The Wayuu people of the La Guajira region in Colombia and Venezuela, once defied colonialism in the past, now have their livelihoods and lands threatened by big oil and mining companies. The looming American, European and Australian
multinationals have a tight grip on the land and water resources of La Guajira.
‘Wayuu’, or ‘person’, is a group of people that have described themselves as the nation which has defied colonialism.
The Wayuu are a South American indigenous community that live in La Guajira, Colombia, near the Caribbean sea, as well as on Venezuelan land near the Colombian border. The land of the Wayuu, the Guajira Peninsula, is flat and arid, making
agricultural means of living challenging.
The Wayuu form 56 matrilineal clans, with the grandmother—the Piaachi—as the authority figure. Traditions are passed down generations orally in Wayuuaniki, but most Wayuu speak Spanish, the official languages of Colombia and
Venezuela, as well. Traditionally, families live near water, where men fish and shepherd, whilst women weave baskets. Despite these traditional roles, many Wayuu men now also work in the oil and mining industry.
The history of the Wayuu
The Wayuu are of Arawak descent, a group of indigenous peoples who had been moving around the Amazon, before they settled in the La Guajira region around 150 A.C. After the Spanish colonisation of much of South America, their history
was full of prejudice, violence and struggle, that continued into the 20th century and the development of the independent republics. After these events, the Wayuu found themselves settled in an area seen as strategic for oil and mining
activities, which have affected their safety and livelihoods.
The impact of the oil industry
In Venezuela, the Wayuu began feeling the pressure from the oil industry near the Maracaibo Lake during the 1940’s. During this time, they engaged in the smuggling of goods such as gasoline, gas and other commodities across the Colombian
border. This was made possible since indigenous people have easier access to crossing the borders. Initially, local governments promised that with the advent of big oil and mining companies, progress and development would soon follow.
was not the case.
‘The discovery of coal, oil, salt and gas has succeeded in altering the equation, and rapacious multinational energy companies now threaten not only La Guajira but also the culture and way of life of the Wayuu’ - Ken Kelly.
Life after the rise of oil extraction activities was never the same. In the 1980s, many more multinational oil companies arrived in the region and their intentions were not peaceful. Two of these were British Petroleum (BP) and the American
multinational Chevron. In 2006, BP was forced to pay three million pounds in a lawsuit, as they were found responsible for using violent tactics against Colombian farmers during the building of a major oil pipeline on their lands back in
In 2017, the Wayuu protested against the oil industry and their plans for carrying out exploration and extraction activities on their land without previous consultation. Nonetheless, Turkish Petroleum was granted a license for exploration,
highlighting a lack of inclusion by local authorities of indigeous members in discussions and negotiations regarding their land.
In turn, these industries brought about further displacement of approximately tens of thousands individuals from their ancestral lands. These activities were supported by the local government, oil companies, the World Bank,
International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Bush administration.
Mining in La Guajira has brought upon a crisis
The mine of El Cerrejón in Las Barrancas, Colombia, is one of the biggest coal mines in Latin America. Controlling this mine since the 1970s are Anglo-American, Australian conglomerates BHP and Swiss-owned Glencore. El Cerrejón has been
one of the most destructive mines to the environment, as well as the lives of indigneous communities and Colombians.
The construction of the train operating from El Cerrejón mine cuts across and disrupts the land long used for farming by afro-Wayuu communities. Previously, the Wayuu had the autonomy over their own land, however, this all changed after
mining started in the 1970s, and with military support soon authorities restricted access to areas traditionally used for hunting and fishing.
El Cerrejón project was a false promises from the very start. The companies backing El Cerrejón had also made dealings with INTERCOR (International Colombia Resources Corporation Intercor)—at the time Exxon—which
favored the mining companies and did not invest back into the local area and communities.
In 2001, one of these mining companies also destroyed the afro-Colombian village of Tabaco. The company demolished their homes and threatened nearby villages, plummeting these communities into further poverty.
‘Agriculture in La Guajira went from representing 60% of Colombia's GDP in the 1960s, to less than 5% in 2010.’
The mine owns the main water source
Another consequence of the mining operations was the diversion of the Bruno Stream, a crucial water source for the Wayuu and Afro communities, which caused irreparable damage to water from coal dust near Wayuu and Afro communities. The
water was diverted from the main river,
Rancheria, to serve an expansion in the coal extraction activities in 2017. Rancheria river itself was privatised by the mine many years before and thus no longer a resource that could be accessed equally by the public. Furthermore, the
vegetation surrounding the area is continuously contaminated by the coal residues and local children suffer from respiratory illnesses as well.
The water contamination has exacerbated the water crisis for communities already vulnerable to climate change. Droughts are now getting longer, and without an accessible water source, farming is impossible. Whilst El
Cerrejón uses 34 million litres of water everyday, the land surrounding the mine is a desert.
The indigenous and local communities near El Cerrejón mine protested this diversion by calling ‘Free the Bruno stream, the Wayuu can live without coal, but not without water!’
The campaign to free the Bruno Stream called for the Colombian government to interfere, as the Cerrejon violated the state constitution. In 2020 the Government announced for the stream to return to its natural course, the Rio Rancheria.
Although many wonder if they will go through with this promise.
The mine continues to displace communities
Despite this, many have been left with no choice but to work in the mines themselves. Therefore, most workers in the mine are indigenous people whose previous livelihoods have been lost—and their working conditions are precarious. They are
subject to drilling activities in the dry and scorching sun, daily explosions (which cause the water to sink deep into the ground) and receive a low rations of water.
Journalist and photographer, Nicolo Filippo Rosso, observed these communities for months and found many have to walk for several hours through the desert to collect drinking water. Some have created wells, others need to dig deep to find
water, often too contaminated to consume. The main problem is that main water sources are controlled and funneled to the mine.
‘The main problem is that main water sources are controlled and funnelled to the mine.’
Right now, these mining companies continue to make huge revenues, and most of El Cerrejón's coal is shipped to Europe and the United States. Despite the suffering and damage towards Wayuu communities, the mine will likely continue to
coal until 2035. Especially after COVID-19, many workers fear for their futures—which at the moment are in the hands of these oil and mining giants.
The most recent reports have shown the displacement of families from afro-communities throughout 2016, in the Roche village due to mining activities. The company representatives continue to pressure families who
have lived in this area their entire lives to sell their land and leave, despite their wishes to remain.
‘Disregarding the rights of the communities signifies an impact on the culture and an undervaluation of the spiritual relationship of the Wayuu community... a relationship far more profound than distance.’
Featured Image: Sebastian Coronado Espitia | Youtube / Policia Nacional de los Colombianos | Flickr / Publicaciones Semana
Villalba Hernández J. (2008) Wayúu resistencia histórica a la violencia, Historia Caribe. Universidad del Atlántico Barranquilla, Colombia. Vol. 13, pp. 45-64 Available at: https://www.redalyc.org/pdf/937/93751303.pdf [Accessed October 18th 2021]