U’wa Indigenous Community’s Defense of Sacred Lands

posted by Tracy Solum


The Climate Action Fund was established by RAN in 2009 to award grants to frontline community groups that are fighting to prevent fossil fuels from being extracted. CAF is a grassroots alternative to carbon offset programs. Instead of purchasing carbon credits, funds are used to empower frontline communities to keep fossil fuels in the ground where they belong.

The U’wa are an Indigenous community of more than 6,000 individuals who have lived in the cloud forests of the Colombian Andes for thousands of years. At the heart of their culture is the belief that the land which has sustained them for centuries is sacred, and that they exist to protect that land.

Their ten-plus year international struggle in defense of their life, land, and culture successfully forced Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum to abandon plans to drill for oil on U’wa territory in 2002. However, the U’wa people and territory are once again threatened by the Colombian state oil and gas firm Ecopetrol, which this year has intensified exploration activities within U’wa ancestral territory.

In late March, guerilla forces, engaged in a decades-long conflict with the Colombian government, bombed the Cano Limon oil pipeline – which runs through part of the U’wa territory transporting 80,000 barrels daily – creating toxic pollution that caused severe health issues for several U’wa individuals. The U’wa, exercising their rights within their own legal territory, demanded a direct dialogue with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos that led to an agreement to allow the pipeline to be repaired after a tense 40-day stand-off.

As part of the agreement, Ecopetrol suspended its immediate plans to drill for gas at the Magallanes site that is situated just north of the U’wa reserve, but which falls within the ancestral territory of three U’wa communities.

A Climate Action Fund (CAF) grant from RAN was given at this time to support the U’wa continuing to work in conjunction with allies to raise awareness within Colombia, including among U’wa communities, and around the world to safeguard their rights, territory and lives.

A recent statement by the High Council of the U’wa Indigenous Association of Colombia details the activities of the U’wa in defense of their land and rights. The emergency Climate Action Fund grant was given towards supporting these activities:

For the U’wa people, 2014 has been characterized by a reinvigoration of our struggle against extractive projects within our ancestral territories. We have carried out internal actions like community meetings, assemblies, gatherings with traditional authorities, cultural events, group gatherings and spiritual orientations. At the same time, we have carried out actions to bring to light the resource extraction problem in both national and international scenarios. We have reactivated our support network of organizations that defend the environment and human rights and we have placed the U’wa territory issue on the agenda of the Colombian national government.

The U’wa held several meetings with the national government. In each meeting the U’wa emphasized the urgent need for the government to effectively guarantee their territorial rights and cancel all natural resource extraction projects within their ancestral territory, including the Magallanes gas exploration project.

The U’wa Traditional Authorities and Councils (ASOU’WA) announced in a recent statement that the outcome of this process is that Ecopetrol is disassembling and removing drilling equipment associated with cancelling plans to move forward with the Magallanes project. The consistent effort on the part of the U’wa and their supporters has stopped a project that seemed inevitable just a few months ago, although it will not be a permanent victory until Ecopetrol cancels plans for the project outright.

The statement goes on to call this a “step toward the continual protection of our mother nature in her entirety, toward safeguarding the integrity of our ancient people and guaranteeing the physical and cultural permanence of the members who make up all of our communities.”

ASOU’WA also expressed thanks to “all the unconditional support offered by different local, regional, national, and international organizations that accompany our dignified and just struggle in defense of the environment and the U’wa nation’s ancestral culture.”

RAN is proud to have supported the U’wa in their ongoing struggle to protect their lives, culture and ancestral territory in the cloud forest they call home.


 Uwa Community