U’wa are an indigenous people comprising approximately 10,649 people. They are distributed among 22 communities and live in the departments of Northern and Southern Santander, Norte de Santander, Boyaca, Casanare, and Arauca, extending up until the Colombian border with Venezuela. Descendants of U’wa, known as the Pedraza, can also be found living in Venezuela and these are thought to number some 100 people. Historically the U’wa ancestral territory covered an area of some 1.4 million hectares of land. Today, however, this territory has been vastly reduced, amounting to only a fraction of what they previously possessed.
U’wa have a deeply spiritual and holistic world view in which their existence as a people is integral and deeply tied to the forces of nature and the earth. U’wa believe in Sira, the father creator of the world who is the ultimate guardian of ‘Mother Earth’. According to the U’wa worldview, Mother Earth was a treasure given by Sira to U’wa and all of humankind, to be cultivated for their sustenance and survival. It is believed that Sira will be made angry by any human acts which violate the integrity of Mother Earth, including those which seek to exploit her to reap economic rewards. It is believed that Sira will punish such acts and that punishment will manifest itself through natural phenomena such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and darkness.
The U’wa people are perhaps one of Colombia’s most well-known indigenous peoples, who became internationally renowned in the late 1990s for their successful political mobilization against the exploitation of fossil fuels in their ancestral territories by the American multinational oil giant, Occidental Petroleum. Through their campaign, known as ‘Oxy No, U’wa Si’, in which they collectively threatened to commit mass suicide if Occidental did not withdraw from their lands, U’wa were able to win the support of important sectors of national and international public opinion.
Historically, U’wa have been a highly politicized and united community which has always put up a strong resistance against external forces threatening their culture and existence as a people.
Between 1635 and 1650, U’wa developed a resistance movement in the region of Servita, which is now the department of Santander. In the end, U’wa were forced to abandon their territories and flee to the mountains of the ‘Serranía de los Infieles‘, protesting that they would never be conquered. For the next 200 years, U’wa took refuge in the mountains which protected them from Spanish domination and extermination due to the difficult and rugged terrain.
During the modern era of the independent republic, at times when U’wa have felt a great sense of threat to their existence, they have resorted to collective suicide. This mass renunciation of life in the face of the loss of their last refuge on earth is thought to be an act of resistance, and a decision to follow the destiny of Mother Nature, rather than to continue living and play witness to her agony.
Despite the successes of the late 1990s in halting the oil prospecting activities of Occidental Petroleum, U’wa have subsequently experienced similar issues with the state-owned petroleum company ECOPETROL and its plans to carry out oil exploration on ancestral territories in the zones of Siriri and Catleya, in the region of Sarere. Unlike their previous campaign in the 1990s which charged Occidental Petroleum with failing to carry out prior consultation with the community, this time U’wa are steadfast in their refusal to engage in this process with ECOPETROL. This decision taken by U’wa was based on their belief that the worldviews of both parties with regards to what constitutes human development, well–being and prosperity sre inherently incompatible. The examples presented by the cases of other indigenous communities which participated in consultation processes but whose demands were not respected, leading to the eventual loss of their territories, also informed the community’s refusal to participate.
In 2014, the arrival of machinery and an increased military presence alerted U’wa community members and led to widespread protests. In May 2014, ECOPETROL agreed to suspend its operations in Magallanes and in July committed to withdrawing its equipment, with the final parts dismantled in early 2015 – a moment hailed by activists as a historic victory for indigenous peoples’ land rights in the country.
However, though the government had agreed to fully recognize U’wa territory and decontaminate polluted areas, in 2016 community members occupied an ECOPETROL gas plant in protest at the government’s perceived failure to meet these commitments. In December 2016, the U’wa Association with the support of EarthRights International and the Colombian NGO Cajar filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, accusing the Colombian government of responsibility for human rights violations suffered by the U’wa community over more than two decades, particularly with regard to their land and natural resources, and called for reparations and an end to these abuses. In 2015, the Inter-American Commission declared the U’wa case admissible, following their first complaint to the body having been filed already in 1997.
In September 2018, U’wa representatives issued a statement reiterating their opposition to oil and gas extraction in their ancestral territory, and condemning ECOPETROL for its failure to abide by the terms of the May 2014 agreement and its resumption of the Magallanes project.
In 2023, the indigenous leaders of the U’wa people made a declaration before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights asserting that they have been victims of human rights violations by the Colombian state, which has authorized extractive projects in their territory since the 1990s.
Updated June 2023
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