Tag Archives: Energy

Federal Agents Went Undercover To Spy on Anti-Fracking Movement, Emails Reveal

Featured image: Break Free protesters at a fracking site in Colorado on May 14. (Photo: Christian O’Rourke/Survival Media Agency)

By Steve Horn and Lee Fang / The Intercept

When more than 300 protesters assembled in May at the Holiday Inn in Lakewood, Colorado — the venue chosen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for an auction of oil and gas leases on public lands — several of the demonstrators were in fact undercover agents sent by law enforcement to keep tabs on the demonstration, according to emails obtained by The Intercept.

The “Keep it in the Ground” movement, a broad effort to block the development of drilling projects, has rapidly gained traction over the last year, raising pressure on the Obama administration to curtail hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and coal mining on federal public lands. In response, government agencies and industry groups have sharply criticized the activists in public, while quietly moving to track their activities.

The emails, which were obtained through an open records act request, show that the Lakewood Police Department collected details about the protest from undercover officers as the event was being planned. During the auction, both local law enforcement and federal agents went undercover among the protesters.

The emails further show that police monitored Keep it in the Ground participating groups such as 350.org, Break Free Movement, Rainforest Action Network, and WildEarth Guardians, while relying upon intelligence gathered by Anadarko, one of the largest oil and gas producers in the region.

“Gentlemen, Here is some additional intelligence on the group you may be dealing with today,” wrote Kevin Paletta, Lakewood’s then-chief of police, on May 12, the day of the protest. The Anadarko report, forwarded to Paletta by Joni Inman, a public relations consultant, warned of activist trainings conducted by “the very active off-shoot of 350.org” that had “the goal of encouraging ‘direct action’ such as blocking, vandalism, and trespass.”

The protesters waved signs and marched outside of the Holiday Inn. The auction went on as planned and there were no arrests.

“I believe the BLM reached out to us,” Steve Davis, the public information officer for the Lakewood police, told The Intercept about preparations for the protest. He added that the protest was “very peaceful.”

“Our goal is to provide for public safety and the safety of our employees,” says Steven Hall, the BLM Colorado Communications Director, when asked about the agency’s undercover work. “Any actions that we take are designed to achieved those goals. We do not discuss the details of our law enforcement activities.”

BLM reimbursed the Lakewood police for costs associated with covering the protest, the emails and a scanned copy of the check show.

police-lakewood-co
Police officers block the entrance to the Bureau of Land Management auction at the Holiday Inn of Lakewood, Colorado, May 12, 2016. Photo: Olivia Abtahi/Survival Media Agency

Aggressive Stance

Despite a relatively uncontroversial protest, the tactics revealed by the emails, recent public statements, and other maneuvers suggest that the federal government is beginning to take a more aggressive stance toward the Keep it in the Ground movement.

“I’m really wondering what more the BLM is up to,” said Jeremy Nichols, a climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “Some of the emails indicate more extensive intel gathering on their end.”

“Why are climate activists, who are only calling on the BLM to follow President Obama’s lead and heed universally accepted science, facing this kind of uphill response?” Nichols asked rhetorically. “It’s a shame that the BLM has turned climate concerns into a law enforcement issue instead of a genuine policy discussion.”

During a congressional hearing in March, Neil Kornze — the agency’s Director and former senior policy advisor for U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid — appeared to compare the anti-fracking activists to the armed anti-government militia members who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

“We have had a situation where we have had militia; we’ve had people raising arms at different times. We are on heightened alert and we are concerned about safety. And so a situation that we are not used to, separating out who is a bidder and who is not, gives us pause,” Kornze said, explaining to GOP congressman that his agency faced “abnormal security” concerns.

The bureau maintains its own force of special agents to investigate crimes committed on public lands. The website for the agency notes that “investigations may require the use of undercover officers, informants, surveillance and travel to various locations throughout the United States.”

Broader Trend

In recent years federal and private sector groups have poured resources into surveilling environmental organizations.

In 2013, The Guardian revealed that the FBI had spied on activists organizing opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. The agency “collated inside knowledge about forthcoming protests, documented the identities of individuals photographing oil-related infrastructure, scrutinized police intelligence and cultivated at least one informant.” The FBI later confirmed that the investigation violated its own guidelines.

In 2011, an executive with Anadarko boasted that his company was deploying military-like psychological warfare techniques to deal with the “controversy that we as an industry are dealing with,” calling the opposition to the industry “an insurgency.”

holiday-inn-keep-in-ground1
Protestors gather inside the Holiday Inn of Lakewood, Colorado to protest the auctioning of public lands for oil and gas companies, May 12, 2016. Photo: Olivia Abtahi/Survival Media Agency

Online Auctions to “End the Circus”

The focus on preventing the leasing of public lands for fracking gained national headlines in 2008 when activist Tim DeChristopher successfully bid on 22,000 acres of oil and gas land in Utah. DeChristopher, who served two years in prison, did not intend to pay but won the bid in order to disrupt the auction and call attention to the leasing program. That pricing regime allows private corporations to pay deeply discounted rates — as little as $1.50 per acre — for drilling rights.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General released a report calling on the bureau to do a study on “which auction process is best suited for oil and gas leases” in order to prevent the next Tim DeChristopher, whose action landed an explicit mention in the report’s introduction. An email exchange from the day before the Lakewood Holiday Inn action shows both a Lakewood police officer and BLM officer on high alert about the possibility of another DeChristopher-type action taking place. Among the choices laid out in the report as a possible new bidding method was online bidding.

Just days after the Lakewood protest, Kathleen Sgamma — a lobbyist for industry-funded group Western Energy Alliance — advocated for online bidding as a means to “end the circus.” In a May 18 email, BLM Office of Law Enforcement Special Agent-in-Charge Gary Mannino thanked Lakewood Police Chief Kevin Paletta for his department’s help and conveyed that public auctions could soon become a thing of the past.

Congress has followed suit. On June 24, Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., and Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., introduced Innovation in Offshore Leasing Act (H.R. 5577), which calls for online bidding for oil and gas contained in waters controlled by the federal government. On July 6, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing on the bill and it has since passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee.

While the oil and gas industry has come out in support of online bidding, and one contractor in particular named EnergyNet stands to profit from such an arrangement, several environmental groups issued a statement decrying the shift toward online bidding. EnergyNet, whose CEO testified at the June 24 congressional hearing, will oversee a September 20 BLM auction originally scheduled to unfold in Washington, D.C.

Two recently-released studies concluded that phasing out fossil fuel leases on public lands is crucial for meeting the 2° C climate change temperature-rise goal, with one concluding that even burning the existing fossil fuels already leased on public lands would surpass the 2° C goal. After the release of those two studies, environmental groups filed a legal petition with the Interior Department calling for a moratorium on federal fossil fuels leases.

Investigating the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project

By Intercontinental Cry

Lake Turkana Wind Power is the largest private investment in Kenya’s history. Danish and international companies and investors have already sunk millions of euros into the project. But they now await a court decision that will determine whether the land on which the turbines will be built was illegally acquired.

Most communities in Lake Turkana approve of the wind power project, but there are claims from the Turkana, Samburu, Rendile and El Molo that the consortium behind the project failed to carry out consultations prior to acquiring land in 2007. The consortium, meanwhile, claims that 3 out of 4 tribes in the project are not Indigenous Peoples. The consortium also denies any wrongdoing, claiming that the plaintiffs in the ongoing court case do not represent the Turkana, Samburu, Rendile and El Molo.

The independent media and research center Danwatch recently visited Northern Kenya to get a closer look at the impacts of Kenya’s largest-ever private investment.

Read the entire Danwatch investigation here

Montrose 9 Assert the “Necessity Defense” at Trial in Cortlandt, NY

Nine community members arrested for blocking construction on Spectra Energy’s AIM pipeline expansion – known as the “Montrose 9″ – join the national debate over harms caused by fossil fuel infrastructure

By ResistAIM

Cortlandt, NY — The “Montrose 9” are nine community members arrested for disorderly conduct for allegedly blocking traffic near the access to a Spectra Energy construction yard used for the expansion of a high-pressure fracked-gas pipeline known as the AIM pipeline. Their trial has the potential to become a landmark case with national implications involving the “necessity defense.” Defense counsel Martin R. Stolar is a prominent social justice attorney who argues that the defendants’ actions were justified since they were undertaken to stop a greater harm and were carried out only after all other legal and regulatory options had been exhausted. Court adjourned until July 15th at 1pm, when the other seven defendants are expected to testify regarding their reasons for taking direct action against the project.

While the necessity defense has been used in other types of cases, it is unusual in environmental litigation. One case occurred in May 2013 in Massachusetts when a small lobster boat managed to blockade a barge containing 40,000 tons of coal near the Brayton Point Power Plant. The charges of obstruction were dismissed and the presiding judge stated that the actions were morally justified. In a recent Seattle case, the “Delta 5” were found guilty of trespass for blocking an oil train but not guilty of obstruction. Jurors in that case cited sympathy for the activists and feeling of gratitude for their personal sacrifice for the good of all.

In questioning the prosecution’s police witnesses, Mr. Stolar also suggested a more traditional reason to dismiss the charges. He established that the defendants were not, in fact, causing the traffic jam on Route 9A as was charged. Rather, the Spectra workers caused the tie up when they obstructed the roadway with their cars. Police testified that once they began directing the workers to move, the congestion began to clear up even before the arrests took place. When asked how he determined that the cars belonged to pipeline workers, one officer replied that “there were a lot of out of state license plates.”

13494887_1361158817234532_4882938590630017482_n

The greater harm to be prevented:
Defense witnesses, Cortlandt Councilman Seth Freach and two nuclear experts, testified to the dangers posed by the AIM pipeline. Councilman Freach discussed his own, and the Town Board’s, concerns about public health and safety and described letters that were sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and other regulatory agencies expressing those concerns. Among the materials Cortlandt submitted to FERC was a report from an independent study that the Town had commissioned. Councilman Freach noted that, based on the Board’s thorough evaluation of the project, members had voted unanimously in opposition to the pipeline.

Paul Blanch, an engineer with over 50 years of nuclear experience, stated that there were “very significant unaccounted for risks” with the AIM pipeline and “an unacceptable probability” of a serious or catastrophic accident due to the pipeline’s close proximity to the Indian Point nuclear power plant. He also provided details of his efforts opposing the pipeline at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Physicist Paul Moskowitz described the radioactive materials, including lead 210 and polonium 210, that result from decay of the radon in fracked gas. He went on to discuss regulatory filings he’d submitted detailing his concerns about radioactive emissions from the AIM pipeline and their impacts on human health. He testified that FERC’s response to his concerns were “a total fabrication” that “ignored over 50 years of established science.” When asked about what process would be used to deal with these dangerous substances, he responded that since FERC denies the existence of those known radioactive materials in pipelines there is no process in place for dealing with them.

Two defendants explain their actions:
Only two of the Montrose 9 defendants were able to testify before court concluded for the day. Both told their own individual stories of why they had stepped up to protest in such a compelling way. Although members of the community have been working through regulatory channels, their efforts have been met with delays and legal maneuvers, leaving them no recourse but to pursue more direct actions.

Linda Snider testified that since all of the regulatory agencies had ignored the issues, she felt she needed to stop AIM construction herself. She stated, “I wanted to stop the Spectra trucks and stop them from putting in this pipeline. We’ve just got to stop this.”

Defendant Susan Rutman, a landscape photographer who lives next to the Hudson River, was the final witness for the day. She explained she had sought to stop the work through writing to officials. “My intention was to stop the pipeline, because I knew it would prevent a far greater harm.” she said.

Find out more information about the AIM Pipeline and ongoing resistance here:

Online: www.resistaim.wordpress.com
On Facebook: www.facebook.com/resistaim
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/ResistAIM

Keystone XL Owner TransCanada Wins Bid For Underwater Gas Pipeline Across Gulf of Mexico

By Steve Horn / Desmog

TransCanada, owner of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline currently being contested in federal court and in front of a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) legal panel, has won a $2.1 billion joint venture bid with Sempra Energy for a pipeline to shuttle gas obtained from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale basin across the Gulf of Mexico and into Mexico.

The 500-mile long Sur de Texas-Tuxpan pipeline, as reported on previously by DeSmog, is part of an extensive pipeline empire TransCanada is building from the U.S. to Mexico. The pipeline network is longer than the currently operating southern leg of the Keystone pipeline (now dubbed the Gulf Coast Pipeline).  Unlike Keystone XL, though, these piecemeal pipeline section bid wins have garnered little media attention or scrutiny beyond the business and financial press.

The Sur de Texas-Tuxpan proposed pipeline route avoids the drug cartel violence-laden border city of Matamoros by halting at Brownsville and then going underwater across the U.S.-Mexico border to Tuxpan.

After it navigates the 500-mile long journey, Sur de Texas-Tuxpan will flood Mexico’s energy grid with gas under a 25-year service contract. That energy grid, thanks to the efforts of the U.S. State Department under then-Secretary of State and current Democratic Party presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, has been privatized under constitutional amendments passed in 2013.

TransCanada and Sempra were the only bidders. TransCanada owns the joint venture with Sempra — coined the Infraestructura Marina del Golfo, Spanish for “marine infrastructure of the Gulf” — on a 60-percent basis.

“We are extremely pleased to further our growth plans in Mexico with one of the most important natural gas infrastructure projects for that country’s future,” Russ Girling, TransCanada’s president and CEO, said in a press release announcing the bid win. “This new project brings our footprint of existing assets and projects in development in Mexico to more than US$5 billion, all underpinned by 25-year agreements with Mexico’s state power company.”

State Department Role, FERC and Presidential Permits for Sur de Texas-Tuxpan 

David Leiter, a campaign finance bundler for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and former chief-of-staff for then-U.S.Senator and current Secretary of State John Kerry, lobbied the White House and the U.S. State Department in 2013 and 2014 on behalf of Sempra Energy on gas exports-related issues.

Sempra has a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal on the northwest, Baja California coast of Mexico calledEnergía Costa Azul (“Blue Coast Energy”) LNGLeiter’s wife, Tamara Luzzatto, formerly served as chief-of-staff to then-U.S.Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Because the pipeline is set to carry natural gas, as opposed to oil, it does not need a U.S. State Department permit (though tacit and non-permitted unofficial approval could still prove important). Instead, it seemingly technically requires U.S.Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval, as well as a presidential permit.

It is unclear if Sur de Texas-Tuxpan will require a presidential permit, though, given the precedent set in the Wild Earth Nation, Et Al v. U.S. Department of State and Enbridge Energy case.

In that case, the Judge allowed Enbridge to break up its tar sands diluted bitumen (“dilbit”)-carrying Alberta Clipper (Line 67) pipeline into multiple pieces — helped along with off-the-books and therefore unofficial State Department authorization — avoiding the more onerous presidential and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) permit review process altogether.

Due to the legal precedent set in another related case, Delaware Riverkeeper v. FERC, oil and gas industry law firm Baker Botts explicitly recommended against utilizing the “segmentation” approach in a January 2015 memo that came out before the Enbridge case ruling.

“Project proponents should be careful to avoid potential ‘segmentation’ of a project into smaller parts simply to try to avoid a more thorough NEPA review,” wrote Baker Botts attorney Carlos Romo. “Segmentation occurs when closely related and interdependent projects are not adequately considered together in the NEPA process.”

The presidential candidates Clinton and Donald Trump have yet to comment on this pipeline or the topic of U.S.-Mexico cross-border pipelines on the campaign trail. But Financial Times, in an April article, pointed out that even Trump — who has pledged he will build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico — has little to say and will likely do little to halt cross-border lines like Sur de Texas-Tuxpan.

“As long as the wall doesn’t go below ground,” Mark Florian, head of the infrastructure fund at First Reserve and a former Goldman Sachs executive, told FT. “I think we’ll be OK.”

Though still fairly early on in the process, Florian’s words have proven true so far.

 

May news round-up

Deep Green Resitance activity since our last news round-up:

33 Days on Twin #66: Walking the Enbridge Pipeline

By Sacred Water Sacred Land

Sacred Water Sacred Land is sponsoring a tar sands awareness walk through Wisconsin along Enbridge’s proposed Twin Line #66 starting with a kick-off event in Delevan or Walworth on June 8th.

33 Days on Twin #66, a Sacred Water Sacred Land sponsored walk, begins at the entry point of the Enbridge pipeline system, just south of Walworth, WI and follows the route northwest to Superior, raising awareness about the existence of, and proposed expansion to, the Enbridge crude and dilbit pipeline corridor along the way.

33 Days on Twin#66 will consist of consecutive daily 10-15 mile segments with community engagement talks in a revival type setting at overnight encampments at many points along the way. The 420-mile pipeline route is broken into four major sections: northern, upper central, lower central and lower.

Winona La Duke, who has fought tirelessly against the Sandpiper expansion in Minnesota, and her sister Lorna, will be riding with us on horseback along several sections of the walk.

Screenshot (174)

Affected communities and landowners will be engaged by representatives of SWSL – Sacred Water Sacred Land, CELDF – Community Environmental Defense Fund, and WiSE – Wisconsin Safe Energy Alliance, through an ecological forum where the impact of the expansion and a broader conversation about the adverse effects of Canadian tar sands extraction and transport will be explained. Guest speakers will also address climate change and traditional ties to the land while local residents will be encouraged to share their stories and efforts towards healing it.

Through this effort, SWSL endeavors to not only draw attention to the tremendous hazards of tar sands/Bakken oil transport but also help communities imagine and co-create a more sustainable, health conscious society with an emphasis on renewables and non-toxic food systems.

We are looking for additional sponsors to lend credence and build support for the Walk. Sponsorship is welcome in many forms. We encourage you to share the Walk with your membership and follow us on Facebook where specific details will be posted as they solidify. If you wish to participate in greater measure, please contact SWSL directly.

It is past time to unify our efforts and promulgate ecological systems literacy. We hope you will join us as we work together towards a paradigm shift of social and environmental justice for the natural world and the next seven generations.
Cosponsored by WiSECELDF, and SWSL 

Screenshot (173)

Schedule:

1 ~ June 8th – Walworth*, Kick-off!
2 ~ June 9th – Delavan*
3 ~ June 10th – Richmond
4 ~ June 11th – Whitewater*
5 ~ June 12th – Fort Atkinson*
6 ~ June 13th – Lake Mills*
7 ~ June 14th – Sun Prairie*
8 ~ June 15th – Columbus*
9 ~ June 16th – Wyocena
10 ~ June 17th -Portage*
11 ~ June 18th – Oxford*
12 ~ June 19th -Westfield
13 ~ June 2oth – Adams/Friendship*
14 ~ June 21st – Cottonville
15~ June 22nd – Lake Arrowhead
16 ~ June 23rd – Nekoosa*
17 ~ June 24th – Vesper
18 ~ June 25th – Marshfield*
19 ~ June 26th – Spencer
20 ~ June 27th – Riplinger
21 ~ June 28th – Owen/Withee*
22 ~ June 29th – Lublin
23 ~ July 30th – Gilman
24 ~ July 1st – Sheldon
25 ~ July 2nd – Ladysmith*
26 ~ July 3rd – Imalone
27 ~ July 4th – Meteor
28 ~ July 5th – Hauer-Stone Lake
29 ~ July 6th – Hayward
30 ~ July 7th – Gordon*
31 ~ July 8th – Salon Springs
32 ~ July 9th – Hillcrest
33 ~ July 10th – Superior*, Renewable Energy Independence Day!

* Denotes Revival

War, Petroleum, and Profit: With Their Backs Against a Cliff, the U’wa Mobilize Against Oil Extraction

By  / Intercontinental Cry

Featured image: Inside the United U’wa Resguardo on the cloud forests along the Colombia-Venezuela border. Photo: Jake Ling

This is the final installment of “The Guardians of Mother Earth,” Intercontinental Cry’s four-part series examining the Indigenous U’wa struggle for peace in Colombia.

The vast wetland savanna called Los Llanos stretches thousands of miles into Venezuela but it begins on the U’wa’s traditional territory at the base of the foothills below the cloud forests and paramos surrounding the sacred mountain Zizuma. For the last few years the worst fears of local environmentalists fighting on this forgotten frontline of climate change have come true: excessive exploitation of (though maybe that’s redundant since the categories already give a way to find stories about indigenous issuespetroleum in the Casanare region on the eastern border of the U’wa resguardo helped cause the desertification of large tracts of land in the swamps and grasslands across the province. An estimated 20,000 animals have died of thirst as traditional water holes evaporated and cracked under the strain of complete ecosystem collapse. Now, the only sign of life in places that once teemed with native species such as capybaras, deer, foxes, fish, turtles and reptiles, is the occasional vulture.

As Highway 66 snakes around the base of the mountain range, it passes several fortified military outposts guarding bridges and monitoring the flow of traffic towards Cubará in the Boyacá Frontier District. These bridges that once conquered the massive flows streaming down from the paramos above the clouds in the west now overlook small streams of water between riverbed boulders as Colombia plunges into a severe drought.

One of the many rivers that flow from the mountains in U'wa territory that are now almost dry as Colombia plunges into a severe drought. Photo: Jake Ling

One of the many rivers that flow from the mountains in U’wa territory that are now almost dry as Colombia plunges into a severe drought. Photo: Jake Ling

Seventeen years ago, in the final week of April, 1999, an international event was organized known as U’wa Solidarity Week. It was the early days of climate change awareness when the world was just beginning to understand Global Warming and its potentially devastating effects on the planet. The international campaign against the oil multinational Occidental Petroleum had hit critical-mass after the kidnapping and assassination of Terry Freitas, the 24 year old co-founder of the U’wa Defense Working Group, and the two renowned native american activists Lahe’enda’e Gay and Ingrid Washinawatok, by FARC guerillas in eastern Colombia. Protests against Occidental Petroleum in support of the U’wa were being held in eight cities across the United States as well as in London, Hamburg, Lima and Nairobi. Meanwhile, in the background, the burgeoning power of a very young cyber-network called the Internet had created a space for the remote U’wa nation, heralding a new age of activism that facilitated vital connections between grassroots indigenous movements and environmental activists abroad.

Berito traveled to Los Angeles with another U’wa leader, Mr. Nuniwa, where the two men were received by organizations such as Rainforest Action Network, Project Underground, Amazon Watch and half a dozen other groups that planned to converge on Occidental Petroleum’s Annual Shareholder Meeting on friday, April 30th, 17 years ago.

At a dinner before the shareholder meeting the two U’wa leaders held hands to say grace with the two-dozen American activists around a feast of primarily vegan salads and vegetarian stews for the activists and dishes of meat for the chiefs. With the assassination of the American activists still painfully fresh in the minds of the the protest movement, the U’wa leaders proclaimed that after his death Terry Freitas had visited the dreams of the Werjayá, the shamanic healers of the U’wa in charge of communicating with the superior powers that flow through nature. In the dream Freitas was clutching a white snail shell, a symbol of spiritual purity and peacemaking, and the Werjayá declared the apparition of a god. The two U’wa leaders Berito and Nuniwa invoked their ancestors at the dinner table and summoned the spirit of Terence Freitas.

The following Wednesday, halfway through U’wa Solidarity Week, about 200 or so people marched from the University of California, where Freitas had studied, to Occidental’s headquarters a mile away. Many of the protestors were led away by the police.

“Why don’t they just finish us off for good, so we don’t have to struggle?” Berito told the Wall Street Journal, while his colleague Mr. Nuniwa expressed surprise that their march lasted as long as it did, considering the extremely aggressive tendencies of Colombia’s riot police.

The movement placed an advertisement in the New York Times — endorsed by Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, Oilwatch, Oxfam-America, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the Center for International Environmental Law and others — warning Occidental shareholders of the political and environmental risks of the mining project: “U’wa territory will not be spared the oil wars raging in the nearby Arauca area, where a violent attack on Oxy’s pipeline occurs every eight days. Meanwhile, those familiar with U’wa culture warn that their suicide pact must be taken seriously. U’wa oral histories recount an event four hundred years ago, when an U’wa band leaped from a cliff rather than submit to the Conquistadors.”

As protestors picketed the building hosting the shareholder meeting, inside Occidental’s chairman and CEO Ray Irani, seethed as the U’wa leader Berito lectured him for 45 minutes. Berito sang a sacred song in the U’wa tongue which he told protestors the previous night at dinner would be about “Mother Ocean and her breath, the wind, which sweeps up our words to the gods.” The 1,000 or so shareholders in attendance applauded the U’wa leader. Chairman Irani’s response was to declare: “The fact of the matter is your problems should be discussed with the Colombian government, not here… It doesn’t matter what Occidental does or doesn’t do.”

U'wa leader Berito Cobaria battles Oxy CEO Ray Irani at the oil multinationals Annual Shareholder Meeting 17 years ago. Drawing by Bolivian artist Pablo Ruiz

U’wa leader Berito Cobaria battles Oxy CEO Ray Irani at the oil multinationals Annual Shareholder Meeting 17 years ago. Drawing by Bolivian artist Pablo Ruiz

The Sinsinawa Dominican nuns, who held 100 Oxy shares, proposed that the oil multinational hire an independent firm to analyze the potential impact on the company’s stock if the U’wa people’s pledge to commit mass-suicide was fullfilled. The proposal, which Terry Freitas had helped draft, went on to win approval from 13 percent of Oxy shareholders, totaling over 40,000,000 shares, exceeding the expectations of the activists and forcing those opposed to consider the consequences.

After the meeting, Chairman Irani and the other directors made a stealthy exit out a side door where their limousines waited on the opposite side of the building to the protestors. Irani told the Wall Street Journal, “The U’wa use these activists very effectively.” Meanwhile Oxy Vice President Lawrence Meriage complained that the campaign was a concoction of certain activists up in the Bay Area and suggested the U’wa were being manipulated by U.S. environmentalists dead set against oil exploration, as well as the Colombian guerrillas that his company helped finance since the 1980’s. “We feel as a company that we’re caught in the middle,” said Mr. Meriage.

“We demand an announcement by Occidental that it is canceling its project on our ancestral land,” said Berito, “There is nothing else left for the company to do.”

As outrage over Occidental Petroleum’s behaviour in Colombia continued to grow, the oil multinational pushed ahead with their plans to exploit the petroleum block on U’wa territory. The next year, in February 2000, several hundred indigenous people and thousands of Colombians mobilized to block roads and prevent heavy machinery from arriving at the drilling site. The demonstration ended in tragedy as Colombian security forces violently dispersed the protestors with beatings and tear-gas leading to the tragic death of three U’wa children who drowned in the river while trying to flee government troops.

Occidental Petroleum pulled out of petroleum block on U’wa territory in May 2002, 10 years after the U’wa first threatened to commit mass suicide in protest. That same month, as senior members of the U.S. government publicly rallied against the FARC for the “terrorist murder” of Freitas, Gay and Washinawatok, President George H.W. Bush proposed $98 million in military aid to the Colombian government to protect Occidental Petroleum’s Caño-Limon-Covenas oil pipeline.

“We are dismayed to see the Administration’s cynical and exploitative use of Terence’s murder to justify further U.S. military aid to the Colombian armed forces,” friends and family of Freitas stated in response to the President’s proposal. “Employing Terence’s death as a means to continue perpetuating violence in Colombia grossly contradicts everything Terence believed in.”

“This isn’t about corporate welfare, it’s not about protecting Oxy,” a State Department official said. “It’s a security argument, not a U.S. economic interests argument.” The $4 million dollars that Occidental spent lobbying the U.S. government, however, certainly paid off for the company.

As the U’wa struggle slowly faded from the consciousness of the international community, the oil wars in eastern Colombia continued to escalate with the $98 million injection of U.S. military aid. Despite the U.S. State Department designating the AUC – the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia – as a terrorist group in 2001, these paramilitary death squads formed the vanguard of the Colombian Army’s surge into the ELN stronghold of Arauca province, along the Caño-Limon-Covenas pipeline.

The Colombian army, meanwhile, received additional funds totaling billions of dollars coinciding with the kidnapping and execution of thousands of Colombian civilians, whose bodies were then dressed up in guerrilla uniforms to artificially inflate body counts, a crime known as the “scandal of false positive.” Between 2000 and 2010 the Colombian military kidnapped and executed 164 civilians in Arauca, 122 in Boyaca, 301 in Norte de Santander, 209 in Casanare, the four provinces bordering the U’wa Nation’s territory.

Occidental Petroleum’s direct financial and logistical support to the Colombian military included a specialized meeting room inside the Oxy-fortified compound for the 18th Brigade that operates in Arauca and the Boyacá Fronteir District of Cubara with the mandate of protecting the Cano-Limon-Covenas. Commander César Oswaldo Morales of the military’s 18th Brigade was imprisoned in 2012 for kidnapping and executing civilians years earlier in northern Colombia.

In an effort to deescalate the war, an agreement between the government and right-wing paramilitaries saw the AUC begin to lay down arms in 2003. The demobilization, which is widely viewed as a failure, led to the rise of neo-paramilitary groups called BACRIM that continue to threaten and target the civilian population and indigenous people who protest the contamination of their lands and waters by oil operations in the region.

In 2006, the BACRIM inflicted a reign of terror in the Catacumbo region of Norte de Santander, displacing 8,000 civilians over a few months to the north of the U’wa resguardo’s border. It was the same year that Colombia’s Interior Ministry cleared the way for state-run Ecopetrol to begin new explorations in the U’wa territory on behalf of the Spanish oil giant RepSol, as well as on another site inside U’wa territory to the west of the Gibraltar drilling site.

There is not a pipeline on the planet that has been bombed as many times as the Caño-Limo-Covenas. It is an engineering marvel that reaches deep beneath the war-torn province of Arauca and stretches 780 kms (480 miles) across the country to the Caribbean and the effluent discharged into the rivers and lakes that surround the oil well make them no longer fit for human consumption. The several hundred bombings that have ruptured the length and breadth of the pipeline have also polluted 1,625 miles of rivers with thick cancerous crude, leaving a devastating legacy for the local indigenous and rural populations.

The major river in the region, the Arauca that separates Colombia and Venezuela, is experiencing reduced flows due to the drought and many of its tributaries drying up. It has also been affected by oil spills after bombings of the Caño-limon-covenas. Photo: Jake Ling

The major river in the region, the Arauca that separates Colombia and Venezuela, is experiencing reduced flows due to the drought and many of its tributaries drying up. It has also been affected by oil spills after bombings of the Caño-limon-covenas. Photo: Jake Ling

This particular environmental disaster is a symptom of a larger problem in Colombia with roots that reach deeper into a much darker cause. Across the country indigenous men, women and children from tribal nations both large and small are being murdered and displaced to make way for mega-mining projects. In the Sierra Nevada mountains, the Kankuamo Indigenous Peoples were the victim of twin arson attacks on separate religious temples two days after they canceled consultations with the government to oppose 400 mining projects in the region that will affect 100,000 indigenous people. In the northern state of La Guajira, the multinational el Cerrajon mine is diverting 17 million liters of river water daily during a severe drought that has decimated rural people’s livestock and responsible for indigenous Wayuu children dying of thirst.

For the Wounaan Peoples on the pacific coast, 63 families have been displaced in the past year as petroleum exploration takes place on their ancestral lands. “We know that the peace process will open the way for megaprojects that bring international investments into our territory,” said one member of the Wounaan, “therefore we know that true peace will not come. For Indigenous Peoples the violence will not end with the peace process.”

The ability of the Colombian government to hold multinationals to account for crimes against the civilian population, Indigenous Peoples and the environment is limited while the country attempts to rebuild its crippled economy and frail state institutions after half a century of war. Despite this, predatory multinationals are currently suing the Colombian government for billions of dollars whenever it attempts to protect the environment: such as the $16.5 billion lawsuit that U.S. Tobie Mining and Energy launched against the government when it declared an area in the Amazon rainforest a National Park, where the U.S. company owns a mining concession; or the lawsuits launched by multinationals protesting the new law banning mining in the country’s paramos.

Seventeen years after her murder, Washinawatok’s words in her essay “On Working Towards Peace” now seem increasingly prophetic: “The roots of war and violence go deep, into the Earth herself. As an indigenous woman, I wish to simply state that until we make peace with Earth, there will be no peace in the human community.”

Written on the side of an U'wa school are the words: "nature is wise and as much as man tries he cannot overcome her." Photo: Jake Ling

Written on the side of an U’wa school are the words: “nature is wise and as much as man tries he cannot overcome her.” Photo: Jake Ling

“In the late 90’s the U’wa struggle against Occidental Petroleum resonated with progressive social movements that were fighting corporate domination, the multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank and free trade agreements like NAFTA,” said Andrew Miller, Director of Advocacy at Amazon Watch. “The core U’wa messages have not changed, and once again we see synergies within the global conversations about climate change and the growing movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

It was the multiple bomb attacks on the Caño-Limon-Covenas inside U’wa territory in March and April 2014, which not only showcased the indigenous nation’s vulnerability but also its strength. The subsequent 40-day protest in which petroleum engineers were prevented from accessing the bomb-site to fix the ruptured pipe cost the Colombian government $130 million dollars. The concessions that the state proceeded to make to the U’wa in exchange for stopping the protest included the dismantling of the gas exploration project in Magallanes; other points in the agreement have since been ignored.

A year later, the pipeline was bombed again on U’wa territory, contaminating the Cubogón and Arauca rivers and creating an environmental emergency that left the entire state of Arauca downstream without water. The Colombian government had still not fulfilled its side of the deal leading 40 organizations to sign an open letter to President Santos reminding him of the agreement.

At the end of March, 2016, two weeks after another twin-bomb attack on the Caño-Limon-Covenas, and only days after the U’wa mobilization surrounding the Cocuy National Park received the threatening photograph of the armed-sheep, Amazon Watch issued its highest red-alert to warn its network of concerned global citizens of the dangers facing the protestors. The International Urgent Action has so far received 5,000 signatures from people around the world supporting the U’wa’s demand of a direct dialogue with Colombia’s former Minister of Environment.

The requests were ignored; however, just two weeks ago, on April 25th, President Santos replaced the minister with Luis Gilberto Murillo, the former Governor of Choco province, who is himself a victim of the war after being kidnapped by paramilitaries. The new Minister for Environment is now presented with the opportunity to mend relations with the U’wa Peoples by handing over the administration of the Cocuy National Park, an act that would protect its precious ecosystems while providing a source of income to the communities via sustainable and responsible tourism. The government’s obligations under Colombian law, however, do not end there. The U’wa still urgently need access to better health-care facilities and clean drinking water to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and dysentery — two basic human rights that the international community can pressure President Santos to fulfill.

As the U’wa leader Berito recovers from tuberculosis in his wooden shack in the cloud forests on the eastern border of the United U’wa Resguardo, he is content at having officially changed his name late last year. The indigenous leader passed IC an original copy of his signed and stamped identification papers, issued to him a year earlier when he traveled to Bogotá to change his name from Roberto Cobaria, the name arbitrarily placed on him by Catholic missionaries. Now, the Colombian government must recognize him by the same name his people call him – Berito KuwarU’wa KuwarU’wa – the wise and powerful Werjayá whose life work has been to guide the people who know how to think and speak through the most violent and longest running armed conflict on the South American continent.

In the coming weeks or months when the FARC and Colombian government are expected to finalize a historic peace agreement, the war will not be over for the U’wa people. The Paramilitaries eventually dispersed, more BACRIM may be imprisoned, most of the FARC will probably demobilize, the ELN may lay down arms, the state military might be disciplined with court-martials, but the Colombian government will never give up its relentless thirst for the sacred blood of Mother Earth underneath the ancestral lands of the U’wa. Once again the U’wa are cornered on all sides with their backs against a cliff, but the question remains if the indigenous group will jump or if they will be pushed.

Berito discussing the threat of oil drilling at Amazon Watch's 2010 Annual Luncheon. Photo: Amazon Watch

Berito discussing the threat of oil drilling at Amazon Watch’s 2010 Annual Luncheon. Photo: Amazon Watch

“The U’wa people are reaching out at a national and international level to ask for the unconditional assistance to our struggle that dates back many years,” Berito announced in 2014, before he became sick. “We refuse to be silent and we are going to mobilize ourselves and once again engage in protest actions against the extraction of oil which will damage our Mother Earth.”

Jake Ling is the founder of www.ecuadorecovolunteer.org and has worked with indigenous communities for several years on conservation projects in the Andes and Amazon. He writes for Colombia Reports and IC and he tweets at @chekhovdispatch

Cultural Genocide, Language Revitalization, and the International Campaign Against Occidental Petroleum

By Jake Ling / Intercontinental Cry

This is the third installment of “The Guardians of Mother Earth,” an exclusive four-part series by Intercontinental Cry examining the Indigenous U’wa struggle for peace in Colombia.

Featured image: U’wa children are now taught their native language in the resguardo’s bilingual schools, as well as lessons in Natural Law: how to protect, care and safeguard Mother Earth. Photo: Jake Ling

In the cloud forests on the eastern cordillera of the Colombian Andes there is no internet, and phone reception is limited to a few lookouts on the craggy cliffs above the tree line. As news from the U’wa mobilization in the paramos surrounding the sacred Mount Zizuma filter down to the base of the mountain range in the Boyacá Frontier District on the Venezuelan border, Berito rests in his wooden shack recovering from tuberculosis. As he slowly convalesces, the indigenous leader has time to reflect on the struggle that has defined much of his life and can take pride in this next generation of pacifist U’wa warriors who have taken up the fight to save Mother Earth in his absence.

“When we start to educate, we need to educate two worlds,” Berito told IC. “One is of the west through its books, then there is the harmonious civilization of the spiritual, our own culture, which teaches peace with the environment and the house of nature.”

Education has been a key strategy to the U’wa leadership to ensure the tribe’s survival into the 21st century. Berito learned the importance of educating U’wa children about Natural Law, which predates and takes precedent over the laws of men, as the result of a childhood trauma: as a young boy, he was kidnapped by Catholic missionaries and forced to live in a convent until, after several years, his mother rescued him. The missionaries named him Roberto Cobaria, after the Cobaria river that ran past the mission. This arbitrary name followed him for most of his life as it was the name officially recognized by the Colombian government.

The 450 meter bridge that crosses the Cobaria River is what separates Berito's house on the eastern border of the resguardo and the Catholic mission that once held him against his will. Photo: Jake Ling

The 450 meter bridge that crosses the Cobaria River is what separates Berito’s house on the eastern border of the resguardo and the now reformed Catholic mission that once held him against his will. Photo: Jake Ling

The massive wooden convent that held the young Berito had enough rooms to house priests, nuns, cooks, cleaners, and at least 80 other abducted U’wa children. Today, however, this place that once perpetuated the cultural genocide of the U’wa has been transformed into a school that teaches their native language inside its classrooms with murals depicting their ancient mythology decorated along the walls. In the playground the unruly grass and patches of moss and lichens cover the cracked base of a neglected statue of the Virgin Mary, but the intergenerational scars left by the missionaries are evident in the survivors and their families.

“They took my mother when she was 6 or 7 years old and kept her there for about 16 years,” Luis Eduardo Caballero, the Fiscal (legal representative) of the U’wa Peoples, told IC. According to Caballero, the Catholic Church invaded from opposite ends of U’wa territory in the late 1940’s via the Andean plateaus of Boyacá as well as the lowlands beside the Cobaria and Arauca rivers. A rival evangelical organization called the Summer Institute of Linguistics, located a short drive outside of U’wa territory, was also involved in the systematic kidnapping of indigenous children.

“They prohibited our rituals, our fasts, our celebrations called the dance,” said Caballero, adding that the missionaries lured the children away under the guise of providing free education. Those inside the convent who spoke their native language were punished. “They weren’t able to make my mother stop speaking U’wa, but many others, yes.”

The Catholic mission that once perpetuated the cultural genocide of the U’wa has been transformed into a school that teaches the U'wa native language. Photo: Jake Ling

The Catholic mission that once perpetuated the cultural genocide of the U’wa has been transformed into a school that teaches the U’wa native language. Photo: Jake Ling

Murals depicting their ancient mythology are now decorated along the walls of the reformed Catholic mission. Photo: Jake Ling

Murals depicting their ancient mythology are now decorated along the walls of the reformed Catholic mission. Photo: Jake Ling

As Berito grew to adulthood, he served as the governor of the U’wa and became a spiritual authority or Werjayá in the U’wa tongue, a shamanic healer in charge of communicating with the superior powers that inhabit nature: the rivers, the plants, the sun, and the stars. His childhood experience in the convent galvanized him to take the fight for his people’s rights outside the isolated cloud forests to the capital Bogotá and then beyond Colombia’s borders. It was only until December of last year, that Berito traveled to a judicial office in the capital to officially change his name from Roberto Cobaria, that which was placed on him by the Catholics, to Berito KuwarU’wa KuwarU’wa, the name used by his people.

The leaders significance as an influential elder statesmen for Colombia’s Indigenous Peoples has not gone unremarked. “Berito taught Colombia’s indigenous people and the world the importance of the globalization of resistance, how to defend the beloved Earth and how to fight against climate change.” said Luis Fernando Arias, the Chief Councilor of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC).

“Internationally, Berito is the most well-recognized face of the U’wa struggle.” said Andrew Miller, who accompanied the U’wa leader with Amazon Watch to meet Avatar director James Cameron in his Los Angeles living room. “Especially in the late 1990’s, Berito was a global ambassador of the U’wa’s beautifully poetic cosmology that captured many people’s imaginations. He struck up a bond with Terry Freitas, the young activist who helped galvanize the international movement in support of the U’wa, as well as people like Atossa Soltani, Amazon Watch’s founder.”

Terence Freitas was the co-creator and coordinator of the U’wa Defense Working Group that was essential in drumming up international support for the U’wa. The young activist transformed his bedroom at his mother’s house into the de-facto HQ for the U’wa’s international campaign against Occidental Petroleum in the late 1990’s. Even his mother was unaware of the extent of her son’s involvement until one morning she found Berito, the leader of 7,000 indigenous people from the isolated paramos and cloud forests of eastern Colombia, sleeping on the living room floor of her suburban Los Angeles home.

“I noticed that he immediately bonded with Roberto, there was a link between them,” said Francois Mazure from the EarthWays Foundation that hosted Berito during his visit to Los Angeles. “Roberto was the father and Terry was the son.”

In 1997, after meeting with the directors of Occidental Petroleum in Los Angeles, Berito was kidnapped on his return to Colombia by gunmen who tried to force him to sign a drilling agreement. He refused and they beat him. In 1998, Freitas accompanied Berito to Al Gore’s office to meet the environmentalist vice president after the U’wa leader was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize. Unfortunately Al Gore, whose father sat on the board of Occidental Petroleum and owned a small fortune in the company’s shares, never pressured Oxy publicly.

A year later Berito invited Freitas and two native American activists, Lahe’enda’e Gay and Ingrid Washinawatok, to help set up schools to protect the U’wa language and culture and defend their way of life from the oil industry. Washinawatok was a world-renowned 41-year-old indigenous activist known as Flying Eagle Woman of the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin and a rising leader in the struggle for indigenous rights. She also directed the Fund for the Four Directions, which promoted the revitalization of indigenous languages and cultures. Lahe’ena’e Gay was a 39-year-old member of Hawaii’s Kanaka Maoli Nation, as well as the founder and director of the Pacific Cultural Conservancy International, which works to preserve cultural and biological diversity.

Freitas knew the risks. On a trip to U’wa territory a year earlier he reported being observed and followed on various occasions by individuals he believed were paramilitaries. During that same trip he was stopped by the Colombian military and forced to sign a declaration that absolved the army of any responsibility for his security. He interpreted the act as a threat. The shared vision of Berito, Freitas, Gay and Washinawatok to develop schools to teach the next generation of U’wa children a non-colonial curriculum; alongside lessons on Natural Law, which was set down by the divine spirit Sira entrusting the U’wa with the guardianship of Mother Earth, outweighed the risks.

As Berito guided the three activists on their way to the airport to leave Colombia, they were kidnapped by masked gunmen. While the U’wa leader was immediately released, the bodies of the activists were found a week later bound and blindfolded with multiple gunshot wounds in a Venezuelan cow field over the Arauca river.

Because the FARC was then in preliminary peace talks in the late 1990’s, presaging more recent events, the guerrilla group appeared to have little to gain and much to lose from the kidnapping and executions. Indeed, the FARC high command was quick to deny complicity, in order to protect those fragile peace talks.

The armed men at the road block where the group were kidnapped also did not fit the profile of the local FARC – they were allegedly much younger, not dressed in fatigues, and had their faces covered – leading some to wonder if they were a rogue group opposed to the peace accords. The stretch of highway through Arauca province where the group had been traveling was dominated by the paramilitaries, who at the time had been waging a campaign of extermination against trade union leaders, human rights activists and suspected guerrilla collaborators. Eventually, however, a rebel commander from the guerrillas acknowledged: “Commander Gildardo of the FARC’s 10th Front found that strangers had entered the U’wa Indian region and did not have authorization from the guerrillas. He improvised an investigation, captured and executed them without consulting his superiors.”

Washinawatok’s Menominee Nation and various other U.S. indigenous rights groups accused the U.S. State Department of destabilizing their own negotiations with the FARC for the release of the activists, which they had believed would be imminent. During the failed peace talks of the 1990’s, the US State Department had released $230 million in military aid to the Colombian army, and fighting in the north between the army and their right wing paramilitary allies against the FARC had left 70 people dead on both sides.

Meanwhile, Occidental Petroleum wasn’t just spending millions to lobby the U.S. government to increase military aid to Colombia – it was providing direct financial and logistical support to the Colombian military. The oil giant was also funding private security firms like Air-Scan, which carried out the cluster-bombing massacre of Santo Domingo on Occidental’s behalf, as well as the paramilitary death squads involved in kidnapping, torture, extrajudicial killings and massacres of civilians across the region.

Most surprisingly, however, was the U.S. multinationals’ links with Colombia’s marxist guerrillas, confirmed when Oxy Vice-President Lawrence Meriage gave testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000. He admitted that Occidental employees regularly made payments to members of the FARC and ELN. Meriage’s acknowledgement of Oxy’s work relationship with the guerillas came three years after the ELN and FARC were declared “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” in 1997, making it a crime to provide material support to these groups.

Meriage’s testimony was also consistent with the actions and admissions by long-time Occidental leader Armand Hammer, who reports in his biography how Occidental’s Latin American security chief, former FBI employee James Sutton, was fired when he spoke out against the company’s payments to the ELN. “We are giving jobs to the guerrillas…” Hammer told the Wall Street Journal in 1985 “…and they in turn protect us from other guerrillas.”

An investigation by the LA Times found that Occidental Petroleum was funneling millions of dollars to the ELN guerillas as well as jobs and food for their members. “The rebels used the money to gain new recruits and weaponry,” the LA times stated, claiming the ELN were on the verge of being wiped out by the Colombian military in the early 80’s before receiving Oxy’s financial backing. “In effect, Occidental rescued the group that later turned against it.”

After his passing, Freita’s former girlfriend lashed out at Oxy in a letter to Vice President Al Gore, referring to the company’s friendly links with the guerrillas. Berito later testified to Amnesty International and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to complain about the incident that took the life of three of the U’wa People’s greatest friends and allies. An article in the LA Weekly eulogizing the young activist after his death stated: “In May 1997, Freitas met the man who would change the course of his life: U’wa leader Roberto Cobaria.” Terry Freitas was 24 years old when he was executed.

The international campaign against Occidental Petroleum soon hit critical-mass. With many still reeling over the death of the three activists, protests against the oil giant were launched in London, Hamburg, Lima, Nairobi and several cities across the United States. The U’wa leader Berito Cobaria once again traveled from the cloud forests of eastern Colombia to the west coast of California where he planned to challenge Oxy CEO Ray Irani at the company’s annual shareholder meeting. Meanwhile as Occidental Petroleum funded all sides of Colombia’s brutal civil war, the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars of crude oil to the Caribbean coast continued.

 

Pennsylvania Township Legalizes Civil Disobedience

New Law Shields People from Arrest for Protesting Project

By Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund

Grant Township, Indiana County, PA: Grant Township Supervisors passed a first-in-the-nation law that legalizes direct action to stop frack wastewater injection wells within the Township. Pennsylvania General Energy Company (PGE) has sued the Township to overturn a local democratically-enacted law that prohibits injection wells.

If a court does not uphold the people’s right to stop corporate activities threatening the well-being of the community, the ordinance codifies that, “any natural person may then enforce the rights and prohibitions of the charter through direct action.” Further, the ordinance states that any nonviolent direct action to enforce their Charter is protected, “prohibit[ing] any private or public actor from bringing criminal charges or filing any civil or other criminal action against those participating in nonviolent direct action.”

Grant Township Supervisor Stacy Long explained, “We’re tired of being told by corporations and our so-called environmental regulatory agencies that we can’t stop this injection well! This isn’t a game. We’re being threatened by a corporation with a history of permit violations, and that corporation wants to dump toxic frack wastewater into our Township.”

Long continued, “I live here, and I was also elected to protect the health and safety of this Township. I will do whatever it takes to provide our residents with the tools and protections they need to nonviolently resist aggressions like those being proposed by PGE.”

In 2013, residents in Grant Township learned that PGE was applying for permits that would legalize the injection well. Despite hearings, public comments, and permit appeals demonstrating the residents’ opposition to the project, the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a permit to PGE.

Finding themselves with no other options, residents requested the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). Grant Township Supervisors, with broad community support, passed a CELDF-drafted Community Bill of Rights ordinance in June 2014. The ordinance established rights to clean air and water, the right to local community self-government, and the rights of nature. The proposed injection well is prohibited as a violation of those rights.

PGE promptly sued the Township, claiming that it had a “right” to inject within the Township.

The case is ongoing. Last year, in October 2015, the judge invalidated parts of the ordinance, stating that the Township lacked authority to ban injection wells. Three weeks later, in November 2015, residents voted in a new Home Rule Charter. The rights-based Charter reinstated the ban on injection wells by a 2-to-1 vote, overriding the judge’s decision.

CELDF assisted the community with the drafting of the Charter and is representing the Township in the ongoing litigation with PGE.

Grant Township Supervisor and Chairman Jon Perry summed up the situation by saying, “Sides need to be picked. Should a polluting corporation have the right to inject toxic waste, or should a community have the right to protect itself?”

Perry continued, “I was elected to serve this community, and to protect the rights in our Charter voted in by the people I represent. If we have to physically and nonviolently stop the trucks from coming in because the courts fail us, we will do so. And we invite others to stand with us.”

Those others are showing up. Tim DeChristopher, co-founder of the Climate Disobedience Center, stated, “I’m encouraged to see an entire community and its elected officials asserting their rights to defend their community from the assaults of the fossil fuel industry, and I know there are plenty of folks in the climate movement ready to stand with Grant Township.”

CELDF community organizer Chad Nicholson has been working with the community since 2014. He added, “In our country’s history, we celebrate people standing up to challenge unjust laws. The American Revolution, abolition, women’s suffrage, the labor and civil rights movements, marriage equality – all required people to take action resisting illegitimate laws. All required creating new and more just laws in their place. We applaud the people of Grant Township for taking action as their community is threatened, and asserting their rights. It is an honor to stand with them.”

If you are interested in supporting the efforts in Grant Township, please contact Stacy Long, lemonphone28@gmail.com or 724.840.7214.

Indigenous U’wa Struggle for Peace in Colombia

This is the first installment of “The Guardians of Mother Earth,” a four-part series examining the Indigenous U’wa struggle for peace in Colombia.

On September 23, 2015, in the Palace of Conventions in Havana, Cuba, his excellency Juan Manuel Santos, the President of the Republic of Colombia, and Commander Timoleon Jimenez, Chief of General Staff of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, signed an agreement on transitional justice and reparations to the victims of the country’s 51 year old civil war, resolving one of the final points in the country’s peace negotiations.

“We are adversaries, we come from different sides, but today we move in the same direction,” said President Santos, “this noble direction that all societies can have, is one of peace.”

In a show of unity, the warring parties all wore white-collared shirts without ties, as they sat on opposite sides of the brown mahogany tables encircling an artificially bright-green shrubbery arrangement. Around the room’s perimeter stood a throng of reporters, crowded together behind a red rope line, snapping photos of the historic handshake between the president and the leader of the country’s largest guerrilla army. A prolonged war that has killed more than 260,000 people and victimized and displaced seven million more seemed to be drawing to an end.

Among the victims of the conflict are the Indigenous Peoples of Colombia. Of the 102 tribal nations in existence today more than half are at risk of disappearing – forced displacement and mining on indigenous territory during the armed conflict have contributed heavily to the widespread demise.

A progressive genocide of negligence and privation is also taking place. The Indigenous Peoples of Colombia are routinely denied basic commodities such as antibiotics, vaccines and clean drinking water that residents of big cities take for granted, not because the country’s indigenous have been targeted for extermination, but because they have become politically insignificant.

During the Havana peace accord, the indigenous nations who trace their Colombian heritage back thousands of years, from before the time of the Spanish conquest, were not mentioned once.

Inside a wooden shack in the isolated cloud forests of eastern Colombia, three kilometers west of the Arauca river on the Venezuelan border, Berito Cobaria, the internationally recognized leader and spiritual guide of the indigenous U’wa, points out the shades on the x-ray scan of his chest. It shows the same strain of tuberculosis that is ravaging his people.

Berito X-ray. Photo: Jake Ling

Berito X-ray. Photo: Jake Ling

The single-story hospital in Cubará, the nearest town on the river, is poorly equipped and understaffed. Visits from medical specialists are rare because the hospital is located in the “Red Zone” – conflict areas the Colombian government has declared dangerous due to the heavy concentration of guerrilla forces.

“The government needs to establish a tuberculosis clinic in Cubará,” Berito told IC. He confirmed he is slowly overcoming the deadly disease but despairs for his people as the tuberculosis outbreak rapidly spreads throughout the U’wa Nation’s ancestral lands.  The U’wa believe there needs to be harmony in the world for there to be harmony in the cosmos, but the balance of nature has been disturbed and a sickness has fallen upon Berito’s people. Infectious western diseases such as influenza, dysentery, tuberculosis, and the common cold continue to wreak havoc on the unaccustomed immune systems of the U’wa, who up until the late 1940’s lived an isolated existence on the forested cliffs and the remote Andean wetlands and cloud forests of eastern Colombia.

Beginning on February 13th, 2016, Colombia’s second largest guerrilla army, the ELN (Army of National Liberation) imposed a 72-hour armed strike inside Red Zones like Cubará and other towns that border U’wa territory. Under the threat of violence, all stores and businesses in Cubará were closed, the roads were empty and lucky members of the Colombian military got three days’ rest in fortified outposts while their colleagues searched for explosives laid along Highway 66. Despite their dominance in the frontier towns along the Venezuelan border, even the ELN needs to gain permission from indigenous authorities like Berito to enter the ancestral lands of the U’wa. Known as the United U’wa Resguardo, the territory is restricted to all outsiders.

A day after the ELN’s armed strike was lifted, U’wa families on their way to Cubará to stock up on supplies of bread, sugar, eggs and tobacco were traveling barefoot or on the backs of pickup trucks past Berito’s home, which stands sentinel on the eastern border of the resguardo. Ten minutes away at the border town, Colombian soldiers had returned from their outposts to patrol the streets. Stores were serving clients, and locals walked openly with white plastic shopping bags, acts that had been banned and punishable by death during the armed strike. The only trace of the armed strike was the ubiquitous graffiti scrawled on buildings around town: “ELN – 51 YEARS OF RESISTANCE”.

Historically, U’wa territory has been of strategic importance to the Marxist guerrillas because it connects the contraband routes from Venezuela over the Arauca river to the central Andes of Boyacá province, a short drive from the capital Bogotá. Unarmed outside of the agricultural tools they use to cultivate staple crops of yucca, plantains and potatoes, the U’wa authorities will reluctantly grant permission to the ELN to pass through the resguardo on the strict condition they do not set up camp inside their territory. In return the ELN respect U’wa sovereignty, will not enter without permission and will not stop until they have traversed the steep and extremely difficult climb out of the cloud forests and cross the western border of the resguardo, below the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Cocuy and Güicán.

This region, which is rich in lucrative oil and gas reserves, is also of great strategic importance to the United States’ and Colombian governments, multinationals like Houston-based Occidental Petroleum and Spanish oil giant RepSol, as well as the right-wing paramilitary death squads, which have been historically allied with the central government and big business.  For the U’wa Peoples, however, oil is the sacred blood of their Mother Earth, and without its blood their mother will die.  For more than two decades U’wa have mobilized aggressive non-violent campaigns to assert more control over their ancestral territory in the midst of one of the most troubled regions of the Colombian Civil War, but it was their struggle against Occidental Petroleum (called Oxy for short) that gained international attention in 1997, when Berito declared that his people “would rather die, protecting everything that we hold sacred, than lose everything that makes us U’wa.”

Oil blocks on U'wa territory. Map by Fidel Mingorance / HREV 2014

Oil blocks on U’wa territory. Map by Fidel Mingorance / HREV 2014

As Oxy pushed into the U’wa’s ancestral lands, the indigenous nation collectively threatened to commit mass suicide by leaping off a 15,000-foot cliff if drilling on their territory went ahead.  This was not a publicity stunt. U’wa tribal lore tells of their people walking off the “Cliffs of Glory” en masse centuries ago rather than submit to the brutal Spanish conquistadors. The U’wa set up a makeshift village beside Occidental Petroleum’s Gibraltar 1 drilling site, and were clubbed, tear-gassed, threatened with rape, evicted, arrested, and harassed by state security forces on behalf of Oxy. A year later in 1998, Berito was given the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for leading the non-violent campaign against Occidental Petroleum – the same year the US multinational was complicit in the cluster-bombing of a countryside agricultural community, killing 18 civilians including 9 children, near the resguardo’s south-eastern border, in order to protect the Caño-Limon-Covenas oil pipeline.

The pipeline, jointly run by state-owned Ecopetrol and US-based Occidental Petroleum, pumps up to 220,000 barrels of crude daily from the war-torn Arauca province through U’wa territory on its way to the Caribbean coast. It was also the beneficiary of $100 million US military aid that was granted to the Colombian army in 2003, after Occidental Petroleum spent $4 million lobbying the US government to protect it. The ELN, and their ideological ally, the FARC, have bombed the pipeline more than a thousand times. The consecutive attacks over decades have spilt millions of barrels of cancerous unprocessed crude into the rivers and forests of the region, exponentially more than that of the Exxon Valdez environmental disaster.

In a separate bombing incident in March 2014, the U’wa refused to permit repairs to the pipeline until the government began dismantling the Magallanes drilling site on the northern border of the U’wa resguardo, which Ecopetrol had set up in secret months earlier. The Wall Street Journal reported the Colombian government lost $130 million during the 40-day U’wa protest, which was resolved by dismantling the new drilling rig. Ecopetrol has not cancelled the mining license, however, and the threat of exploitation remains. The most recent attack on the pipeline was a twin bomb attack by the ELN on March 15th, 2016, a week before the deadline to finalize the preliminary peace agreement that President Santos and Commander Timoleon Jimenez had agreed to six months earlier in Havana.

As the March 23rd deadline came and went without even a symbolic gesture of unity, both the FARC and government blamed each other for stalling. A week later the government saved face by announcing to the press it had entered formal peace talks with the ELN, but the country’s second-largest guerrilla army watered down public optimism by stating negotiations would not stop them from attacking critical government infrastructure, which include mining assets in the region and oil concessions surrounding U’wa territory such as Oil Block Cor 19 and Cor 45 which extend across the west and north-west of the resguardo; the Arauca oil block; and  RepSol and Integra Oil drilling rigs on the resguardo’s eastern border. There is also  Ecopetrol’s Siriri Oil Block, which along with Caño-Limon-Covenas is located in the north of U’wa territory.

A small fraction of a percent of the money rolling in from this multi-billion dollar mining bonanza would be more than enough to fund schools, provide fully-stocked healthcare facilities and install piping to provide clean drinking water for every indigenous and rural community in the region. In one isolated U’wa school inside the resguardo, four computers generously donated by the Colombian government gather dust because there is no electricity; here many of U’wa children are malnourished with swollen bellies because a non-native parasitic worm has contaminated the water supply. In a tin-roofed shack that serves as a hospital in Chuscal on the other side of the resguardo, the head nurse complains of the difficulty of caring for patients suffering from tuberculosis and dysentery because of a lack of vaccines, antibiotics and even clean drinking water after an oil spill contaminated the river.

Now while the international community is openly discussing buzzwords like “Peace Colombia” and “post-conflict” in anticipation of a historic peace agreement between the FARC and government, the U’wa people are demanding high-level talks with the government to address their various grievances. The government response has thus far been to ignore the U’wa, or to invite an indigenous delegation to Bogotá where low-level bureaucrats with no authority merely shuffle papers and nod their heads. Meanwhile, the tuberculosis outbreak continues to spread across U’wa territory.

The U’wa, who call themselves the people who know how to think and speak, consider themselves the Guardians of Mother Nature, and large tracts of land inside their territory have become biological reserves for jaguars, spectacled bears, as well as a kaleidoscopic array of endemic plant and bird life that do not appear anywhere else on the planet.  As an ambassador for his tribe, Berito has traveled the world recruiting the support of activists of all stripes, from the late Terry Freitas, native American activists Ingrid Washinawatok and Lahe’enda’e Gay, to the founder of Amazon Watch Atossa Soltani, and Hollywood celebrities like Avatar director James Cameron.

The indigenous leader knows that the ability of his pacifist tribe of 7,000 people to defend themselves against these extremely powerful economic and political forces is limited. This is especially true while numerous multinationals and armed groups battle for control around and sometimes inside his people’s land hidden from the eyes of the international community beneath the forest canopies. Non-violence, however, needs an audience and once again the U’wa leader is calling upon the world to watch over his people.

“History is its own kind of law,” Berito said. “They say the land is dead, but it lives yet. It is only wounded by the taking of oil. The dignity of native peoples comes from the land – and like the land it can be saved.”

The second installment in this series examines the U’wa struggles against tuberculosis, parasitic worms, climate change and threats of violent paramilitary repression. You can read it here: They say the land is dead, but it lives yet