Big oil and mining threaten the Wayuu people of La Guajira

People | Communities

By Isabel Rowbotham, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Published November 11th, 2021

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.

The ‘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.

A Wayuu girl wearing traditional clothing at Rancheria. Many families have been displaced due to oil and coal mining exploration and extraction activities in La Guajira | Policía Nacional de los Colombianos / Flickr

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 large 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, which 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 greatly affected their safety and livelihoods.

In La Guajira water is scarce and the land is a desert, making farming difficult. The main river, Rancheria, was privatised and water is funneled to El Cerrejon coal mine. Now, many have to dig their own wells and walk hours in the sun to collect water. | EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid / Flickr

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 as some have easier access crossing between borders. Initially, local governments promised that with the advent of big oil and mining companies, progress and development would soon follow. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

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 they did not arrive peacefully. Two of these were British Petroleum (BP) and the American multinational Chevron. In 2006, BP was forced to pay £3 million in a lawsuit, since they were found responsible for using violent tactics against Colombian farmers when building a major oil pipeline on their lands back in 1995.

‘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.

The Wayuu community protests further exploration and extraction of oil in their land. | Sandra Guerrero / El Heraldo

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 given a license for exploration in 2015, highlighting a lack of regard from local authorities to include indigeous members in discussions and negotiations.

In turn, these industries brought about further displacement of approximately tens of thousands indigenous communities 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.

The Cerrejon mine in La Guajira covers over three municipalities Albania, Barrancas and Hatonuevo. | Justin Dupre-Harbord (2011) / Cerrejon Sustainability Report

Mining in La Guajira

The mine of El Cerrejon 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. The Cerrejon 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 the Cerrejon mine also cuts across and disrupts the land long used for farming by afro-Wayuu communities. Previously, the Wayuu had autonomy of 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 Cerrejon railway transports coal from the coal mine. The land previously used for hunting and farming has become contaminated by coal residue in the air. |

The Cerrejon project has caused problems and false promises from the very start. The companies backing the Cerrejon 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. Their vegetation is continuously contaminated by the coal residues, and their children suffer from respiratory illnesses as well.

‘Agriculture in La Guajira went from representing 60% of Colombia's GDP in the 1960s, to less than 5% in 2010.’

Another consequence of mining operations was the diversion of the Bruno Stream, a crucial water source, 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 and thus no longer a resource that could be accessed equally by the public.

Apart from the contamination of the water, this exacerbated water scarcity towards communities already vulnerable to climate change. Droughts are now getting longer and longer, and without a water source farming is impossible. Whilst the Cerrejon uses 34 million litres of water everyday, the land surrounding it is a desert.

Wayuu children in Colombia struggle to find clean drinking water. One of the last sources for the community living near El Cerrejon coal mine is the Bruno stream. | EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid / Flickr

The indigenous and local communities near the Cerrejon 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 Cerrejon is the largest open coal mine in Latin America yet one of the poorest provinces in Colombia. The Cerrejon extracts about one hundred tons of coal a day and uses 34 million litres of water everyday. | Tanenhaus / Flickr

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.

‘98% of what Cerrejón yields is exported with only 10% of total sales remaining as profit for the state.’

Right now, these mining companies continue to make huge revenues, and most of Cerrejon's coal is shipped to Europe and the United States. Despite the suffering and damage towards Wayuu communities, the mine will likely continue to extract 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.

Most recently, reports have been published showing the displacement of families from afro-communities throughout 2016, in the Roche, Barrancas municipality due to mining activities. 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.

Many who lived in the village of Roche were displaced from their homes by force, their houses destroyed to accommodate the coal mine. | Indepaz

‘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

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