Chaos in Colombia

The killing of three American environmentalists won't stop the David and Goliath struggle between the U'wa tribe and big oil companies.

Published March 19, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

The murder of three U.S. environmental activists in Colombia -- discovered two weeks ago in a field on the Venezuelan border, their hands bound, eyes blindfolded and bodies filled with bullets -- stunned a Colombian people supposedly immune to horror stories of violence and atrocities. When, four days later, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia's largest rebel force, admitted it was responsible for the deaths of Terence Freitas, 24, Ingrid Washinawatok, 41, and Lahe'ena'e Gay, 39, the executions took on a new meaning. This single act of murder now became the catalyst to destroy the fragile peace negotiations with FARC begun in January by Colombia's new president, Andres Pastrana, and possibly ruin his presidency in the process.

The fallout from the killings has been enormous. Both the U.S. State Department and the Colombian government have been quick to condemn FARC, calling on Colombia's oldest rebel force to hand over the killers. FARC's leadership, for its part, has blamed the murders on a low-ranking officer, Commander Gildardo of the 10th Front, who, it says, acted without the approval of his superiors. "We condemn the abominable assassination of the three Americans," said one of FARC's leaders, Raul Reyes, in a press conference last week. In a demonstration of damage control only befitting a guerrilla army, Reyes suggested that Gildardo might himself be executed for his crime. Not that this is likely to satisfy a Colombian military already critical of the government's peace initiative and who, secretly, must be celebrating FARC's blunder, or other skeptics who see the murders as evidence of growing divisions in the FARC ranks.

But in the scramble to score political points, the important story of why Freitas, Washinawatok and Gay were in Colombia has been lost. What were they fighting for? And what was so important to them that they would venture into one of the most dangerous regions of a very dangerous country?

The three had been visiting the U'wa Indians, a small nation of 5,000 who live in the northern tip of Colombia. They had come to help the U'wa establish a bilingual education project. This was Washinawatok's and Gay's first visit to U'wa territory. Ingrid Washinawatok, a Menominee Indian, was the co-chairwoman of the Indigenous Women's Network and spent the last two decades campaigning for human rights. In 1977, she participated in the first indigenous meeting at the United Nations, and had taken her work to Africa and Asia as well as Latin America. Last week the Miami Herald reported that Washinawatok may have fallen ill (and perhaps even died) as result of a spider bite while being held by the rebels. According to Colombian military sources, the paper said, the rebels may have panicked because of their sick hostage. Lahe'ena'e Gay was founder and president of the Pacific Cultural Conservancy International (PCCI), the organization sponsoring the Colombia trip. An accomplished photographer and dancer as well as an ethnographer, Gay devoted herself and the work of the PCCI to preserving the cultural and biological diversity of the human family.

It was Terry Freitas, however, who was leading the trip. He had visited the U'wa five times since 1997. A conservation biologist, with a dual degree in biology and environmental studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz, Freitas had previously worked on American Indian law issues in the U.S. The bilingual project was just one part of a larger campaign, called the U'wa Defense Working Group, that Freitas, along with other international activists, had launched to help the U'wa in a bitter fight against the California oil multinational Occidental Petroleum.

In 1992, Occidental entered into a partnership with the Colombian national oil company and with the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell to explore for oil in an area named the Samor4e block. Occidental believes the oil field holds about 1.5 billion barrels of oil - enough to satisfy U.S. domestic demands for about three months. The Samor4e block, however, carved a path right through the middle of what the U'wa claimed were their ancestral homelands.

"Terry was really drawn in by the vitality and the authenticity of the U'wa, and also by the issue" says Shannon Wright, director of the Beyond Oil campaign for the Rainforest Action Network, and a close friend and colleague of Freitas. "It's such a black and white, right and wrong, David and Goliath situation where all this people is asking is to be left alone, to protect their land."

Oil occupies a special place in the U'wa cosmology. They believe oil is the blood of mother earth and that their role is to keep the earth in balance. Occidental's drilling plans would destroy the earth's balance, affecting the entire planet and cosmos, not just their land.

An isolated and private nation, known as "the thinking people," the U'wa have lived peacefully on their land in the Colombian cloud forest for thousands of years. This century, as with so many South American indigenous groups, the U'wa have seen their territory overrun by campesinos, in this case fleeing civil war, trying to make a living off the land. From 1940 to 1970, according to a 1998 report titled "Blood of Our Mother," co-authored by Freitas and published by Project Underground, a California environmental outfit that specializes in oil and mining issues, the U'wa had 85 percent of their ancestral territory stripped from them by the Colombian government. In the eyes of the U'wa leadership, Occidental posed the greatest danger to their people since the Spanish conquistadors threatened to enslave them more than 500 years ago. Then, according to tribal oral history, thousands of U'wa jumped to their death from a 1,400-foot cliff in an act of defiance. In April 1995, the Colombian press reported that the U'wa nation would commit mass suicide by jumping off the same cliff if Occidental was allowed to start oil exploration.

The threat grabbed headlines from Europe to the United States. But, says Wright, it's the U'wa's refusal to be influenced or bought off by outside parties, rather than this single statement of defiance, that has allowed them to block Occidental for so long. "When they explain their right to stop the project," she says, "they say that they adhere to a law that is older than the sun and moon and this is the divine law. And it is their right as a community to continue to exist and to protect their area. It has completely disarmed the government, it has disarmed the company and it has disarmed the public."

Rainforest Action Network and other environmental groups have long attacked Occidental for its environmental record in other parts of the Amazon Basin. Along the Rio Tigre in Peru, Quichua leaders have accused Occidental of polluting streams and rivers, while the Colombian Institute of Natural Resources, in a 1992 report, wrote that "Because of the polluting effluents from Caño Limon [Oxy's production facilities in Arauca] the receiving rivers and lakes are no longer fit for human consumption." An Oxy spokesperson denied that company operations had caused pollution on either the Rio Tigre or in Caño Limon. "We have been in Colombia for over 30 years, and have built hospitals and clinics," he said. "I think we've been a responsible corporate citizen." He also pointed to Oxy's "state-of-the-art" facilities in Limoncocha, Ecuador, as an example of the company's commitment to responsible operations.

But the U'wa also had another, more immediate reason to fear Occidental's operations. In Colombia's ongoing civil struggle, oil has been a flashpoint for both sides. The government sees the oil reserves as the way to pay its crippling foreign debts, and has created a special army unit to protect oil installations. Meanwhile the two guerrilla armies, FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) target the multinational oil companies that Colombia relies on for production because they resent foreign interference in the country and because their attacks embarrass and financially hurt the government. Oxy's Caño Limon pipeline has been blown up more than 460 times since it opened in 1985, spilling 1.7 million barrels of crude oil. Meanwhile, it paid $20 million in 1997, according to Oil and Gas Journal, on security for its operations. $17 million of that went to a war tax levied by the Colombian government, $3 million was used to sustain two counter-guerrilla army units. According to David Rothschild of Amazon Coalition, another member of the U'wa Defense Project, "Occidental's oil development on and near the U'wa traditional territory is inextricably linked to violence in the area. Or better said, if Oxy or any other oil company were not there, there would be less violence."

In 1997, having first had lawsuits against Occidental upheld then overthrown in the Colombian courts, the U'wa launched an international appeal for help. In June, the Colombian government asked the Organization of American States to intervene and later that month, Freitas, having met U'wa leader Berito Kuwaru'wa at a meeting with Occidental in California, became active in the cause. The international campaign had an effect. In early 1998, Oxy's partner, Shell, announced it was pulling out of the Samor´e project. Shell cited financial reasons, but according to minutes of Colombian government meetings with the company, obtained by Freitas and reprinted in "Blood of Our Mother," it was also concerned about becoming embroiled in the same human rights problems that had tarnished its reputation in Nigeria.

Occidental also seemed to take a step back. On May 27, 1998, it announced that it was seeking to renegotiate its contract and that it was renouncing some 75 percent of the Samor´e block. At the same time, it agreed on an exploration site with the Colombian government that, Oxy insists, is not on U'wa land. But according to the U'wa and their international supporters, this is just a public relations scheme. They claim the new drill site, while not located on their government-sanctioned reservation, is still on their ancestral, and sacred, lands. Oxy denies this.

During the last two years, tensions in the Arauca region had increased. In June 1997, Berito Kuwaru'wa was kidnapped from his home by masked, armed gunmen who beat him and tried to make him sign an "authorization agreement." The U'wa believed right-wing paramilitaries, allied with the army, were behind the attack. Freitas also was nervous. He told friends that he believed he had been followed while on a previous trip to the region, and that the military had made him sign a waiver releasing it from all responsibility for his well-being -- a deliberate act of intimidation as he saw it. Still he returned again to the people he ultimately gave his life for.

A day after the death of Freitas, Washinawatok and Gay, Evaristo Tegria, a U'wa representative in Cubarà, a town near the Venezuelan border, went to tell the U'wa elders the news. When he arrived, they already knew. Terry, they explained, had visited them the night before in a dream. He had brought them a snail shell -- a symbol of the gods and of problem solving -- and told them he was passing on, that he could no longer be with them, but that his work would continue.

According to Wright, the other members of the U'wa Defense Project will make sure the fight goes on. "There is a stronger resolve than ever to make sure the U'wa's land is protected from oil," she says. "It was never a job for Terry, it was his life, his commitment."

By Matthew Yeomans

Matthew Yeomans is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. He writes for Condi Nast Traveler, GQ and Details.

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