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29 March 1999

U'wa Caught in the Crossfire

By Yadira Ferrer

BOGOTA, Mar 21 (IPS) - The killing of three U.S. indigenous rights activists working with the U'wa people of Colombia demonstrated to what extent the ethnic group's reserve, involved in a struggle over oil drilling, has turned into a war zone.

U.S. citizens Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok and Lahe'ena'e Gay were killed Mar 5 by a commando of the insurgent Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) for having ''entered the U'wa region without authorisation'' by the guerrillas, according to the rebel group.

But the leadership of FARC - the largest insurgent organisation involved in Colombia's decades-old armed conflict - said it was not directly responsible for the murders, which it described as an ''error.''

Freitas, Washinawatok and Gay, whose bullet-riddled corpses were found 30 metres across the border in Venezuela, had been invited by the U'wa to study the community's model of education and cultural preservation. The three activists were participating in a traditional culture education project organised through Pacific Cultural Conservancy International, a Hawaii-based indigenous rights organisation. They were also involved in the fight against oil exploration on the U'wa's traditional land.

Freitas, a 24-year-old environmental biologist, had founded the U'wa Defence Working Group in California to assist the U'wa in bringing their case against U.S. oil giant Occidental Petroleum to the Organisation of American States (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Hernan Correa, an environmentalist with the Centre of Regional and Economic Studies in Colombia, told IPS that the incident demonstrated that the U'wa reserve had become a war zone, where the indians were no longer only fighting Occidental, but also found themselves defending their territory from FARC.

Correa said that ''armed actors'' had become active in the region, due to Occidental's plans to drill for oil in the area known as the ''Samore Bloc'', which the U'wa consider part of their territory. Under a licence issued by the Ministry of the Environment, Occidental planned to begin prospecting for oil in the 2,000-hectare Samore Bloc. The U'wa, however, argue that oil exploitation would cause settlement of the area by outsiders.

U'wa leader Roberto Cobaria said ''the basis of traditional thought would collapse, the Werjayas (priests) would not sing or pray, and there would be no more dances. The reasons for the existence of the U'wa people would disappear.''

The indigenous group believes oil is ''the blood of the earth, the essence of the underworld, and the element that sustains the gardens and lakes and prevents earthquakes.'' According to the indigenous group's beliefs, Sira (the eternal father) leaves the ''ruiria'' (oil in the U'wa tongue) in the earth to be cared for and not exploited.

The group has even threatened to commit mass suicide if Occidental begins exploration in the Samore Bloc. In the late 17th century, an entire U'wa community jumped off a cliff to avoid being converted to Christianity by Spanish missionaries.

Several analysts say the violence has worsened in Colombia due to the development of oil activity since the second half of the 1980s. The National Liberation Army (ELN) - the second largest rebel group - bombs oil pipelines to protest the presence of multinational oil companies, FARC levies ''taxes'' in order to allow the companies to operate, and right-wing paramilitary units have installed themselves in the area to fight the insurgents.

The U'wa community lives in the eastern foothills of the Andes mountains in Colombia, a region of great environmental value, where the 5,000 to 6,000 members of the indigenous group maintain a subsistence-level economy based on agriculture and livestock, which protects the forests. The U'wa territory encompasses two natural parks, Cocuy and Tama, as well as a vast area of bleak, snowy plateaus in the foothills of the Andes.

Correa said the territory ''is a link in continental ecological connections involving 'Orinoquia' (the plains in the basin of the Orinoco river), the Andes and the Caribbean.''

The U'wa dispute with Occidental demonstrates that spaces for the protection of those ''who are culturally different, like indigenous peoples and those who personify the nation's ethnic and cultural diversity'' are not being respected in Colombia, he added.

Occidental was awarded a prospecting licence in February 1995. But it suspended its plans in the face of the protest movement mounted by the indigenous group and non-governmental organisations supporting their struggle. In 1997, a report drafted by the Organisation of American States and Harvard University backed the position of the U'wa, and urged Occidental to call off its operations until the lawsuit brought by the U'wa in defence of their territorial rights was resolved.

The oil company voluntarily brought its activities to a halt, and last year renounced 75 percent of the area in which it had been allowed to explore for oil. But it submitted to the Ministry of the Environment a study on environmental impact in the rest of the Samore Bloc. (END/IPS/tra-so/yf/mp/sw/99)

Origin: Montevideo/RIGHTS-COLOMBIA/

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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