Indigenous Colombian Prize winner visits the US to build support for Amazon protection

September 24, 2010

Gilberto Cobaría, President of the Association of the U’Wa (L) and Berito Kuwaru’wa Cobaría, 1998 Goldman Prize winner (R) outside of the Goldman Prize offices in San Francisco

Goldman Prize winner Berito Kuwaru’wa Cobaría, an U’Wa spiritual elder, visited the Prize offices in San Francisco today to update us on their recent victories and challenges in the Colombian Amazon. He and Gilberto Cobaría, current President of the Association of the U’Wa, are in the US to meet with supporters and participate in events with their close ally, Amazon Watch.

Berito won the Goldman Prize on behalf of the U’Wa in 1998 for his leadership in fighting Occidental Petroleum’s extraction project on his people’s ancestral lands.  Despite their victory in getting Oxy to withdraw from their territory and the enormous international attention that accompanied the campaign from celebrities and the media alike, the U’Wa’s sacred lands and way of life are continuously threatened by development. These projects are often supported by the Colombian government, which remains uncooperative in upholding the U’Wa’s indigenous rights to manage their lands and participate in decision-making on national projects that threaten their territory.

The U’Wa traditions are based on peace, cooperative living and a deep reverence for the environment.  For centuries, long before the Spanish colonization of South America, the U’Wa lived in harmony with nature, utilizing the rainforest for food, medicine and spiritual practices and in turn recognizing the critical importance of every animal and plant in their territory.  Today, the 6,000 U’Wa people, dwelling among 16 remote communities spread over 220,000 hectares of rainforest, continue to live by these principles.

Currently, the U’Wa are working against the myriad development interests that seek to operate in their territory.  EcoPetrol, Colombia’s state-owned oil and gas company, plans to build a gas pipeline in the region and further explore the area’s petroleum reserves. As part of the Inter-American Development Bank’s IIRSA plan, a highway linking Colombia and Venezuela is slated to bisect part of the U’Wa land, a project that would cause irreparable damage to the rainforest and would serve as a means for mining interests to access the virgin rainforest.  Meanwhile, militarized groups, both official Colombian troops and armed factions tied to the narcotics mafia, continue to operate in the region.

After a five year hiatus from official leadership duties, Berito has taken on the role of international coordinator with the Association of the U’Wa.  With the recent election of Gilberto Cobaría as president of the organization, many new initiatives have been established to better equip the U’Wa to fight the continued threats they face.  New bi-lingual education programs that preserve their indigenous traditions through the language, as well as workshops that incorporate U’Wa women and youth into the struggle have recently begun. Their fight is far from over, and this international delegation is seeking support for their work.

Those interested in supporting the U’Wa in their struggle to protect their traditions and rainforest can do so through their US-based partner, Amazon Watch.