authorize $300 million in military aid to Colombia this year – more than any other country in this hemisphere – although there are still lingering questions about the armed forces’ commitment to human rights and security for the Indigenous and other marginalized groups, such as Afro-Colombians.

Experts say peace talks between the FARC and the Santos regime will likely bring about demobilization of at least one insurgency in the near future – but multinational corporations like Oxy’s partner Ecopetrol are already positioning themselves to move into the newly liberated wilderness areas that support native tribes.

“We have been silent for a long time,” says Cobaria, looking off toward the cloud-shrouded range of mountains that his tribe has called home for thousands of years. “Now it’s time we were heard again. We must speak out about the damage Younger Brother is doing. We must speak and be heard. Not just for ourselves,” Cobaria says, “but for the sake of the whole planet.”

Jeremy Kryt, Contributing writer, Earth Island Journal
Jeremy Kryt is a Chicago-based journalist.

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