The U’wa Nation has received an admissibility report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights allowing its case against Colombia to move forward, recognizing that the indigenous group can seek the Commission’s help in defending its traditional territory. Although the U’wa have successfully defeated multiple oil and gas projects in the nearly two decades since they first filed their complaint with the Commission, the report recognizes that winning these battles does not end the overall complaint with the Colombian government, which does not fully recognize the U’wa people’s rights to their territory.

In a statement released today, The U’wa organization Asou’wa  said: “Our U’wa Nation has been heard by the natural law, our ancestors and gods that guide and govern our thinking to safeguard, protect and care for our mother earth; While there are U’wa people, we will continue resisting in defense of our ancient rights.” EarthRights International (ERI) has been supporting Aura Tegria Cristancho, an U’wa lawyer who has been working on the case since 2013 from its offices in Lima, Peru, and Washington, DC.

Asou’wa, supported by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia and the Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and Their Environment, first filed their complaint with the Commission in 1997. At the time, US-based Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) was threatening to drill for oil in their lands. The U’wa, supported by a global campaign against Oxy led by groups such as Amazon Watch and the Rainforest Action Network, secured Oxy’s withdrawal in 2001. More recently, Colombia’s Ecopetrol tried to move forward with a gas project on U’wa land, but pulled out earlier this year.  However, U’wa’s title over their ancestral lands have not been yet recognized.

The Commission’s decision comes after the U’wa and their supporters made it clear that, despite these victories, the root of the problem is the government’s lack of recognition and protection of the indigenous group’s ancestral territory.

“With this decision, the Commission recognized that even though Oxy and Ecopetrol pulled out, the U’wa remain threatened by the failure to fully protect their homeland,” said Camila Mariño, a Colombian lawyer and legal fellow with EarthRights International. “We are proud to stand with the U’wa.”

In the decision, dated July 22 but only released yesterday, the Commission formally accepts the U’wa petition as “admissible.” According to the Commission’s website, only twelve cases have been accepted as admissible so far this year. Following this decision, the case will move to the “merits” stage, in which the Commission will rule on the rights violations at issue.