The struggle for access to safe and sufficient water for drinking and irrigation defines life for the indigenous Wayuu of La Guajira, Colombia’s northernmost department.
Activists have described the Wayuu as being in the throes of a humanitarian crisis, with Wayuu children suffering high rates of malnutrition and death as a result of water and food scarcity.
The Wayuu blame their thirst mainly on the Cerrejón coal mine, which they say drains water from the local river and groundwater and pollutes what’s left. A dam built by the government to provide water in times of drought has only made matters worse, they say.
However, Cerrejón disputes the notion that it is seriously affecting the tribe, while the government defends decisions that have compromised the Wayuu’s water access.
LA GUAJIRA, Colombia — “It was beautiful here,” said Mariella. “There were crops, flowers, animals. There was life.”
Mariella is an indigenous Wayuu from the community of Wasimo in the dusty desert of Colombia’s northernmost department of La Guajira. She lives in a one-bedroom shack with her husband and five children, and on this day was seeking respite from the blistering midday heat inside a rickety wooden shelter in the village’s open communal area. Outside, a few goats chewed on scrub.
“Now, there is nothing. We can barely survive. The river is dirty, and it is making us sick,” she said.
The Wasimo community is spread across 15 hectares (37 acres) of sparse and barren land. Like many communities in La Guajira, Wasimo struggles to be self-sufficient — something that never used to be an issue, Mariella said. Instead of being able to grow their own crops, people now have to buy food, not to mention water, with the small amount of money the men make doing odd jobs in the nearby city of Riohacha.
Mariella, who asked that her surname not be used for fear of reprisals, bouncedher 3-year-old daughter on her knee as she described how her children regularly fall ill with diarrhea and stomach pains and develop welts on their skin. “We know it is when they have been playing in the river, or trying to drink from it. I cannot even keep my children healthy, and that is a terrible, terrible feeling,” she said.
The river, a tributary of the Río Ranchería, which winds its way through La Guajira, is now little more than a stream. It can’t deliver the water the tribe needs to grow crops and keep cattle. Mariella and her husband said they noticed the river starting to show signs of contamination after operations began at the enormous Cerrejón open-pit coal mine in 1985.
It’s a common story. Elio Uriana is head of Santa Rita Dos, another Wayuu tribe just a few miles from the Wasimo, with 45 families. The Wayuu there used to be able to grow crops with basic irrigation systems fed by well water. But in recent decades, Uriana said, they’ve had to dig deeper and deeper to find water.
“Water is our number one problem,” he said. “It is what keeps me awake at night. We struggle to grow yucca, beans, fruit.”
The Wayuu of Santa Rita Dos are still mostly self-sufficient, thanks to efficient farming and water-use practices taught to them via projects financed by the World Bank. Uriana said he was lucky enough to be able to sell surplus food to other Wayuu communities.
“The last five years have been hard,” he told Mongabay. “We had a drought, and there was no rain. No rain at all from 2011 to 2015. I don’t know how we survived.”
The struggle for access to safe and sufficient water for drinking and irrigation defines life for the Wayuu of La Guajira, whose children suffer higher rates of malnutrition and mortality than their non-indigenous counterparts. The Wayuu blame their thirst mainly on the mine, which they say drains water from the river and groundwater they depend on and pollutes what’s left. A dam built by the government to provide water in times of drought has only made matters worse, they say. However, Cerrejón disputes the notion that it is seriously affecting the tribe, while the government defends decisions that have compromised the Wayuu’s water access.
A “humanitarian crisis”
Wayuus are Colombia’s largest indigenous group. According to a government website they make up over one-third of La Guajira’s population, currently projected at 1 million people.The group has lived in the area for at least 3,000 years. Nature, and particularly water, plays an integral role in Wayuu culture.
“One of their main deities is Mareiwa, goddess of the rains and water and creator of life,”said Otto Vergara, a Colombian anthropologist who has studied the tribes for more than 20 years. Vergara worked for Cerrejón’s public relations department during the 1980s and is now an advisor to the mine’s foundation for indigenous issues.
“For the Wayuu, a lack of water has more implications than just going thirsty,” he said. “Water is at the very core of their life, it runs through their veins.”
Since 2011, the region has been plagued by a drought, intensifying the tribe’s problems. In a 2017 report to the United Nations, the New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch described the Wayuu as being in the throes of a “humanitarian crisis … caused by extremely limited access to food and water compounded with high levels of poverty and equally limited access to basic services.”
The report noted high death rates from malnutrition among the La Guajira Wayuu, with children being disproportionately affected. It cited government figures indicating that more than 85 percent of child malnutrition deaths in the province between 2014 and 2016 were of indigenous children, despite Wayuus only making up 38 percent of the province’s population
“Corruption and mismanagement plays a significant role in the limited public services offered in the province, including on water,” the Human Rights Watch report noted.
For their part, the Wayuu pin much of the blame for their troubles on Cerrejón. The mine, whose slogan is “responsible mining,” is Latin America’s biggest open-pit coal mine, at 690 square kilometers (270 square miles). It is co-owned by local subsidiaries of the Swiss company Glencore, the British-Australian company BHP Billiton, and the British-South African company Anglo American.
The operators have a contract allowing them to continue mining until 2034. Cerrejón currently produces around 32 million metric tons of coal a year, and, according to a company spokesperson, uses potable water from the Río Rancheria and its aquifer at a rate of 2.7 million liters (713,000 gallons) per day. By contrast, the average person in La Guajira has access to 0.7 liters (less than one-fifth of a gallon) of water a day, untreated, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
The Río Ranchería used to provide six of La Guajira’s 15 municipalities with water. Then in 2011 the government built a dam, El Cercado, across it, cutting off the municipalities’ access to the river. At the time, the government promised to supply nine municipalities with water from the dam via aqueducts, but it never built them. Today, the dam supplies rice and palm crops owned by private companies, but no individual or community can draw water from it. However, a number of researchers including environmental economist Mario Alejandro Pérez of the University of Valle in Cali insist the dam is supplying Cerrejón — a claim both the government and the mining company strongly refute.
As a result of the mine, the dam and the drought, many Wayuu tribes say they have been left with dry wells and forced to dig deeper into the ground to find water, or simply buy it.
“In the dry seasons, we used to be able to find water in the riverbed, if we dug 50 feet [15 meters], and so we could still grow crops,” Uriana said. “But that doesn’t happen anymore because Cerrejón is draining the subterranean water. We’d have to dig 300 or 400 feet [90 or 120 meters] to find it now. Even if we do find it, it’s not safe to drink. It needs to be treated and we don’t have the facilities. Some communities just have to drink the water they find because there is no other option.”
He added that because Santa Rita Dos community members make traditional Wayuu bags and other crafts to sell in town, they can afford to buy water — for now. “It isn’t cheap and it isn’t sustainable,” he said. “We have to pay about 120,000 pesos [around $42] for enough water for a week. That’s a lot of money for us.”
Numerous Wayuu communities complain they have been granted little support from government and local authorities in their quest to gain access to clean water. Repeated attempts to hold community meetings with authorities, to raise awareness of the situation and attract the national government’s attention have failed.
In December 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged the Colombian government to take immediate measures to address the “emergency” of child malnutrition and water access in La Guajira. Following the warning, the supreme court, in the capital Bogotá, ordered the president to take action to improve the Wayuu’s access to clean water, but it went unheeded.
Jazmin Romero Epiayu, a Wayuu activist from the city of Riohacha, has been campaigning about the tribes’ plight for years. “When we were kids, we used to play in the river, we talked with it, we had an intimate relationship with it and it gave us life and sustenance in return,” she said. “Now, it has been contaminated by Cerrejón, and our culture, our spiritual connection with nature and Mother Earth has been destroyed.”
The mine and the dam
Inés Elvira Andrade, head of social standards and corporate responsibility at Cerrejón, denied that the mine’s water consumption limits what’s available to the Wayuu. She said the mine draws less than 10 percent of the water it uses from the Río Ranchería and its aquifer, for which it pays an annual fee of about $20,000 to La Guajira’s environmental agency, Corpoguajira. The rest, roughly 11 billion liters (2.9 billion gallons) per year, she said comes from “rainwater on the mining areas and depressurization of coal beds” — poor-quality water that the mine uses just for dust control on roads.
Andrade also insisted the mine does not use any water from El Cercado dam, which she blamed for the Wayuu’s lack of water. “It is widely known that this public project has not been completed or has fulfilled the objective of providing water to nine local aqueducts due to unfinished works and infrastructure,” she said.
As for charges that the mine has contaminated the Río Ranchería, Andrade flatly denied them. “Cerrejón does not dump wastewater into the Ranchería River. Cerrejón has a robust Environmental Management Plan that complies with Colombian legislation and aligns with international standards for environmental management,” she said.
The mine has a monthly water-quality monitoring program for the river and its tributaries, which Andrade said is approved by the environment ministry and Corpoguajira. She added that the latter periodically does its own sampling within the area Cerrejón monitors.
“No results have been found indicating effects on the quality of water from the river that place the survival of the aquatic flora and fauna at risk, nor effects on the health of the communities located downstream from the mining operations,” Andrade said.
Orlando Guerrero, a spokesman for the government’s housing department, said the government carried out a hydraulic study on the Río Ranchería basin before the construction of El Cercado dam, but had not done any studies to determine whether the river water is contaminated.
Guerrero said the government considered supplying indigenous communities with water from the river, but prioritized serving urban areas, which it regards as the river’s “main purpose.” He added that “nobody” has access to water trapped by the dam, “least of all Cerrejón.”
Frustrated, malnourished, forgotten
Cerrejón is perhaps a scapegoat, said Vergara, the anthropologist and Cerrejón employee, for communities that are frustrated, malnourished and forgotten by the government.
“Many indigenous people think Cerrejón should look out for them. They expect to receive handouts from the mine, even if they weren’t displaced by it. It is very easy to blame the company for all the problems in La Guajira.”
Those problems go beyond the contentious mine and dam to the governance of the region, according to many Wayuu and outsiders alike. “These policies — the kind of policies that resulted in the construction of the dam — have never worked for La Guajira,” Epiayu said. “They are privatization policies that harm our community. It’s been the same story for years; the same people keep bringing disasters and all the corrupt people hold the power.”
Government corruption has plagued the department for decades. In 2013, for instance, then-governor Francisco “Kiko” Gómez was arrested over ties to narcotraffickers, corruption and irregularities in work contracts. He was later charged for the murder of three people, including one carried out during his term.
“The main problem of the region is not the drought but the corruption, because royalties have been stolen for many years and the public works needed to face natural events that are foreseeable were not carried out,” the government’s inspector general, Alejandro Ordóñez, who looks into accusations of corruption and mismanagement, was quoted as saying in The Guardian.
Indeed, millions have been spent attempting to resolve the region’s water problems, but the reality on the ground for the majority of Wayuu tribes seems little changed. The World Bank spent $90 million on an 11-year “Water and Sanitation Infrastructure and Service Project” that ended in April 2018. And Cerrejón said it has invested $19.6 million to improve water access for select Wayuu communities that were displaced or otherwise affected by the 170-kilometer (106-mile) train line that runs through La Guajira, delivering coal to the port of Puerto Bolivar.
“We have aided 274 Wayuu tribes out 325 and cannot be expected to act as a replacement for the government and help every tribe,” said Janenth Daza, head of the Cerrejón Foundation, the mine’s charity arm. (It is unclear how many Wayuu tribes actually exist.)
Indeed, a visit to a tribe in Albania, the municipality the mine is located in, revealed a community living with ample water, crops and food. The community is called Cerrejón 2, and Cerrejón officials refused to disclose its former Wayuu name. The company permitted Mongabay to visit the community, but only with an escort of Cerrejón representatives who tightly policed conversation with the tribe’s leaders and steered the subject to agricultural programs Cerrejón had established in the community.
“We now have enough food to eat as we have water to grow crops,” said the community’s leader, Neris Uriana (no relation to Elio). “And it is thanks to Cerrejón’s support that we do. Otherwise we would still be struggling to find water.”
Back in the parched Wayuu community of Santa Rita Dos, Elio Uriana fell silent for a few moments when asked about the future of his tribe. Then, with a weary sigh, he said, “Our community is coming to an end. Without water, there is no other way.
“The government doesn’t care either,” he added. “They are both blind and deaf.”
Banner image: María Zapata, leader of the Wayuu community of Persepua, sits on her well. Image by Lucy Sherriff for Mongabay.
Lucy Sherriff is a freelance multimedia journalist based between Colombia and LA. She focuses on social and environmental justice reporting.
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