Indigenous community in Colombia gets its day in court over ‘ancestral land’

The U’wa people’s case against the Colombian government could help protect the environment across Latin America

After centuries fighting to protect their territory – and 26 years waiting to testify in an international legal dispute – an Andean Indigenous community has finally made its formal declarations against the Colombian state.

The U’wa Indigenous community told the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) that Colombia has repeatedly failed to recognise their ancestral lands and has threatened the group’s existence by polluting their territory with oil.

The IACHR has binding jurisdiction in most Latin American countries so the court’s ruling could eventually help protect many Indigenous peoples and the ecosystems they inhabit, said Wyatt Gjullin, a lawyer at Earth Rights, the environmental NGO supporting the U’wa’s legal case.

“The precedent is really important for the U’wa nation and the Indigenous peoples of Colombia but it will also have an impact at a regional level on very significant issues, amongst them the Indigenous people’s right to free prior informed consent,” Gjullin said.

The U’wa people live in north-eastern Colombia in the states of Arauca, Santander, Casanare, Norte de Santander and Boyacá. They inhabit the foothills and cloud forests of the Andes, and consider the glacier-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy to be particularly sacred.

The members of the pre-Hispanic community consider themselves to be the guardians of Mother Earth and have fought against projects from oil multinationals, including Royal Dutch Shell and Occidental Petroleum. Despite their protests, legal battles and even threats to kill themselves en masse, the group has been unable to prevent oil and gas exploitation in what they say is their sacred land.

U’wa leaders say the Colombian government has permitted the construction of gas stations in their reserve without consulting them as well as oil pipelines which are frequently sabotaged by armed rebels, sending the tar-black liquid spilling into the local rivers and streams.

The U’wa have been under threat since the Spanish conquest and are recognised by the constitutional court of Columbia as being “at risk of physical and/or cultural extermination” due to the country’s armed conflict.

As well as imperiling their existence, the oil and gas projects violate the group’s core belief that nature is sacred and that an equilibrium between the earth, water, oil, mountains and sky must be maintained.

“Oil is the blood of Mother Earth and helps keep the balance of nature,” Javier Villamizar Corona, a member of the U’wa community and legal representative, said. “To exploit oil is to violate the fundamental principles of nature.”

The U’wa say that the community’s reserves recognised by the country comprise only about a quarter of the group’s actual ancestral territory as demonstrated by colonial titles which predate the existence of the republic of Colombia.

As the national government has failed to act on a series of legal cases, the U’wa hope the IACHR will step in, forcing Colombia to recognise the lands they have inhabited for centuries and offer compensation for the damage caused. It remains unclear when the court will make its ruling.

“This is not just about the U’wa nation’s ancestral land or even the air, the oxygen or the water. It’s about Mother Nature and the cosmic interconnection between nature and man,” said Villamizar Corona.


Luke Taylor in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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