An Indigenous community has made declarations against the Colombian state in a hearing at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, as part of a case that could prove significant for the protection of the environment and Indigenous rights across Latin America.
During a two-day hearing, representatives for the U’wa people called on the court, which has jurisdiction in most Latin American countries, to rule against the government over decades of violations of their rights and the environment. These issues have largely been linked to oil and gas activities, and include claims of a lack of consultation over new projects.
The U’wa are comprised of around 6,000 people who live across north-east Colombia, with the Indigenous group also historically populating areas of what is now Venezuela. Their ancestral territory once covered an area of 1.4 million hectares, but this has been greatly reduced, with today’s 22 U’wa communities now inhabiting only a fraction of the land they once possessed.
“When they destroy our territory, for us it is like dying slowly, it is like accepting that the spiritual and cultural death of our people is very close,” Daris María Cristancho, an U’wa Indigenous leader told the court.
The long-awaited legal case comes after decades of U’wa resistance against external forces that have threatened their culture and existence – a struggle that has made them one of Colombia’s most well-known Indigenous groups.
When they destroy our territory, for us it is like dying slowlyDaris María Cristancho, U’wa Indigenous leader
Since the 1990s, the U’wa have protested against the exploitation of fossil fuels in their territories by multinationals including Shell and Occidental Petroleum, staging occupations and marches for their causes, collaborating with NGOs, and even threatening mass suicides.
In 2016, the U’wa filed a case with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accusing the Colombian government of human rights violations. The commission ruled in the Indigenous people’s favour in 2019 and made a series of recommendations for the government to guarantee their rights. But after these requirements were not met, in 2020 the case was sent by the commission to the Inter-American Court, and is only now being heard.
“I ask the court to respect our home, for it is our culture, our cosmovision,” said Daris María Cristancho at the hearing. Her call was for “the territory be returned to the U’wa people”.
Indigenous struggle in Colombia
At the hearing, held 25–26 April in Santiago, Chile, Cristancho and other U’wa community members told the court of the problems they have faced due to gas and oil extraction on their lands. These include the Magallanes and Gibraltar projects led by the state-run Ecopetrol, as well as the pipelines that pass through their territory. They are also said to be affected by the presence of armed forces in their territory, and by forced displacement.
“The government has authorised extractive projects in their territory since the 1990s,” Wyatt Gjullin, a lawyer at Earth Rights, the NGO supporting the U’wa’s legal case, told Diálogo Chino. “Now, the largest oil pipeline in the country, Caño Limón-Coveñas, runs across their land, as well as a gas pipeline. Both have polluted the environment and contaminated water sources.”
Since taking office last year, Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, has repeatedly made statements in support of the protection of Indigenous lands, including at international events. Such measures were a key part of his speech before the Organization of American States (OAS) in April. “If there is no balance with nature, we cease to exist, as Indigenous people say,” Petro said.
Martha Lucía Zamora, the director of the National Agency for the Legal Defence of the State (ANDJE) and its lead in the U’wa case, said the government was open to a dialogue with the U’wa but didn’t acknowledge its responsibility for human rights violations: “We must commit ourselves to walk side by side, with political will, with acceptance of cultural changes and social evolution,” Zamora said at the hearing.
The U’wa community has previously signed agreements with the Colombian government, in 2014 and 2016, that brought an end to protests against oil and gas projects. However, disputes continue to arise, with nine contracts for projects across the country currently under review for reactivation, following their earlier suspension due to community opposition. Petro’s administration has vowed to not grant new oil and gas contracts in Colombia, but said it would respect existing ones.
Ebaristo Tegría, an U’wa lawyer and teacher, told Dialogo Chino that his people want to be the ones to decide what happens in their land. “All extractive projects should be cancelled,” he said. “Ecopetrol already has three projects on our land and now wants to start a fourth one. The government only thinks about the revenue.”
Last year, President Petro moved to ratify the Escazú Agreement, the landmark Latin American treaty that sets regional standards on the right of access to information and participation in environmental matters. The treaty is awaiting final confirmation from the country’s Constitutional Court.
For Tegría, however, the Escazú Agreement’s implementation still feels a distant prospect, and the realities for environmental defenders remain challenging. “The government told us at public hearings before starting on a new oil project that the decision was theirs, not ours,” he added.
No date has yet been set for the Inter-American Court to rule on the U’wa case. However, Tegría is hopeful they will get a favourable ruling that will not only benefit them but also other Indigenous groups and organisations: “Colombia has 115 indigenous communities and each has its own problems. The ruling can set a precedent and show other communities that they can fight for their rights.”
The court’s ruling could also set a legal precedent for judicial systems across Latin America. “What the [Inter-American] court says can have a big impact legally at a national level,” Wyatt Gjullin said. “It becomes part of the national law of member states. It can strengthen the rights of Indigenous communities across the region.”