Historic case at international tribunal shows that states must put the rights of Indigenous peoples above extractive interests

El Cocuy National Park where the Indigenous U'wa are fighting the state of Colombia for recognition of their territorial rights against extractive industries and ecotourism.
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For over 25 years, the U’wa Nation of northeastern Colombia has been bravely fighting to be heard at an international tribunal. Since the 1990s, the state has been violating Indigenous communities territorial and cultural rights. It has done so by permitting polluting extractivism and eco-tourism on U’wa ancestral lands.

On Tuesday 24 to Wednesday 25 April, the U’wa took the state of Colombia to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). Environmental nonprofit EarthRights International supported the U’wa in its court action. The Indigenous nation sought reparations for the state’s violation of its legal international and national rights.

Central to its demands is that the government of Colombia return their territories. This includes the land occupied by settler colonial extractivist projects and ecotourism. Now, the hearing could be a turning point in the U’wa’s long struggle for justice. Importantly, it could mark a win against destructive fossil fuel companies.

Spiritual and cultural death

On the second morning of a two-day hearing at the IACHR, spokeswoman for the U’wa Nation, Daris Maria Cristancho declared before the court:

When they destroy our territory for us it is like slowly dying; It is accepting that the spiritual and cultural death of our people is very close.

The hearing was a historic occasion for Indigenous communities in Colombia. It was the first time an Indigenous group had brought a case over the state’s violation of its rights to the international tribunal.

As Cristancho poignantly highlighted, the case revolved around successive Colombian governments’ breach of the U’wa Nations peoples’ rights.

Read on...

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Crucially, the U’wa representatives expressed how nearly three decades of fossil fuel companies plundering their lands had impacted their communities.

Interests of the state and extractive companies

The 6,000-strong U’wa Nation Indigenous People inhabit the northeastern Andean cloud forests of Colombia. Its territory historically spanned 1.4m hectares of land extending up to the border with Venezuela. Today, the government has given the people rights to little over 15% of this prior range.

The U’wa representatives’ contended that the Colombian government had put economic and foreign multinational interests ahead of their rights. Moreover, they argued that the state’s dash for an economic oil and gas boon had driven it to reduce the recognised U’wa territory. U’wa spokesperson Ebaristo Tegria testified to the court:

The delimitation of the U’wa United Reservation was done at the convenience of the interests of the State and extractive companies.

In 1992, the Colombian government imposed petroleum licenses on the traditional territory of the U’wa. Oxy and Shell began plundering the estimated 1.5m barrels of oil in the Samore Block, inside U’wa traditional lands.

Meanwhile, the government had recognised only a fraction of the U’wa Nation’s former territory in legal ‘resguardos’ – reserves. Naturally, the government ensured the prospective oil drilling block fell outside the delimited U’wa resguardo.

Since they began seismic testing in the Samore block in 1996, Oxy and state oil company Ecopetrol have continued to desecrate the U’wa Indigenous territory.

Territory is everything

The statement of a former Colombian congressman in 2000 may hold hope for the U’wa Nation’s case at the IACHR this week:

The problem is not whether the oil project is inside or outside of the reserve. It is a failure to defend indigenous culture, for which Colombia could be charged with the crime of genocide.

These were the words of Gustavo Petro, who the Colombian people elected as their president in June 2022. Petro and running mate Francia Márquez, an environmentalist and feminist from the Afro-descendant movement, promised to work towards the respect of Indigenous Peoples rights.

Conversely however, spokesperson for the U’wa Nation, Daris Maria Cristancho pronounced to the IACHR that their rights and demands had not been previously upheld:

For the Colombian State, prior consultation is an information procedure that does not guarantee the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples. Our voice has never been heard nor our requests answered!

Now, as the U’wa Nation has finally articulated these rights at the IACHR, it is an opportunity for the new Colombian government to step up to its election pledge.

Cristancho announced to the court that:

Territory for the U’wa is everything! And when extractivist projects arrive, our harmony becomes unbalanced and our culture disappears.

The government of Colombia should now put the lives of Indigenous Peoples above the economic interests of greedy capitalist corporations. Moreover, governments around the world should also take heed of the arguments made by Indigenous communities like the U’wa nation.

Feature image via Ministerio de Ambiente de Colombia/Wikimedia Commons, resized to 770 x 403, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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  • Show Comments
    1. All extraction activities – mining, oil, whatever – are deeply destructive, disruptive, polluting and leave toxic legacies for many decades or more. It is right that Indigenous peoples must not have capitalist corporations, whose sole aim is increasing profits, destroying their environment.

      So where should mines and other extraction activities take place? Anywhere on the planet will have very good reasons for it not to take place. There needs to be a more informed debate on this, rather than narrowly focusing on NIMBYS who all have those good reasons.

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