Colombian president Gustavo Petro has just declared a one-month economic, social, and environmental emergency in the country’s La Guajira region. By declaring the situation an emergency, President Petro, who spent one week in the region in order to expedite the paperwork and ensure the implementation of the emergency measures, was able to pass laws that include sorely needed investments in education, health, tourism, and the water supply in the region.
La Guajira is a vast desert region in the extreme northeast of Colombia. It’s one of the main sources of energy in Colombia, home to a multibillion dollar coal mining industry and a prime spot for new wind farms. La Guajira is also home to the largest indigenous reservation in the country, the Wayúu reservation.
For too long, the Colombian government has cleared the way for huge national and multinational energy companies to extract resources from the region without distributing anything to the Wayúu, who have faced severe neglect. A new initiative by President Petro aims to rectify that, devoting resources to the development of renewable energy in a way that more equitably redistributes wealth to the indigenous people who live on the land.
Plundering La Guajira.
Representing a fifth of the country’s indigenous population, Wayúu communities are spread out throughout the desert, with small clusters of homes known as rancherias representing different families and clans. The Wayúu are among the most marginalized of all communities in Colombia, and lack access to most basic services. About one-third of the Wayúu population live in poverty (with one-quarter in extreme poverty), while more than one in four Wayúu children under five suffer from malnutrition, with an infant dying every week in La Guajira.
La Guajira is the driest part of Colombia. The rainy season in La Guajira lasts only from September to October, barely enough to grow corn but in no way enough to meet the needs of the local communities in terms of drinking water. Apart from rudimentary rain collection devices, the only source for water for the communities deep in the heart of La Guajira Desert are wells. In many communities, water wells are basically just holes in the ground, some located beneath dried-out riverbeds. Problems of scarcity and salinization are common, and people must transport water to their homes often over great distances, the only mechanized transport within the desert being motorcycles.
Water is the most precious substance in La Guajira, and the scarcest. When water within the region becomes scarce, private water treatment plants in the towns and cities on the edge of the desert service the surrounding Wayúu communities. This treated water is expensive, and not all communities can afford to buy water or pay for its transportation. The trucks used to transport water from the cities to the communities located along the highway that stretches from the southern part of La Guajira all the way to the coast in the north, however, cannot enter deep into the desert communities as there are no adequate roads, and so these communities must survive on their own.
A lack of clean drinking water from underground water sources, due to increased temperatures and climate change, could in the future create a severe humanitarian crisis and drive whole communities from their ancestral lands (a lack of water has long been a major cause for displacement to urban centers). With projects designed to create and conserve water supply and delivery within the region for the use by indigenous communities, President Petro’s Pact for a Fair Energy Transition will be the first time in Colombian history that water for human consumption has been given priority over that used for crop irrigation or mining.
Since the Spanish conquest, Europeans and others have made fortunes extracting precious metals and minerals from La Guajira, all while local indigenous communities wallow in poverty. This long history of extractivism has generated extremely uneven development within the region, in which two radically different worlds coexist. In La Guajira, a single mine, El Cerrejón, has generated billions of dollars extracting and exporting coal for multinational corporations for decades while locals have had to subsist with the bare minimum of resources scraped from the surface of the desert.
Besides a few handouts, the local community receives little benefits from the Cerrejón coal mine, one of the largest open-air coal mines in the world, owned and operated by one of the world’s largest global resource companies. The Cerrejón mine was initially majority-owned and operated by ExxonMobil, which sold off its shares to Glencore in 2002 for a reported $600 million. Digging for coal at the Cerrejón began in 1984 (one million tons were shipped out that year) and is currently exporting thirty-two million tons annually.
The Cerrejón employs three thousand full-time workers, almost none from the Wayúu community. The company is equipped with a giant fleet of ground transport, including 250 giant trucks, many of which can transport 350 tons of coal each, and has its own private airport and landing strip.
It owns a private electric train of more than one hundred cars that transports coal almost one hundred miles between the Cerrejón mine in Lower Guajira to Puerto Bolivar, a private, gated port located on the north coast and from which the coal is shipped to the Europe (Colombia is Germany’s biggest supplier), Asia, and the United States.
The Cerrejón is the largest landowner in La Guajira, with giant parcels located throughout Wayúu territory. To build the Cerrejón coal mines, the port city, and the highway and railway that connect the two, hundreds of Wayúu families were run off their land, with the previous governments in Colombia legalizing these land grabs for the company.
To construct and operate the coal mines, more than fifty bodies of water, including the mighty Ranchería River, have either been diverted for their natural course by dams, appropriated for the sole use of the coal company, or destroyed by contamination. In large part, it is this theft and destruction of these water sources by the Cerrejón coal mine that has directly sunk the Wayúu communities in La Guajira into poverty and made life there so precarious, especially for infants, who suffer from the highest mortality rates in the country.
Not only has the Cerrejón mining company stolen tribal land and water, but it has also robbed the Wayúu communities of much of their view of the universe. The night sky in the La Guajira Desert is usually filled with stars, except to the northwest where the harsh lights coming from the mining company’s port city of Puerto Bolivar opaque whole constellations and replace the North Star with an artificial source of light, used to navigate within the dark desert.
The coal-supply railway lines divide La Guajira Desert from the coast, thus disrupting animal hunting paths and migrations. After long protests, the Wayúu community finally received compensation from the coal company for goats, horses, and human beings that were killed by the company’s nearly silent trains or giant trucks on the highway, but the communities’ grievances run much deeper than that.
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