EARTH & US

Cathy Holt
4 min readJul 22, 2023

Water as a Human Right

Berio Kuru’uwa, U’wa indigenous leader

As I focus on getting my visa renewed and finding a place to live next after Casa Común, I I have not forgotten my vision and dream of working in support of indigenous water rights. Yes, I’ve been working some on biogas digesters, and talking to people to learn about Barichara’s water issues; but actually organizing people on behalf of water collection and wastewater treatment? Also, here there are no indigenous people. It’s a town of privilege, while at the same time it is a wonderful caring community.

Restoring Barichara’s water

Last week I attended a dance organized by Felipe Medina. Some of the children from Pasos de Agua had chosen songs about water for the DJ to play. A special T-shirt the kids were selling said “Cuida agua, cuida tu vida” (care for water, care for your life) on one side, with “If you can imagine it, you can succeed, let’s restore the Barichara stream,” on the other, and featuring some of the children’s artwork.

Speaking with my friend Santiago yesterday was encouraging. He believes that with the October election for mayor coming up, people will organize in the next two months to work for a better candidate. This candidate promises to make changes in Barichara’s water management. Santiago says many people are aware of the inadequate water supply for the four towns of Barichara, Villanueva, Guane, and Aratoca. Townsfolk are disgusted at how the people’s money designated for sewage treatment was pocketed repeatedly by corrupt officials. Santiago told me that the opposition mayoral candidate actually came to Joep and Julia’s place recently, to view and learn about their innovative ecological worm compost system for human waste! And he believes that such a system could be scalable, perhaps in conjunction with a biogas digester. I’ve not felt this encouraged in a while!

Indigenous water rights

A few hours later at an art opening, I saw Alma, the painter of indigenous women who taught the acrylics class a few months ago. As we sipped sangria, she mentioned how she had spent two weeks with each of the indigenous groups from which she had painted one of the women. Her friend Marlyn is knowledgeable about several indigenous tribes that are defending the water in their areas from big mining corporations. She said Colombian president Petro is stepping up to support the indigenous in their environmental concerns. I got Marlyn’s phone number so that I can talk with her soon and learn more!

Then I did a bit of research online. Amid the bad news about some indigenous groups suffering from malnutrition and scarcity of potable water, there was this recent hopeful report…

The U’wa protest fossil fuel extraction

Paraphrasing a report in May, 2023 by Fermin Koop: In a hearing at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the U’wa people have made declarations against the Colombian state. The case could prove significant for the protection of the environment and Indigenous rights across Latin America.

Representatives for the U’wa called on the court to rule against the Colombian government over decades of violations of their rights and the environment, primarily due to oil and gas extraction.

The U’wa consist of around 6,000 indigenous people living across northeast Colombia. Their ancestral territory once covered an area of 1.4 million hectares, but this has been greatly reduced, with today’s 22 U’wa communities now inhabiting only a fraction of their former lands.

“When they destroy our territory, for us it is like dying slowly, it is like accepting that the spiritual and cultural death of our people is very close,” Daris María Cristancho, an U’wa Indigenous leader, told the court. “I ask the court to respect our home, for it is our culture, our cosmovision.”

Since the 1990s, the U’wa have protested the extraction of fossil fuels in their territories by multinationals including Shell and Occidental Petroleum, staging occupations and marches, and even threatening mass suicides.

In 2016, the U’wa filed a case with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accusing the Colombian government of human rights violations. The commission ruled in the Indigenous people’s favor in 2019. But after the commission’s requirements were not met, the case was sent to the Inter-American Court, and is only now being heard.

“The government has authorized extractive projects in U’wa territory since the 1990s,” Wyatt Gjullin, a lawyer at Earth Rights said. “Now, the largest oil pipeline in the country runs across their land, as well as a gas pipeline. Both have polluted the environment and contaminated water sources.”

Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, has repeatedly spoken for protecting Indigenous lands. “If there is no balance with nature, we cease to exist, as Indigenous people say,” Petro declared.

However, disputes continue to arise, with nine contracts for projects across the country currently under review for reactivation, following their earlier suspension due to community opposition. Petro’s administration has vowed not to grant new oil and gas contracts, but said it would respect existing ones.

Ebaristo Tegría, an U’wa lawyer and teacher, said, “All extractive projects should be cancelled. Ecopetrol already has three projects on our land and now wants to start a fourth one.” Tegría is hopeful they will get a favorable ruling that will not only benefit them but also other Indigenous groups. “Colombia has 115 indigenous communities and each has its own problems. The ruling can set a precedent and show them that they can fight for their rights.”

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Cathy Holt

Cathy has been living in Colombia for 2 years. She’s passionate about regenerating landscapes with water retention, agro-forestry, and biogas digestors.