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By high school, Freitas’ activist inclinations began to emerge. He started a recycling program, urged students to adopt conservation measures and wrote about his distress over the devastation of the Earth. A poem composed at age 16 ended with this bleak meditation: "Why does it feel like only the dead have spirits/And the living care less than the dead?"
In May 1997, Freitas met the man who would change the course of his life: U’wa leader Roberto Cobaria.
Freitas had returned to Los Angeles the previous year from UC Santa Cruz (where he earned a dual degree in biology and environmental studies) and landed a job with an environmental and indigenous-rights group called Sol Communications. Cobaria, meanwhile, had come to L.A. to meet with Occidental executives.
"I noticed that he immediately bonded with Roberto, there was a link between them," says Francois Mazure, special-projects director of EarthWays Foundation, an environmental organization that hosted Cobaria during his visit. "Roberto was the father and Terry was the son."
As head of the 5,000-member U’wa tribe’s traditional governing body, Cobaria has been one of the key opponents of Occidental’s proposed oil project. The controversy dates back to April 1992, when a consortium led by Oxy bought exploration rights to a large slice of acreage in northeast Colombia called the Samore block that overlaps with part of the U’wa reservation, as well as ancestral territories also claimed by the tribe. After three-way talks between the company, the Colombian government and the tribe broke down, the U’wa vowed to commit mass suicide if Occidental didn’t back off. This threat was not taken lightly — according to tribal lore, a large portion of the U’wa walked off a cliff en masse centuries ago rather than submit to the conquering Spaniards. Occidental has yet to drill a single well, though an environmental permit is now pending on the first site.
U’wa territory contains large expanses of virtually untouched land, including lush, bio-diverse jungles and high-elevation forests enshrouded year-round by clouds. Tribe members see themselves as guardians of the environment, and their reverence for nature resonated deeply with Freitas. "I remember him showing his photographs from the U’wa territory, and you could feel the physical zeal of his excitement," says Leslie Wirpsa, who spent 10 years in Colombia herself as a journalist and became romantically involved with Freitas in the fall of 1997, remaining a close friend until his death. "I can imagine what he was like in the territories. Here’s this profoundly exquisite ecosystem with a people that had been able to sustain it."
In June of 1997, upon returning from the first of five trips to Colombia and the U’wa lands, Freitas devoted himself completely to the fight against Occidental’s oil project. He quickly formed a coalition called the U’wa Defense Project (later renamed the U’wa Defense Working Group) that brought together 14 U.S.-based environmental organizations. His mother’s home, where he was living, actually became the de facto headquarters for the international campaign until he was hired in January 1998 by Project Underground, a Bay Area environmental and human-rights group, to compile a report on the U’wa-Occidental standoff.
"It wasn’t evident, the intensity, and how much he was doing," says Julie Freitas. "All I knew was that he was in that room forever on the computer." The extent of her son’s involvement became clear when she woke up one morning to find the leader of the U’wa tribe in her living room. "In the morning I let the dog out, and she was licking Roberto, who was sleeping on my childbirth mats on the floor."
To Freitas, the U’wa-Oxy battle was a classic example of a multinational company pursuing profits at the expense of the local population and environment. Oil drilling on or near U’wa lands, he believed, would bring a chain reaction of violence, ecological disaster and social disintegration. Leftist guerrillas, who have launched hundreds of attacks on Occidental’s Cano Limon pipeline in a neighboring province, would target the new facility. A similar pattern of huge oil spills and military reprisals would ensue. Meanwhile, the project would wreak havoc on the traditional U’wa social structure, dividing tribe members. The ultimate result, he warned, would be the destruction of another indigenous culture.
Not surprisingly, Occidental has consistently rejected the fundamental arguments put forth by the U’wa Defense Working Group. "The issues there [in Colombia] are much more complex than the activists have made them out to be," says Larry Meriage, a vice president in Oxy’s oil-and-gas division and the company’s point man on the Samore proj-ect. Specifically, Meriage says Occidental, the government and the U’wa are engaged in substantial negotiations over legitimate issues involving rights and jurisdiction. "This isn’t David and Goliath, a big international oil company threatening indigenous people."
Meriage acknowledges that the U’wa have valid concerns. But he draws a sharp distinction between the U’wa in Colombia, on the one hand, and their allies in the States. "You cannot assume that the interests of the [U.S.] activist community parallel that of the indigenous community," cautions Meriage.