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Colombian soldier

A Colombian soldier climbs through the hills above Cubara in 2010 as part of a force protecting exploratory drilling sites of Occidental Petroleum. The U.S.-based company was drilling on land which U'wa indigenous leaders claimed had bee stolen from their tribal reservation. (Paul Jeffrey)

I’ve often said that the hardest part of photography is getting to the right place at the right time. Take a trip I made to Colombia in 2000, for example. I was interested in writing about the U’wa indigenous people. Tired of having their tribal land ravaged by foreign oil corporations, they had threatened a mass suicide. In the case of the U’wa, that’s not an idle threat. In the late 17th Century, several hundred U’wa jumped off a 1,200 foot cliff rather than submit to forced colonization by Spanish missionaries and tax collectors. The area was subsequently renamed the Cliff of Glory.

The issue in 2000 was that Occidental Petroleum, a California-based firm known widely as “Oxy,” was intent on taking oil from the U’wa land, no matter what the U’wa thought. Nestled into the misty forests of northeast Colombia near the border with Venezuela, the U’wa had been engaged in a life and death struggle with Occidental ever since the early nineties when scientists from the giant petroleum company found evidence of 1.3 billion barrels of crude oil more than two miles below the tribe’s land. In 1995, the Colombian government granted Occidental an exploration permit, despite a constitutional requirement that the U’wa be consulted first, something tribal leaders say did not happen.

When tribal leaders complained, the Colombian government tried appeasing the U’wa by dramatically enlarging the U’wa reservation. Yet the sites where Occidental wanted to drill were left out of the newly configured indigenous territory. Moreover, the U’wa argue that the entire area belonged to them until Spanish missionaries and agricultural settlers began systematically encroaching on their land. That erosion has continued; one recent report shows the Colombian government stripped the tribe of 85 percent of its land between 1940 and 1970.

As company geologists and engineers moved in, so did the Colombian army, installing two military bases in the area and harassing local residents. In early 2000, when the U’wa blocked roads leading to company drilling sites, army troops beat and evicted the demonstrators. Two U’wa children reportedly died in a river as their mothers hurriedly fled the confrontation.

I decided to go look for myself. I flew to nearby Saravena, rented a car at the airport, and set off to find the U’wa. I had no fixer, no contact information, and no detailed maps of where in the forest to find the U’wa. But I’m perseverant, and before long and without doing too much damage to the underside of the car I’d rented, I found some of the tribe in a mountain village.

“The land is the root of who we are,” Roberto Cobaria, a former tribal president, told me. “From the land we were born. To drill into the earth damages the land, the body of the world. Petroleum is like blood, running everywhere throughout the body of the earth. We are organized and demand that the government respect our culture and our sacred land. We demand respect. The U’wa people have a culture that goes far back, and land was always what produced life for us. Without land, there is no life. Without land, where are we going to sit? Where are we going to cultivate our crops? Where are we going to educate our children? Without land, there is no life for us.”

The U’wa didn’t need to look far to see what would happen if they didn’t resist Oxy. Around the nearby Caño Limón oil field, where Occidental was then extracting more than 100,000 barrels a day, the Guahiba indigenous tribe has paid a high price for Occidental’s profits. After Occidental opened roads into the jungle, mestizo settlers soon followed. Alcohol abuse and prostitution accompanied the construction workers who were brought in from the city. As construction progressed, the Guahiba watched the fish die in their sacred Lipa Lagoon, which indigenous leaders claim was poisoned by contaminated runoff and grew stagnate after Occidental blocked the lake’s outlet streams with its access roads. Protests by the tribe reportedly led to aerial bombing by the U.S.-supplied military. In one case, it was Oxy’s security team that fed the coordinates of a supposed guerrilla encampment to the Colombian military, resulting in the bombing deaths of 17 innocent civilians. Eventually, the Guahiba simply gave up, their culture and communities destroyed.

“Oxy wants to see the U’wa become like the Guahiba,” Gloria Tegria, an U’wa woman, told me. “They want to see us reduced to picking up aluminum cans beside the highway, they want our girls and women to work as prostitutes. That’s progress for them. But not for us. We’d rather die than give in.”

The U’wa didn’t have a lot of friends in their struggle against Oxy. The region’s main guerilla groups, the FARC and the ELN, would occasionally blow up an Oxy pipeline in order to exhort more protection money from the company. Yet neither group, especially the FARC, had good relations with the U’wa.

Turns out I had picked an opportune time to visit. A big “dialogue” between government officials and the U’wa was planned for the following afternoon in the nearby town of Cubara, and several top officials were flying in for that, including the country’s minister of mining. But I wanted to see one of the test drilling sites where Oxy was currently drilling. The U’wa told me those were closed areas, and the army would never let me get close. I was insistent, however, and they finally admitted that they knew some jungle paths that bypassed the military checkpoints. I asked them to take me, and the elders finally assigned one young man to escort me. I spent the night in the village and early the next morning we set off through the jungle.

The military control was better than we had envisioned, however, and after a couple of hours of hiking were intercepted by a group of soldiers on patrol. Here’s where the story gets a little, err, interesting. In general, the ethically required thing for photojournalists to do is be honest about who we are and why we’re trying to photograph something. But this was Colombia, the land of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and magic realism. So when the lead soldier said we couldn’t go any farther, I strongly hinted that I was on an assignment for the ministry of mining, and I had to hurry to get to the test drilling sites and be back in Cubara by the time my boss got there later in the day. He wanted to check this story out with his superiors over the radio, but our location in the bottom of a canyon prevented a good connection with HQ. He wanted me to wait for him to hike to a different spot where he could get a better signal, but I firmly explained that if that prevented me from completing my mission in time to rejoin the minister of mining in the afternoon, that I would report him by name for having unnecessarily delayed me. On the other hand, if he would escort me to the drilling site, I’d be sure to put in a good word for him.

Within minutes I had my own personal military escort to the drilling site. The soldiers asked that I not take their pictures, so all I got was this one of the back of one of them as we hiked to the drilling site. Once there, I took pictures of the crews in action; the fact I had a military escort apparently assuaged any concerns they had about who I was. When that was done, I dismissed my able contingent of soldiers and with my U’wa guide returned to their village. I then drove down the hills into Cubara where the “dialogue” was taking place.

Hundreds of U’wa stood barefoot in the sun looking up at a handful of government officials sitting comfortably on a stage six feet in the air. An awning advertising Aguila Beer protected the government delegation from the tropical sun. A bevy of aides provided chilled bottles of water for the officials, while dozens of soldiers and police ringed the area. The television crews that flew in with from the capital with the government delegation captured every official word, but turned to film the indigenous crowd only when it broke into a chant of U’wa si, Oxy no!

The last challenge was getting out of there. I had a plane reservation from Saravena to Bogota for the next day, but was concerned that word of my magic realism might catch up with me. A French videographer who’d come to do a documentary on the U’wa had been detained by the military in the Saravena airport a couple of weeks earlier, and was released only after they confiscated all his video tape. I didn’t want that to happen to me, so I drove to the airport, turned in the well-used car, and paid whatever was necessary to get on the next flight out.


Here’s one of two stories I wrote about the U’was’ struggle.



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