The Cerrejón coal mine, owned by the U.K.-Swiss-Australian conglomerate of BHP, Glencore and Anglo-American broke ground in La Guajira in the 1980s and has since become the world’s 10th largest.

Cerrejón’s use of more than 16 million liters (4.2 million gallons) of water every day — taxing in a desert region already suffering from droughts — and the contamination from coal dust have contributed to the degradation of La Guajira’s environment and the indigenous population’s way of life.

More than 270,000 Wayuu live in La Guajira, organized in 23 clans. However, tracking their population as well as their deaths is nearly impossible. Due to the lack of an official census, most of the Wayuu communities don’t keep an official count of births or deaths. That means that, without official figures of deaths related to malnutrition and coal dust pollution, it is difficult for NGOs and journalists to draw international attention to the humanitarian crisis.

Members of the community stand at the grave of a 2-year-old who they said died of a fever. Wayuu consider death as important or more important than life. During funerals, Wayuu women cry and cover their faces with veils or towels. They say their tears accompany the soul of the dead to “Jepirra” or the afterworld. Image by Nicoló Filippo Rosso.

Wayuu activists and aid groups, however, blame the deaths of thousands of children, and the elderly as well, over the past decade to malnutrition and a lack of basic medical care.

The Wayuu say that increasingly longer droughts have meant that the streams feeding the aquifers and wells supplying water to the community have gotten drier than usual, making any kind of meaningful farming impossible.

Walking for weeks and months at a time in La Guajira’s desert, I learned that the community’s sources of water are rudimentary wells often located several hours’ walk away. Years of drought mean the Wayuu must dig deep to find water, and even then it is often undrinkable, causing many to fall ill.

An initial plan to build a dam, El Cercado, in 2011 brought hope in La Guajira, as it included provisions to service nine municipalities downriver. But the pipes that should have brought water to the region were never connected to anything, as a consequence of unchecked corruption by the local authorities. Instead, water from the Ranchería River, the Wayuu’s main source of water, was funneled to the mine and nearby farmers.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal is still vital today, providing 38% of the world’s electricity. Its cheap price makes it more competitive than renewable energies. Thus, the giants of coal push exploitation into new areas with the potential to guarantee huge incomes for them, even if the selling price is low.

Most of Cerrejón’s massive output is loaded onto ships and sent to power plants in Europe. Colombia exports more coal to Europe than to any other continent: 20% of its total exports in 2017 were represented by coal and went mainly to the European market, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity at MIT.

As Europe reconciles with the environmental cost of burning coal, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the humanitarian cost of mining it in Colombia. In 2017, the Italian parliament said the country will stop coal imports by 2025; other European countries have established similar measures, empowering the solar and wind energy sectors.

The operators of the Cerrejón coal mine say they are bringing much-needed jobs to an impoverished region and are committed to improving the lives of the Wayuu. However, Sintracarbon, the mine’s worker’s union, has a different perspective. The workers had prepared for a strike for the end of March. The operator had ordered most of its workers to take leave to prevent the spread of COVID-19, allowing only the operations that guarantee the extraction and the export of coal.

Although the workers intended to turn out for the strike, the obligation to maintain physical distancing measures as mandated  by the government prevented them from taking industrial action. The workers’ action has been postponed to June.

“Since December 2019 we’re filing petitions to the company to improve our conditions at work, but the mine seems likely to worsen them,” said Fredy Lozano Villareal, a member of Sintracarbon. “To face the fall of coal prices all around the world, the company wants to withdraw from the collective labor agreement, and they want us, the workers, to pay the price so they can save money.”

Since the mine began operating in 1986, the collective labor agreement between the company and the workers has set the standard of rights for workers that is reviewed and revised every two years. Now, as a measure to cushion the drop in the coal price, Cerrejón aims to pull back from some of the union’s achievements over more than 30 years of struggle. The company plans to start making the workers pay for meals that are currently free during work shifts; reduce the retirement pension from the current six months’ worth of pay; and charge the workers who live in faraway cities for transportation, which the company pays for at present.

“The money they’d save is still nothing compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars of income the company secures every year, but they want us to work for nothing now,” Villareal said. “They even want to retreat from per diem for medical visits.” La Guajira doesn’t have specialized hospitals, and pulmonary diseases are common among the workers, who need to constantly get health checks at clinics in Barranquilla or Bogotá.

The Wayuu’s strength relies on their traditional rites, their knowledge of medicinal plants, and their subsistence agriculture adapted to the seasons of rain and drought through a semi-nomadic way of life. Spiritual practices are pillars of the indigenous society. Their ancestral knowledge responds to the perturbations contributing to preserving people’s identity. Indigenous midwives and healers still play a fundamental role in their communities, by assisting pregnant mothers, newborns, and sick people, while maintaining the knowledge of traditional medicine. Their science depends on the medicinal plants of the desert, and as the desertification worsens, the natural remedies they rely on become harder to find.

One of the poorest regions of Colombia, this arid peninsula is today a unique and chaotic border with little to offer to migrants from neighboring Venezuela fleeing the socio-economic collapse there. La Guajira’s population suffers from a lack of jobs and the Colombian government’s abandonment. Smugglers operate in the open, even in front of military guards, and the Wayuu children shake down vehicles plying the illegal dirt roads that migrants use to enter Colombia: They jump onto the back of the trucks and refuse to get down until they are paid a few coins, candy, or plastic bags filled with water.

In the 2000s many Wayuu migrated to Venezuela, attracted by the economic growth that characterized the first mandate of then-President Hugo Chavez, and its guaranteed social policies. Since the migration crisis worsened in 2016, many migrants started to return to Colombia. At the border, the United Nations gives migrants primary medical attention and food in an attention center during the first month upon their arrival. However, international aid is scant compared to the magnitude of the crisis.

The migrants who don’t have money to reach a major city by bus end up living in informal settlements or the streets, with no guarantees of protection, jobs, education, or food security. The children are the most exposed to abuse, neglect, and victimization. Among the migrants, there are many pregnant women who fear giving birth in a hospital within the collapsed Venezuelan health system. Indigenous Wayuu women help with deliveries and healing sick children with traditional plant remedies. Their work is essential in the informal settlements of migrants, where access to health care is hard.

During recent weeks, the indigenous people of Colombia have also been confronting the threat of coronavirus. They have called for help from President Iván Duque, through their representatives in the ONIC (National Indigenous Organization of Colombia).

With scarce access to water and already weakened by the lack of food and medical attention, the Wayuu people of Colombia are unable to protect themselves, and indigenous community activists fear the spread of the virus could have disastrous consequences, because they can’t count on basic guarantees of water, food and health care.

While the Colombian government has established sanitary emergency measures throughout the nation, the isolation is preventing the Wayuu from their day-to-day labors in the towns and cities of La Guajira, where they go to sell handcrafts since their agriculture-based economy became impossible due to the lack of water. The geographical characteristic of the desert, the disrepair of the ways of communication and hospitals make the Wayuu population particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

To prevent contagion, Colombian schools have been closed since March 15. Although this is a necessary measure, it has left nearly 140,000 children without access to subsidized school meals in the municipalities of Maicao, Riohacha, Manaure and Uribia in La Guajira.**

The region and its population are facing the hardest challenges of our time, exposed to extreme poverty, thirst, environmental degradation, and one of the most epic migration flows in Latin American history.

The Cerrejón mine is a deadly resource conflict that threatens the survival of the Wayuu. The erosion of their society is urgent and underreported. The cheap fossil fuel, in the context of climate change and public health, affects those countries where the mineral is extracted as well those where it is burned to produce energy.

*The Washington D.C.-based Climate Reality Project on its website.

**Data from DANE (National Population and Housing Census, 2018)

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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