Colombia’s Wayuu: Still Holding on at the Top of the Continent

Wayuu children at Playa del Pilón de Azúcar, Cabo de la Vela, Colombia (Photo by Ken Kelley)

by Ken Kelley

Sitting for hours in the market of Uribia in the Colombian department of La Guajira, watching indigenous Wayuu women in long flowing dresses selling smuggled gasoline and other Venezuelan wares, I started to wonder if I would ever reach the tiny fishing village of Cabo de la Vela on the Guajira Peninsula.

I kept getting conflicting stories as to whether the truck for Cabo had already left and whether there would be another that day. I was almost ready to backtrack to the city of Riohacha when two more travelers appeared, followed by the truck, into which were then loaded all kinds of goods plus myself and the other passengers. We set off.

Located on the northernmost tip of South America, the arid Guajira Peninsula straddles the border of Venezuela and Colombia. Until recently, it was rarely visited by outsiders, due in part to its Wild West reputation as a hub for trafficking in humans, drugs, and other items, and as the home of the strong-willed Wayuu, who were never subjugated by the Spanish and who have lived on their own terms in the La Guajira desert for centuries.

Wayuu society is based on matrilineal clans, whose semi-nomadic lifestyle has traditionally revolved around hunting, fishing, and animal herding. Numbering about 150,000 in Colombia and twice that in Venezuela, the Wayuu are the largest indigenous group in both countries.

The road north from Uribia, running parallel to the railroad for the Cerrejón coal mine, was bumpy and dusty. It was only when we turned to cross the desert to the coast that the spectacular landscape of the upper Guajira became apparent. Passing small settlements, or rancherías, made up of traditional huts of mud and cactus, we offloaded supplies, and at one a woman brought us a cup of chicha for helping unload.

At sunset we finally arrived in Cabo de la Vela, known by the Wayuu as Jepirra, a sacred place where deceased souls go before entering the afterlife.  A government program has assisted the Wayuu’s entrance into the hospitality business, although most accommodations are basic, with bucket showers, while generators provide a few hours of electricity at night.

Part of the splendor of the upper Guajira is the striking contrast of the desert meeting the Caribbean Sea, where the most beautiful beaches in Colombia are virtually deserted. Falling asleep in the shade of some rocks one afternoon, I awoke to three Wayuu children cheerfully practicing their few words of Spanish with me: “Moneda! Galletas!” (Money! Biscuits!)

I left Cabo at 4 o’clock one morning and asked the man collecting passengers his thoughts on Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. He liked him, but had higher praise for Santos’ predecessor, the infamous Álvaro Uribe, who he said had contributed to development in the town by personally staying there and by procuring government funds to develop ecotourism.

Far less optimistic scenarios have of course also been wrought vis-à-vis the indigenous and other minorities, not only by Uribe but also by previous administrations. Under the guise of promoting economic development in the early 1980s, for example, the Colombian government declared a huge swath of the Guajira as untitled land in order to develop the aforementioned Cerrejón coal mine. Lacking a title to their spiritually significant ancestral lands, many Wayuu were forced to abandon homes and grazing pastures.

Construction of the railroad to carry coal from Cerrejón north to Puerto Bolívar cut through the heart of Wayuu territory, further disrupting their pastoral lifestyle. Clans in that former fishing village were forced out to make room for a private port built solely to export coal to European and North American power plants.

Blasting and excavation of the open pit mine meanwhile caused rivers and wells to dry up, and the remaining water supplies were contaminated by coal dust, which also destroyed grazing land for the Wayuu’s goats and sheep and is blamed for a host of health problems in local residents.

Cerrejón, now run by three multinational mining giants—BHP Billiton, Anglo American, and Xstrata—has grown to be the largest open pit coal mine in the world, 20 miles long and five miles wide. The mine’s expansion has displaced more Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities. While some were compensated, others who resisted were forcibly driven from their land by police and military. Across the border in Venezuela, multinational companies mining coal in the Perijá mountains have met with stiff resistance from the Wayuu and other indigenous groups, who have endured the same pollution and health complications.

Coal is not the only energy source impacting the Wayuu. The discovery of natural gas resulted in the opening of the TransCaribe pipeline in 2007, which crosses over 62 Wayuu settlements and pasture lands as it carries gas from La Guajira to Venezuelan refineries.

The Wayuu have also suffered abuses from rightwing paramilitary groups, such as in the massacre in 2004 in Bahía Portete that killed 12 people and forced 300 villagers to flee by foot to Venezuela. Though supposedly demobilized under the Uribe administration, many “paras” simply regrouped under new names and resumed criminal activity, while the continuing revelation of rampant paramilitary ties to pro-Uribe lawmakers, officials, and Uribe family members has been dubbed the “parapolitics” scandal.

The most active paramilitary outfit in La Guajira is the Águilas Negras, or the Black Eagles. In addition to drug smuggling, the group has sought to assume control over the lucrative trade in gasoline and products from Venezuela that has traditionally been managed by the Wayuu, who are able to travel freely between the two countries and to bring goods into Colombia almost duty free.

Besides legal imports, smuggled goods are sold at roadside stands throughout La Guajira. The Black Eagles extort money from the Wayuu cooperatives that bring gasoline into Colombia, as well as from those who sell it. Several Wayuu shop owners in Riohacha who refused to pay the “tax” have been killed.

Activists who have led the struggle for Wayuu rights have also been targeted. In early 2010, three leaders of the Force of Wayuu Women Organization fled to Venezuela, citing harassment from the Colombian military and death threats from paramilitaries (which often function in conjunction with the army). In August, Wayuu political leader Luis Alfredo Socarrás Pimienta was killed in Riohacha, and leaflets left nearby threatened more indigenous leaders.

For 500 years, the Wayuu people have resisted all who have come to take their land or resources, from Spanish settlers in search of pearls to English pirates looking for treasure. The discovery of coal, oil, and gas, however, has succeeded in altering the equation, and—with government backing—rapacious multinational energy companies now threaten not only La Guajira but the culture and way of life of the Wayuu.

Ken Kelley is a marine biologist who presently fishes for bay scallops in Nantucket, Massachusetts.

One thought on “Colombia’s Wayuu: Still Holding on at the Top of the Continent”

  1. Many thanks for this wounderful piece. I was born in that area and though I am a Alijuna, I do have some Wayuu blood in the family.

    I need to clarify a couple of things, as someone who work as a journalists in that region for several years.

    “Across the border in Venezuela, multinational companies mining coal in the Perijá mountains have met with stiff resistance from the Wayuu and other indigenous groups, who have endured the same pollution and health complications”.

    – Actually the people resisting there are the Bari and Yukpas not the Wayuus.

    Secondly, the FARC and the ELN have been as bad as the paramilitary in harrasing and killing the indigenous people. I remember covering the story of how the ELN colluded with Occidental Petroleum to kill human rights activists in Colombia.

    This has to be point out, as both parts are equally bad in brining violance and death to the people of Colombia and Venezuela.

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