UPDATE: On May 3rd 2002, Occidental Petroleum announced withdrawl of plans to drill for oil on U’wa lands, stating that there’s no oil there. Rights to oil and minerals revert to Colombia’s government, which may legally sell or extract resources as they wish in the future.

U’wa tribe’s suicide pact

The U’wa people of Colombia have a way of life devoted to keeping the planet alive. For them, the prospect of international oil companies drilling their land portends the end of the world. John Vidal reports.

The U’wa are one of South America’s more remote and mystical people. They have lived in the foothills and cloud forests of the Andes in northeast Colombia since, they believe, the world began, and had almost no contact with the outside world until 40 years ago. And in all that time, in all their immense oral history, there is no record of them ever having fought outsiders or each other, of them causing any pollution, or of them taking anything that was not always theirs. Yet now, this retiring, self-governing society, which believes that it exists only to keep the world in harmony, faces certain apocalypse because of the inroads made into their lands by British and United States oil companies.

To reach the small U’wa communities up in the mountains, you have to leave the Colombian plains, ford several rivers and then follow the tracks that lead up to the fields cleared from the forest 35 years ago by colonist farmers. There, you must wait for several days on the edge of the U’wa’s territory, hoping to gain the trust of their spiritual leaders. If and when that trust is given, there is another long hike through bog, bush and jungle until you come to a near-vertical 500-metre escarpment cliff. You then follow the mountain streams up the cliff, led by machete and luminous blue, handkerchief-sized butterflies. Occasionally, the sun breaks through the canopy, but mostly there is no sense of a world beyond. Exhausted, scratched and bitten, you finally emerge at the top of the cliff. Clouds hang like smoke on the valley sides below. Behind you, the great Cobaria river snakes away to the Orinoco and the Amazon Basin; to the north is Venezuela and the ever-rising hills leading up to the Sierra Nevada de Cocuy and its snow-topped peaks. In pre-colonial days, the U’wa ranged across an area the size of Wales; today, most of the few thousand people who remain have retreated to the mountains to preserve their culture in the face of incursions by white settlers. Their 100,000-hectare designated territory is just 10 per cent of their ancestral lands. It is a remote place, far from the cities, the drug and oil economies, and the guerrilla warfare that is now tearing lowland Colombia apart. An old man, a string bag on his shoulder and with hands coloured orange from pulping fruit, beckons us from the edge of his banana patch and calls with a monkey yelp to his Spanish-speaking son, Betencaro. Betencaro is a tubby, Pan-like figure, with the softest of handshakes and the eagerness of a child. The 400m walk through the forest to his house takes an hour as he stops every few yards to show us his world. “This is what we eat,” he says. He bends down, picks and strips a plant, exposes its heart and offers it. “Here is a plate”—he picks off a leaf, bends it four ways like macrame, and pierces the corners with a hard, spiky grass. “This root is a medicine for the stomach . . . Here, taste this, it’s an anaesthetic” —it leaves my mouth numb within seconds. He calls to the birds and the frogs, and shows us where the aphrodisiacal honey comes from.

There is nothing in the forest that Betencaro and the U’wa do not use. These berries make soap; that fungus (he points to a tree) lights fires. He makes furniture with this creeper, bags from that. Here’s a vine good for bow strings. This is where the cuchi-cuchi (monkeys) live; where the birds collect.

We eat bark and berry, root, tuber, bean, fruit and leaf. Betencaro is laughing his head off, beaming at his sufficiency. Everything in this cloudy Garden of Eden is useful to him. Except for one plant with a small white flower. “Hah,” he says, tearing it up by the root and throwing it to the forest floor as if he were a National Trust gardener finding ground elder: “The Christians brought that. It promises everything, but it’s useless.”

We reach his house, which, like his father’s, is surrounded by a chaos of coca bushes, bananas and fruit trees. Betencaro regrets that he cannot invite us in because, he says, we will upset the gods who determine his every action and thought. He would have to get a wedhaiya (U’wa spiritual leader) to breathe on our clothes, to purify us and to prevent our culture from contaminating his home. So we sit outside and talk of the one thing that is occupying U’wa minds. Oil.

One hundred and sixty kilometres to the east, where the Cobaria river spills first through the state of Arauca before moving on to a landlocked floodplain, is the Caño Limon oilfield. It is one of the world’s largest, with more than 1,200 million barrels of oil, and it earns Colombia hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The oilfield is licensed to the US oil corporation Occidental (Oxy), which is in equal partnership with the Anglo-Dutch corporation, Shell. Ecopetrol, Colombia’s state oil company, has a smaller share.

The diametrically opposed worlds of the U’wa and the petrol companies—of consumerism and mysticism, of corporations and the self-sufficient—are clashing terribly in South America, and especially in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, which are set to displace the Middle East as the preferred source of US oil. Where the U’wa depend on the natural inaccessibility of their habitat to protect their culture, these oil companies protect their 5,000-hectare holding with 3m-high coils of razor wire and miles of steel fences. Oxy and Shell pay a “war tax” of $1 per barrel (about $180,000 a day) to pay for the protection of the Colombian army from the escalating guerrilla war. At Caño Limon we are met by nervous-looking young men with machine guns who spend their days in concrete pillboxes or in a bullet-splattered guard post. Oxy representatives are waiting for us, too. Even so, it takes us half an hour and five radio and mobile telephone calls to pass through three sets of security gates into a manicured colonial compound that would do justice to Club Mediterranee. There are swimming pools, athletic tracks, tennis and racket courts, gymnasia, restaurants, a hospital, helicopter pads, shops. Everything must be brought in from outside to cater for the 150 oilworkers who live here for months at a stretch, not daring to leave for fear of being shot or kidnapped by the competing armies of guerrillas. It is like a war zone mixed with a holiday camp.

Photographs and images on the walls celebrate speed, power and, above all, the triumph of oil production and the companies’ domination of nature. This river has been straightened, millions of tonnes of earth have been moved, lakes filled in, new ones formed. This is the great pipeline that crosses the mountains to export the oil.

At their current rate of output, Shell and Oxy have only about 10 years’ exploitation left of the Caño Limon, and with the end in sight for this fabulously profitable field, they are searching for new sites. They have been licensed by the Colombian government to explore and exploit a large block of land called Samore. The problem is that Samore includes a sizeable part of the U’wa’s existing, and much of their ancestral, territory.

The companies have already spent $16 million on seismic studies, which revealed that Samore holds as much oil as Caño Limon. But for the U’wa, any incursion on to their territory would be devastating, and their response is categorical: if and when Shell and Oxy move in to their mountains, the tribal leaders say that many U’wa will throw themselves off a high cliff called The Cliff Of Death in an act of mass ritual suicide. For the U’wa, this would be a positive act—better to die with both dignity and culture intact, they say, than to see their world torn apart.

Mass ritual suicide is part of the U’wa culture. The tribe’s oral history recounts how in the 16th century one large U’wa community, in retreat from the Spaniards, came to The Cliff Of Death. All U’wa territory is considered sacred, but there are some areas, the cliff included, where no one may go. U’wa history relates that, faced with being forced to move on to this forbidden land, the tribe put their children in clay pots and cast them off the cliff before leaping backwards after them. If the U’wa carry out their threat, they will go back to The Cliff Of Death.

For the government, the U’wa’s decision is a “philosophical dilemma” that is threatening to become an international incident, according to Rodrigo Villamizar, the disgraced former minister of mines and petrol who resigned in August following a corruption scandal. James Niehaus, vice-president of Oxy Worldwide Production in California, calls it “tragic”. The U’wa say it would be the end of the world, and the people of Colombia are horrified. On a recent trip to London, Villamizar said, “My son asks me, ‘Daddy, are you going to make the Indians jump off the cliff?’.”

Colombia’s constitution requires it to protect its 84 tribes of indigenous peoples, but the country has an equal duty to develop its resources for the benefit of all. The circle is impossible to square because the U’wa do not want financial recompense, development or anything that the state or the neo-liberal economy can offer. They want to be left alone, like the Kogui tribe in the north of the country, which has withdrawn from all contact with white society. The U’wa way of life is not negotiable, they say. It is the ultimate peaceful protest.

But there are billions of dollars at stake, and oil is now Colombia’s main export. The U’wa are semi-autonomous, and their lands are protected, but they do not own the mineral rights. Colombia’s highest constitutional court ruled in February that Occidental and the government were guilty of violating the fundamental right of consultation with the U’wa, and were threatening their ethnic, cultural, social and economic identity. Within weeks, however, the higher administrative court effectively overruled this verdict and re-instated the Oxy/Shell mining permit. The current legal position is that the Samore oilfield can now be developed whenever Shell and Oxy decide to move in. The result is a tense political stand-off, with the companies and the government believing that they can still persuade the U’wa to accept oil development on their land.

“No one has encountered a case like this before,” says Eduardo Munoz-Gomez, minister in the Colombian embassy in London. “We can’t afford one person committing suicide.”

Oxy’s stance is more hardline. The suicide threat is little more than a gesture, “a threat”, says Gerardo Vargas, an Oxy community-relations officer in Arauca. Besides, says the corporation, there is no written evidence of the U’wa suicides in the 16th century. “The U’wa are not going to jump,” says Vargas. “I will commit suicide myself first. I know them. Suicide is not the philosophy of the U’wa. They have allowed themselves to get cornered. One of the problems of their culture is that they do not agree amongst themselves. Everyone is completely individualistic.”

But who, exactly, has Oxy been talking to? Vargas claims that the corporation has been in continual “negotiation” and “talks” with the U’wa since the application was made in 1985. The U’wa, he says, were on the point of signing an agreement as late as 1993. He calls them his friends. The reality is that Oxy has talked to only one small, geographically isolated U’wa group on a consistent basis, and all of them are more or less integrated with white society, if living in poverty. The corporation has talked to no spiritual leaders and has never visited the main U’wa communities or power centres. Only five people in a community of several thousand seem prepared to say that they want the oil to come. All five have connections with Oxy. Only one of them speaks U’wa, and four live in towns. In May, these five were the “U’wa community representatives” at a meeting in Bogotá to discuss the situation with a group of senators. Also there were senior Oxy executives, a government-paid anthropologist, the president of the state oil company Ecopetrol and three state ministers—of mines, interior and environment. The five “U’wa representatives” signed a document stating that they were in favour of oil exploitation with certain provisions: protection of the environment, social programmes and “sustainable development”.

When pressed recently, however, one said that she is “not exactly” in favour of oil exploitation on U’wa land. She sees herself as someone trying to find a solution and avoid conflict.

Only one or two outsiders have ever been given full access to the main U’wa communities and the wedhaiya. Ann Osborn, an Oxford university anthropologist, went to live in Colombia in 1958 when she was in her early twenties and spent more than 10 years with the U’wa in the 1970s and 1980s, and helped in the tribe’s fight to secure its territory. Osborn died in 1988, but her life’s work is two books describing a complex, mystical society rooted in ritual and myth, and led by the purest in the tribe, the elected wedhaiya. The U’wa, says Osborn, attach a spiritual value to everything. They believe that they are the centre of a living earth and that they perpetuate all life by protecting it. Echoing James Lovelock’s Gaia theory and radical science that proposes that the earth is holistically a living organism, the U’wa say everything—from land, tree and rock to river, sky and place—is alive and therefore sacred.The U’wa protect the land not just in the strict environmental sense that they never waste, pollute or take more than the land can bear, but also in ritual chant and dance. Rather as the Australian Aboriginals have their songlines, so the U’wa daily sing the world into creation by reciting their myths and their place names. They keep the world alive by, literally, singing it. The birds, too, create places by chanting the names of the areas they fly over. Everything, said Osborn, that the U’wa do or think is focused to “protect and continue life”.

Osborn describes a world bound by its environment. The traditional U’wa still practise swidden agriculture, moving up from the lower slopes to higher ones according to the season. Their many different myths are performed seasonally, accompanied by rituals led by the wedhaiya. Although the tribe has barely enough land for everyone in the reservation, it is largely an unchanging world, in stark contrast to what U’wa leaders refer to as the “ever-changing” nature of white society.

And as part of their cosmology, the U’wa world above is mirrored below the earth. In this inverted universe live shadow people, alter egos of those living on the surface. Here in the underworld, the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. “In psychological terms,” wrote Osborn, “this relates with the world of the psyche and the different levels of the conscious and unconscious.”

The sense of mystery is everywhere. On reaching puberty, young U’wa women put on head-dresses, or cocaras, made of giant leaves from which they can see only through a small slit in the front. They wear them until someone asks to marry them, which can take four or more years. Then there are the 12 menhirs, great standing stones like those at Stonehenge, which Osborn believed were the pillars of the U’wa’s spiritual world. U’wa myth says that when the last one falls, the world ends. Only two still stand.

But what about oil? Osborn doesn’t mention it, but the U’wa say they have always had a word for it—ruiria. “For them, it is the blood of Mother Earth, the veins of the land,” says Edgar Mendez, an anthropologist who has worked with the U’wa for two years. “The invasion of another world into their territory—above or below ground—is death. To extract it would tear their spiritual world apart.”

We return from the mountains, stumbling in the dark, having barely been granted access to the U’wa’s main communities. Pepe, a semi-pet coypu, is being grilled over wood by a lowland U’wa family that farms an old colonist ranch. Berichá Kubar’uwa, president of the traditional U’wa council, swings in a hammock with a child. In his pocket, he has a “clock” insect that whistles on the U’wa hour. “We had lots of hours before the Spanish came,” he quips.

Berichá is weary. “The communities will die,” he sighs. “We can’t give permission to develop oil. You can’t sell Mother Moon. We don’t even sell our timber or cattle, so why would we want to try to sell the blood of Mother Earth? For us, the earth is sacred: it is not for violation, exploitation or negotiation; it is to be cared for, to be conserved. The government will sit down with us to see how we can live with Oxy and their oil exploration in our territory, without our culture being destroyed. But for us, this is impossible. We believe that the sun and the moon only work with the earth because she has blood.

If you take out the blood, then you damage the earth and cause imbalance.”

Earlier this year, Berichá and Mendez were flown to California by a small US environmental group to confront top Oxy executives at their headquarters. Berichá sat on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, studied it for many hours, and then searched and sang his traditional songs to understand what his history had to say. He told the oilmen how the earth is connected to the sun and the moon. There is no sense that they understood.

The U’wa believe that they are doomed because to extract the oil would be to drain the earth of its blood. They are prepared to die for their beliefs, but they are also increasingly aware that, in cold, practical terms, the effective end of their tribe is more likely be caused by the guerrilla warfare that accompanies the oil industry in Colombia. They will have no earthly way of defending themselves.

On July 1, war nearly came to the U’wa living in the small community of Casa Roja. At 9am, a column of 30 armed men came up the track, the first guerrillas seen in the area. A military patrol was waiting for them. Two people died in a brief firefight that ended when a plane dropped four bombs within metres of the houses. An U’wa villager, Yaquie, shows us the bullet holes in three of her walls. “If oil comes, there will be more of this,” she says. “It is inevitable. We will die.”

Yaquie and the other U’wa base their fears on what has happened in other oilfields, especially the Caño Limon field. A recent report—prepared by local unions, churches, indigenous and human-rights groups—documents the reality of life in the Caño Limon since oil was exploited. Just 15 years ago, this was a sleepy, under-populated frontier land, but the oilfield attracted tens of thousands of displaced people, who flooded into the area in search of work. With them came two full mobile brigades of the Colombian army, paid for by Shell and Oxy, who are accused of atrocities by Amnesty International and Colombian human-rights groups.

Oil has also attracted, like flies to the ointment, the well-armed ELN and FARC, Colombia’s two main guerrilla groups. Also in the area are shadowy, pro-government paramilitary death squads paid for unofficially by the military or the police. An estimated 6,000 people in Arauca now survive by murder, kidnapping and extortion.

The militarisation of the area has developed into a feudal war. Government records note that, in the past year, there have been 38 assassinations, 18 massacres, 31 incidents of torture, 44 kidnappings, 151 illegal detentions, 360 incidents of harassment, 150 displacements of people, and one disappearance. A judicial investigation documents further murders, illegal detentions and human rights abuses. Few believe these figures cover even half the atrocities that have taken place.

The government, the oil companies and the local authorities say the war is escalating. The 600km oil pipeline—paid for by Shell and Oxy and operated by Ecopetrol—that starts in Caño Limon and takes more than half of Colombia’s oil to the Caribbean coast has been bombed and mined 473 times since it was completed in 1986. There were 47 attacks in the first six months of 1997 alone. The 1.5 million barrels of oil spilt in the bombings have caused “irreparable pollution” to the environment, says Oxy. Put together, they constitute the sixth-largest oil spill in history. Many oil workers have been killed. Ominously, says the company, the ELN and FARC are now working together against them.

The ecological and social situation is disturbing, too. Local unions and churches have documented the side-effects of oil exploitation in the region. These include invasion of land, pollution of the air, rivers and soil, the loss of sacred lakes, birdlife, land degradation and climatic changes. With these ecological problems have come social disintegration—prostitution, drugs, alcoholism, malnutrition, delinquency and divisions in society. The nomadic Guahibos, the only indigenous group living in the area when the oilmen came, have been reduced to begging.“Life was tranquil before the oil,” says the report, which was carried out on the U’wa’s behalf. “Today . ... . people are forgetting the basic principles of togetherness and are unable to adapt . . . With the contamination of the land has come cultural and spiritual contamination.”This puts Oxy in a dilemma. While it needs to keep the international community and the global financial markets abreast of production delays and problems with the guerrillas, it has to present a different face to the Colombian people when asked if it will bring a similar destabilisation of society in Samore, and especially U’wa territory, if it begins oil production there. Rather than accept any responsibility for the chaos, Oxy claims to be a “good neighbour”, and points to the social and financial initiatives it has designed to help local communities. The corporation says that in Caño Limon it has paid $100 million of taxes to the local government in the past 12 years. Oxy is reticent about what will happen to the region when the oil runs out.

. . . militarisation of the region, Oxy and Shell blame the guerrillas for the plight of the U’wa. “The U’wa are virtually hostages in their own land, controlled by groups engaged in illegal and murderous acts, including drug and gun trafficking,” says Niehaus, Oxy’s vice-president. “As a result, they are prevented from making decisions about their future without interference and intimidation—decisions that could make the difference between survival and the extinction of their community.” The U’wa reply that they have had no contact with the guerrillas and that they mostly support their struggle. The guerrillas, they say, target the oil companies, not them.

So does Oxy accept that the same social and ecological disasters will take place in Samore if they and Shell start production? With all the logic of a massive corporation in California, Niehaus says that the U’wa need Oxy and oil. Without the development that the companies will bring, he claims, the U’wa are doomed: “Young people will continue to leave the area to seek opportunities elsewhere, and the communities will not be able to continue their traditional way of life. The simple fact is that U’wa society is changing as a result of complex socio-economic factors that have nothing to do with oil development.” The neo-liberal government still cannot believe that the U’wa will carry out their threats, or that the oil development will be stopped.

Nevertheless, Oxy now suggests it may be able to extract oil without going into U’wa lands, by using advanced technologies to drill horizontally from the side. The U’wa are not impressed, and have raised the stakes by saying that they will now commit suicide if any oil is taken out of their ancestral territory. They are now seeking to have their lands extended.

For Oxy and Shell, it must all be rather confusing. In the can-do global economy of oil and international diplomacy, everyone they have encountered so far has had a price; everything can be negotiated and every situation mediated. The U’wa’s position questions their whole presence and exposes their flaws. “They talk a different language and speak from another world,” says Mendez.

“The companies talk about social responsibility, but they refuse to accept responsibility for the impact of their work,” says Martin von Hildebrand, Colombia’s former environment minister who framed the constitutional laws to protect indigenous people’s rights in 1991 and who now works with the Gaia Foundation in Bogotá. “Everywhere else, from South America to Africa, they have got what they wanted by taking advantage of the weakness of institutions, playing one group off against another, dividing people, working on the young, and offering gifts. This time, it is not working.”

Yesterday’s mirrors and beads have become today’s roads, health and education centres, says Von Hildebrand. The U’wa are adamant they would prefer to die in dignity rather than lose their identity and their purpose, which is to keep the world alive. Where the whole of Colombian society is being destabilised by the rush to embrace a global economy, they pose unanswerable questions.

The hot afternoon rain pours down in Casa Roja. D, the daughter of a wedhaiya who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, says that the situation is confusing and dangerous. Are there not simple truths and laws that exist for everyone and everything, she asks. Fundamental laws that cannot be changed on the whim of men in Los Angeles, London or Bogotá?

“I sing the traditional songs to my children,” she says. “I teach them that everything is sacred and linked. How can I tell Shell and Oxy that to take the 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. No, it is not a gesture.”