Chief Roberto CobariaPhoto-LA Times

Life to the U'wa!

Colombian Indian Tribe Warns of Mass Suicide

(story from Project Underground and RAN!)

Occidental Petroleum, partnered with Shell, are pressuring the traditional U'wa community of Colombia in order to exploit the enormous Samore oil province there - as Drillbits & Tailings has been reporting since February (see also May 7, 1997). Oxy, as the operator is known, estimate there are about 1.5 billion barrels of oil in the area. For the U'wa who have lived for millenia in these Andean cloud forests, the possibility of oil development portends the end.

"I sing the traditional songs to my children. I teach them that everything
is sacred and linked. How can I tell Shell and Oxy that to take petrol is
for us worse than killing your own mother? If you kill the earth, then no
one will live. I do not want to die. Nobody does."

--U'wa woman, August 1997.



The environmental risk is huge. At the Cano Limon pump station operated nearby in Colombia by Oxy and Shell, some 1.5 million barrels of crude have been spilt into the rainforest in the last decade (Exxon Valdez was only 36,000 barrels). Much of this was due to sabotage by guerrillas who represent another major threat to the U'wa. In response Oxy and Shell pay a war tax of US$1 per barrel - US$180,000 a day - to the Colombian military to protect their installations at Cano Limon. The Colombian military is known for its human rights abuses, and militarizing the U'wa territory will introduce organized violence into the area.

For the U'wa it is this slow rot of violent modernization, along with desecration of their sacred land, that is untenable. In response they have threatened the ultimate act of civil disobedience - mass suicide - and they mean it. The last great tragedy to befall these 5,000 people happened 400 years ago when according to oral histories a portion of the tribe jumped off a sacred cliff rather than submit themselves to Spanish colonial rule. This tragic slice of history may repeat itself if Occidental and Shell decide to start drilling. The U'was have launched a legal and political fight against the planned project, but if oil exploration begins, they have warned they may have no other option than collective suicide.

Today they are once again talking about death as these new oil invaders try to move into their land. A campaign is being organized to avert this tragic resolution of the issue. In their defense the U'wa have taken this case to the Organization of American States, by petitioning the Inter American Human Rights Commission. On October 7th, Martin Wagner of the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund represented them at the OAS in Washington DC, saying: "Whether it's by thepollution of the land they consider sacred, the increased violence this project will inevitably bring, or by their own hand, oil development means the death of the U'wa."

The U'wa communities are asking that oil projects be canceled on the grounds that oil operations in their territory would constitute an attack on their culture, their survival, and the ecological balance of the area. This oil reserve, much of which will be exported to the United States, will only supply U.S. needs for three months. The stakes are high and the odds are against them but the U'wa are courageously fighting, with very few resources and almost no money, against the massive wealth and power of the Colombian Government, Occidental Petroleum, and Shell International.

(from Project Underground and RAN)

SOURCE: personal communication with Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund, October 7, 1997;U'wa Project Factsheet, October 6, 1997; The Guardian (of London), September 20, 1997.

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Would you like to help the U'wa? Take online action and send a fax to the people below:

In your own words, ask Oxy and Shell to cancel their plans for the Samore block. Let them know that you hold them responsible for the U'wa's welfare.

Dr. Ray R. Irani, CEO
Occidental Petroleum Corp.
10889 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Fax: +1 310 443 6922
Phillip J. Carroll, CEO
Shell Oil
PO Box 2463
Houston, TX 77252
Fax: +1 713 241 4044
for further information, contact
The UWA Project U.S.A.
project underground
1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley CA 94703
+1 510 705 8981
Rainforest Action Network
221 Pine #500
San Francisco, CA 94104
415 398-4404