By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
This view is echoed by Theodore Macdonald, associate director of Harvard’s Program on Nonviolent Sanctions and Cultural Survival and co-author of a September ’97 Organization of American States–Harvard University report calling on Occidental to halt oil activity in the Samore block as a first step toward creating better conditions if and when there is any future resumption of oil-development activities. "I would say the primary concern of the indigenous actors is government recognition of land rights and rights to participation in decision making," comments Macdonald. "You can contrast those priorities with Proj ect Underground, which was looking primarily at Oxy as a U.S.-based company."
Leaders of the U’wa Defense Working Group, however, insist that they have been taking their cues from the U’wa and the tribe’s allies in Colombia. "I think everyone working on the case is concerned primarily about protecting the U’wa," states Martin Wagner, director of international programs for the San Francisco–based Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which is representing the U’wa before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
What no one disputes is that Colombia is a nation consumed by violence. According to a recent report produced by Human Rights Watch, at least 1,200 civilians were killed last year in massacres, the majority by paramilitary forces but many by leftist guerrillas. Among these were six human-rights workers, a figure that makes Colombia the most hazardous country in the hemisphere for such monitors.
Freitas, however, was not deterred by the danger. Indeed, unlike many Western indigenous-rights and environmental activists, he spent an extraordinary amount of time in the field. "The work he was doing down there was perfect for him," says Josh Gohlke, one of Freitas’ closest childhood friends. "It was very emblematic of the person he was. He was out there trying to physically correct the problem."
Freitas’ efforts, combined with those of his colleagues and indigenous-rights advocates in Colombia, seemed to be paying off. He worked with the U’wa to help them gain basic political organizing skills and build alliances with other communities. Here in the States, the U’wa Defense Working Group generated considerable attention for the U’wa cause through protests, media campaigns, and presentations at such high-profile institutions as Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government. In February 1998, Shell, one of Occidental’s partners in the Samore block deal, indicated that it would sell off its stake. Two months later, Roberto Cobaria received the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize, along with a $100,000 check. By May, Occidental had told the Colombian government that it would give up most of its exploration rights. (The matter has yet to be resolved, however, and the company continues to press its plans to drill in U’wa territory.)
Freitas’ repeated trips to Colombia exposed him to increasing risk. A second-degree black belt in hapkido and a former self-defense instructor, he thought he could navigate these dangers. Added to this was his belief in a kind of karmic safety net.
"Terry really believed that he was protected," explains Abby Reyes, Freitas’ girlfriend for the last eight months of his life. "You do good work and you get by. You do good work and the funds come through. You do good work and the angels have you."
Freitas was not careless about the risks of travel in Colombia. Before each trip, he would take extensive security precautions, contacting Colombian authorities and human-rights organizations as well as friends and colleagues. But Reyes — who herself spent two years working with an indigenous group in the Philippines and is now the director of a New York–based peer-support and mentoring group for young female activists called Women Working for Change — also recognized in Freitas a complex emotional motivation that propelled him on despite the potential peril.
"Part of that drive, I believe, came from the appeal of standing in the fire and finding love," she says. "You go to the U’wa community and you’re in what they call the heart of the world. You’re in a place, one of very few that are left, where traditional community life exists and thrives, where you have around you a belief system about the relationship between humans and the natural world that is actually in harmony and not one of competition and exploitation. At the same time you have an imminent threat externally imposed from the north of oil exploration, which is the antithesis of any kind of vision the U’wa have about what can sustain them in their land. And that juxtaposition of light and dark, Terry wanted to be in the heart of, and was. That’s what fed him."
Freitas and his two colleagues traveled to the U’wa reservation without incident, and spent two weeks there consulting with the tribe. On February 25, while heading in a Jeep back to Saravena, they were abducted by several armed men. The Americans had been accompanied by U’wa escorts, who were allowed to go and reported the kidnapping to local authorities.
When the news reached the States, friends and families of the three activists quickly formed a communications network to try to get information about the captors. Based on the accounts of the U’wa eyewitnesses, efforts were made to contact the FARC. But it was a slow, tortuous process.