(Translated by Anne Schoeneborn, a CSN volunteer translator)
They demand the return of two essential territories to their community: the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy and the rural area of Cedeño
By: Sixto Alexander Quintero Ortega
July 26, 2016
The U’wa people live according to the principle, “protect Mother Earth, the blue planet.” This is quite the opposite to those of us who were raised according to the principle and logic of money. For centuries, their struggle has been so focused that they consider suicide a viable option if they are not able to protect the essence that reproduces life.
Many do not know this, but both Venezuela and Colombia are home to U’wa ancestral territory. Territory that was given to them by Sira, the Creator, so that they would protect it and enable the vital force to be generated there that would then be transmitted to the rest of the planet. That territory has been defended for centuries, but the riowa (white man) has done everything possible to prevent the U’wa from achieving their mission. And when the extinction of the U’wa seemed inevitable several decades ago, their elders and authorities revived efforts that have enabled them to remain triumphant through the use of two weapons: the word of the ancestors and the firm retaking of their lands that were being snatched away. These weapons enabled them to defeat even a multinational company like OXY.
Today, they have once again stood up with these two weapons, this time demanding the return of several territories that are essential to their spirituality: Sierra Nevada del Cocuy and the area of Cedeño. In the case of Cocuy, the government and private sector have a project that affects a supremely sacred site for the production of water as a vital life source. Tourists and global warming have been destroying this place. Cedeño, on the other hand, is a site where gas is being extracted. Gas is an element that, for them, is like blood—and removing it causes life to wither, not to mention that the way the gas is used does nothing but contaminate and produce the very warming melting the ice caps of Cocuy. For these reasons, the U’wa know that fighting for these two places goes beyond simply asking for land, it means ending this deadly cycle.
Many are not familiar with this, many do not understand, but the U’wa were told that if they allow the exploitation of these two lands, they would benefit by receiving millions of dollars in payment. They were offered this; they could use this money for whatever they wanted, but for them money cannot replace life.
Now the Colombian government threatens the use of force, communications campaigns, and social and economic pressure, endangering the lives of leaders like Berito, Yimy, Bladimir, Daris, Luz Helena, Abdon, Zenen, José Luis and every one of the 7,000 defenders of ancestral wisdom. They—even the supposed People’s Defender’s Office— point fingers, blaming the U’wa because supposedly the distribution of gas to various departments of Colombia will be affected. As if gas was essential to life. We know that it is not and that it would be better if citizens were given other options to replace its use, thus avoiding the indiscriminate destruction of Mother Earth that is taking place.
We have bad recollections of assassinations on our territory, like that of the three indigenous rights activists who in the late 90’s came as defenders of land rights—Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok, and Laheenae Gay—and were assassinated by the FARC. Based on the negotiations taking place in Havana, which supposedly recognize the victims of Colombia’s tragic conflict, the U’wa people should be compensated as a collective victim through the return of their ancestral territory. The government and private company already have enough land for exploiting resources, if this exploitation is so necessary. Leave us in peace, now that we are talking about peace. After all, if you leave us this territory, you too will all benefit. And the Constitutional Court, through sentence T-025 and Auto 004 recognized the U’wa people as a collective victim—since those assassinations were not the only ones—and this permits the U’wa to demand action to safeguard their ancestral home. The U’wa people have responded to these legal decisions with one simple demand: give us back our territory.
We must be clear: the U’wa did not seize, but rather recuperated their rightful territory. They have colonial titles, public deeds, and historical recognition that this land is ancestrally theirs. On the contrary, the seizure was carried out by Oxy and Ecopetrol when they installed industrial plants that violate the U’wa people’s rights.
This is why I urgently and desperately call on national and international organizations like the U.N., UNASUR, the Andean Parliament, the European Parliament, the OAS, the Inter-American Court, Colombia’s Constitutional Court, human rights and environmental NGOs, allied governments, and civil societies, asking them to demand respect for the U’wa people’s lives, to demand the enactment of precautionary measures so that neither the government nor anyone else can threaten the lives or integrity of the U’wa in their just struggle, and to demand that commitments—which even the justice system has recognized—are complied with.
[Update: On July 27th, “the U’wa reached a hard-fought agreement with the government of Colombia, securing renewed commitments and resources to strengthen U’wa territory.” Read more at: http://amazonwatch.org/news/2016/0729-colombias-uwa-bending-the-arc-of-history-towards-justice)