Oil Giant vs. Mother Earth: Bets Are On

Robert W. Benson is a professor of law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, and co-director of the International Law Center for Human, Economic and Environmental Defense

The U’wa Indians of Colombia have threatened mass suicide if Occidental Petroleum Corp. drills for oil in their territory. A summit meeting between the U’wa, Oxy and the Colombian government at the end of May failed to reach an agreement. Now the U’wa are in the mountains for their annual spiritual retreat.

Early in May, U’wa leader Roberto Cobaria came to Los Angeles to meet with Oxy officials. There, in a sterile hotel conference room, Cobaria lifted his voice in song.

I was present, and I had to wonder what was going through the minds of the pink-cheeked, silver-haired oil executives as this small, dark spirit broke into a lilting melody like a delicate rain forest bird.

“The U’wa believe that when you meet with people, you must sing,” explained Cobaria. “The song comes from the Father above. It is a prayer for all of us.”


It was a song about the Father Sky and Mother Earth, the sun and the moon, and their connection to all people. It summed up the message Cobaria repeated again and again in the 1 1/2 hour meeting: Americans and Colombians may have their laws, but the U’wa are bound by “the law that was law before there was sun and before there was moon.” Under that law, oil from deep in Mother Earth is part of her.

“You must understand,” Cobaria said, “that to drill for oil is an extremely sensitive matter for us. We would be selling the blood of Mother Earth. We cannot do it. Our Father didn’t authorize us to do it. He didn’t authorize us to negotiate about it. Without Earth there is no life. It cannot be done. We want to know if Oxy will respect our law. If there is no solution, we have a history of suicide.” He was alluding to the story, known from U’wa oral tradition, that in the 17th century the U’wa jumped from a cliff to their deaths rather than submit to conquistadors.

What were they thinking, these Oxy executives on the other side of the table? They told Cobaria, respectfully and politely, that they were there only to listen and learn, not to come to a conclusion. He had, they acknowledged, given them “much to think about.” Indeed. Were they thinking that this was a negotiating ploy by Indians who might settle for some schools, clinics and cash? Were they thinking that it was a public relations nightmare? Were they thinking that Cobaria’s message was one of primitive superstition?

Primitive superstition it was not. Translated to our terms, Cobaria was making a straightforward assertion of natural law.


The belief that higher laws of God or nature transcend those of we mere mortals is the longest legal tradition in Western civilization. It is now enjoying a resurgence in the areas of human rights and international environmental law. With human laws permitting behavior that threatens the very survival of whole populations and the planet itself, even jaded legislators and diplomats are looking to higher sources to reform the law on Earth.

In the roughly 50 years since the Nuremberg Trials and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international law has incorporated virtually all the natural law norms we need to halt the destruction of the planet. We have (to name a few) the Convention on Human Rights, the Climate Change Convention, the Biodiversity Convention, the Stockholm and Rio declarations and a multitude of related acts of customary international law. These documents have woven natural law thinking into a fabric of applicable human-made law.

These laws lead to the same conclusion that the U’wa have come to: Oil drilling on land that threatens an indigenous people with cultural death and contributes to environmental destruction is illegal. Nations cannot authorize it. Companies cannot engage in it.

The International Law Center for Human, Economic and Environmental Defense, an arm of the National Lawyers Guild, in fact, calls for a permanent global halt to all oil drilling and all mining in every delicate ecological habitat and in every territory where indigenous peoples are threatened. These activities are, the center argues, now automatic violations of international law. The feeble international legal institutions of the United Nations and the Organization of American States will lack the fortitude to enforce the law. Transnational corporations and their client governments will ignore it. But the law is clearly there. And it is not only “the law that was law before there was sun and before there was moon.” It is also our law.