“Resistir y Re-existir”: A Conversation with U’wa leader Aura Tegría Cristancho

As “protectors of Mother Earth,” Aura Tegría Cristancho and the U’wa people are striving to “defend and save the natural balance of the world.



AuraUwa  
 Aura Tegría Cristancho during her speaking tour.
Photo: Andrea Fernández Aponte
 

While resource extractive industries, like oil and gas multinationals, pose a physical and spiritual threat to U’wa culture by taking “Mother Earth’s blood,” Aura and the U’wa stand strong in the face of adversity. Aura pointed to the “four pillars” of U’wa non-violent resistance: “cultural and spiritual, pacifist collective action, legal, and communicative.” However, though these methods have provided the U’wa with big victories—like the departure of Occidental Petroleum Corporation (OXY) from their territory—the post-conflict situation in Colombia threatens their cause.

Aura, a well-known U’wa indigenous leader and lawyer, stopped by DC in late September on a U.S. speaking tour dedicated to educating people about her community’s struggle against corporations, illegal actors, and the Colombian government. Amazon Watch and Friends of the Earth hosted a talk with Aura and Marissa Vahlsing, from EarthRights International, centered on indigenous rights in post-conflict Colombia and the current U’wa case in the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

The U’wa welcome the silencing of weapons” between guerrillas and the Colombian government, said Aura, but still “long for equilibrium, respect, and peace with nature.” The U’wa leader fears that “peace will welcome more foreign investment leading to more extortion of nature and the lands where indigenous people live.” She concludes that indigenous movements partially depend on “solidarity networks,” like the one the U’wa has fostered with Amazon Watch for over 20 years.

In late April of 1997, the U’wa filed their case in protection of subsoil rights to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Only in 2015 was the case admitted, and lawyers hope to hear on a decision within the next year or two. Two aspects make the case stand out: its stances on prior consultation and on subsoil rights. The U’wa argue that prior consultation only serves as an administrative token meant to appease national governments and multinational corporations. The consultations are not done in good faith and have no intention of actually taking into account the locals’ perspectives. The case also challenges the Latin American notion that subsoil rights belong to the state and not private owners.

A hopeful Aura and the U’wa will continue to “resist and re-exist” (“resistir y re-existir”) to “take care of the whole world,” regardless of the case’s outcome or the challenges posed by post-conflict Colombia.

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  • Learn more about the U’wa and their cause
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