The Wayúu Indigenous Community in Colombia and Venezuela Is Dying of Thirst
After many years of exclusion and poverty, the Wayúu community in Colombia and Venezuela has been fighting for their voices to be heard.
The people of this community, located on the desert peninsula of La Guajira at the northern tip of Colombia and the territory shared with Venezuela, is faced with a combination of hunger, malnutrition, and thirst. The main reason? The river that runs through the region was dammed and its water privatized for surface coal mining and industrial scale agriculture.
Children are especially vulnerable to this deadly situation. The community filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in an effort to force the Colombian government to free up the flow of water. Their petition shines a light once again on a subject that has appeared in the news on and off since mid-2014. Defenders of the community have made many calls for humanitarian assistance programs, grants and projects to help these indigenous people, but few have become reality.
The Wayúu are the largest indigenous group of Venezuela and Colombia. They represent about 11% of the population of the Venezuelan Zulia state and close to 45% of the department of La Guajira.
Writing for Canarias-Semanal.org website, Juan Andrés Pérez Rodríguez argued that mainstream media has not paid enough attention to the urgent issues of this community:
“As the corporate media have their well-defined and targeted information priorities (especially against Cuba, Venezuela and other countries that do not align with the West), you will not know that the indigenous nation Wayúu, the largest of Colombia, is dying of hunger and thirst because the mother river of the region has been laid with a dam and its water privatized for the agricultural industry and the exploitation of the coal mine Cielo Abierto, the largest in the world. For the same reason, you surely will ignore the complaint that this community has filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as part of Organization of American States, headquartered in Washington, for the violation of their fundamental vital rights.”
The post ends with the trailer of a documentary produced by Colombian journalist Gonzalo Guillén, entitled The River That They Stole. The film, which the indigenous community presented as legal evidence in that complaint, paints a disturbing piccture of the situation in the region using testimonies from both victims and perpetrators.
Some media outlets have recently taken up the issue, such as El Tiempo, which published a text written by María del Pilar Camargo explaining the grave situation faced by the children living in La Guajira. The columnist highlighted something even more serious: not all children are recorded; which means that the figures may be higher:
“In 2012, 43 indigenous children died per 100,000 children under age 5 in the country. This figure could be much higher,” the La Guajira Unicef Colombia Wayúu leader responded.
“There are many children who die, but in the mountain. They are buried and are not reported to the hospital,” she said.
The problem of under-reporting is a signal, she said. “The percentage of the indigenous population is 5.4%, which is not much, but it adds to the sum of the majority of deaths of children in this country. And there are many child deaths that go unrecorded. I am almost certain that in La Gaujira there are many more deaths than those registered in the statistics and I say this from the experience we have had on a project, in which, for the indigenous Wayúu, the child has no value until they turn a certain age, because the child could possibly die, so in their social values they have to wait until they grow and once they grow they are made part of the family.”
In alternative online newspaper Las 2 Orillas, Diana López Zuleta explained the community’s complaint in further detail:
“According to the judicial writing, in addition to requesting the immediate opening of the dam’s floodgates so that the water can reach the indigenous community as soon as possible, they ask for an immediate suspension order of water taken from La Guajira that (the mine) Cerrejón obtains from other public sources other than from the river, mainly underground, until a suitable technical and impartial evaluation can determine if after successfully supplying the people of the region, there is surplus water to be allocated to large-scale agriculture and exploitation of the Cerrejón mines.”
On Twitter, users have lent their support to a #SOSLaGuajira campaign started by Colombia Digna, (@colodigna). UNICEF also started a campaign, #DeseoQueAyuda (I want to help) in order to raise funds for the cause.