The deep consequences of interconnected globalized systems paired with destructive localized human actions is on full display in the La Guajira peninsula of Northeastern Colombia. Prolonged climate-change-induced droughts, coupled with mass-scale coal mining, the damming of a principal waterway, and corrupt local governance, has led to scarce and contaminated water supplies in the region. Subsistence from the land is nearly impossible, for humans and most wildlife.

For the local Wayuu Indigenous Peoples — who were already neglected, impoverished, and having their remarkable traditional artisan skills appropriated by unscrupulous Western fashionistas — the extremes of water and food scarcity portend mass displacement and death. And if that isn’t bad enough, the COVID-19 pandemic now threatens the Wayuu and other vulnerable Indigenous populations.

The socio-ecological crisis in La Guajira stems from a complex mix of global climate change, unsustainable local land use, corruption and conflicting interests of national, local and traditional governance. The crisis is further exacerbated by incompetent resource management, the dominant economic interests of multinational corporations, and the difficulty of adapting traditional beliefs to present circumstances. This combination of corruption, exploitation and mismanagement, in the face of already precarious circumstances due to more extreme weather events related to climate change, is common in the developing world, and critical for the global community to be aware of and try to prevent in the coming decades. The crisis in La Guajira and with the Indigenous Wayuu helps to illustrate what can happen when these conflicting interests are thrown upon a vulnerable environment and peoples.

Over the past five years I have witnessed this multidimensional crisis first hand, through work with several different Wayuu communities in Media and Alta Guajira. Integrated, intercultural community-based projects have focused on water quality monitoring and culturally-appropriate alternative income sources, but the tragic problems I have observed and spoken about with many Wayuu leaders are complex and systemic. Profound change is needed at many levels — from global to local — if this region and its traditional peoples are to be preserved.

Extreme and Extended Drought in La Guajira

In the harsh desert landscapes of La Guajira, Colombia, water has always been a scarce and precious resource. In this extreme environment, the Wayuu ethnic group has always practiced a system of water capture, storage and conservation in Wayuu-made reservoirs called “jagueyes.” These jagueyes are used to sustain humans, animals and agriculture alike, in historically predictable times of drought. In the 20th century, these jagueyes were also supplemented with water wells in many of the Wayuu “Rancherias” in order to access clean groundwater and to sustain agriculture.

A severely degraded Jaguey shared by Wayuu people and animals. La Guajira, Colomba. Photo by D.H. Rasolt.A severely degraded Jaguey shared by Wayuu people and animals. La Guajira, Colomba. Photo by D.H. Rasolt.

Historically there were predictable seasons of rain and dryness in La Guajira that followed equatorial weather patterns. The Wayuu have local names for each of these seasons, with the main rainy season from September-December called “Juyapu.” Now these seasons are highly unpredictable, or do not exist at all. From 2012 to 2015, there was almost no rain, and since 2011 there have been extreme and prolonged droughts throughout the Wayuu territory in Media and Alta Guajira (the Central and Northern parts of the peninsula)

This kind of severe multi-year drought has predictable negative impacts on water availability and the well-being of wildlife, livestock, agriculture and the local populace. In La Guajira the jagueyes dry out, crops, cattle and natural flora and fauna die, and the Wayuu suffer. The cultural impacts on the Wayuu — who live by the rain and incorporate its presence into their beliefs, traditional practices and semi-nomadic migration patterns — is less quantifiable, but no less profound.

Connecting Prolonged Drought in La Guajira to Global Climate Change

Droughts are complex events that come in different forms and intensities. There are many drivers and influencers of droughts in varying geographies: localized and temporal weather patterns as well as natural climatic cycles like the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), changing Sea Surface Temperatures (SST), and local and regional land use changes, all influence drought severity and duration. These drivers are often exacerbated by climate change, which itself can directly prolong and intensify droughts due to higher atmospheric temperatures.

As has happened in La Guajira, this past decade has experienced some of the most extreme droughts on record in different parts of the world, and these trends are projected to worsen with rising temperatures. For La Guajira, models project a potential temperature rise of more than four degrees, and a decrease in precipitation of 30-40 percent, by 2100.

The connection between drought and climate change is fairly straightforward; with higher temperatures, there is increased evaporation from bodies of water and from soil and vegetation. This leads to the drying out of rivers, lakes, plants and soils, which can further decrease precipitation and rainfall because of decreased regional evapotranspiration. Over time, this leads to land degradation (and in extreme cases desertification — La Guajira is Colombia’s most rapidly desertifying region), as well as a range of social and environmental consequences. Conversely, higher temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold more water, which when released, especially onto degraded land that can no longer absorb water, can result in extreme precipitation events, floods and landslides.

A dried up “Jaguey” caused by a prolonged drought. La Guajira, Colomba. Photo by V.Circe.

A dried up “Jaguey” caused by a prolonged drought. La Guajira, Colomba. Photo by V.Circe.

While a single drought event cannot be definitively attributed to climate change as it is a localized weather event, the increased frequency, severity and duration of droughts in different regions around the world can, and have, been tied to rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns due to global climate change. If you need more convincing that climate change is directly correlated to the increased experience of severe weather events like extreme droughts, take a look at this 2019 study in Nature that reached this conclusion through the analysis of tree rings.

Extractive Industries, Waterway Obstructions and Poor Governance

In La Guajira the “natural” consequences of global-climate-change-induced drought are greatly exacerbated by human intervention, and corruption in the region, which makes mitigation strategies for extended droughts all-but impossible.

El Cercado Dam and Diversion of Rancheria River Tributaries

The Rancheria River is the principal waterway that runs through La Guajira. The Rancheria is born in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, to the Southwest of La Guajira, and was already at risk of running dry due to extended droughts and the rapid recession of Colombia’s Tropical Mountain Glaciers. The blocking of the Rancheria by the Cercado Dam, which was sold as a solution to water scarcity during times of drought, has in reality exacerbated the problem.

The failure of the Cercado Dam is due to unkept promises and the standard practice of neglecting to consider basin-scale impacts when damming a major waterway. Even if funding was transparent and the project had been completed as planned with pipes going from the dam’s reservoir to a proposed 18 Wayuu communities, much of the precious water would have evaporated from the reservoir. Wildlife and most communities downstream would have been negatively impacted by the dam regardless of whether the pipes were built as planned.

Furthermore, the Cerrejon coal mine has recently diverted one of the Rancheria River’s major tributaries — Arroyo Bruno — in order to expand its controversial operations.

Cerrejon Coal Mine

Located in Media Guajira is Latin America’s largest coal mine, Cerrejon — itself a major actor in the ongoing climate change saga. Cerrejon uses large volumes of water from the Rancheria River, along with vital groundwater. It is estimated that Cerrejon uses approximately 2,700,000 liters of water per day to run the extensive operations of the mine.

Cerrejon insists that they are not doing anything wrong. They state that the Colombian government authorised them to use far more river water (as much as 84% more than they are currently using), and even brazenly promotes their slogan of “responsible mining” locally and internationally. One would have to be extremely naive or compromised to take those claims at face value.

Cerrejon is currently a partnership between local subsidiaries of three of the world’s largest mining companies: Australian-owned BHP Billington, Swiss-owned Glencore, and British-South African owned Anglo American. Between the initial planning and development of Cerrejon in 1976 until 2002, ExxonMobile’s local subsidiary Intercor owned half of the Cerrejon mine; the other half was owned by Colombian government-owned Carbocol S.A. Both Intercor and Carbocol S.A. sold off their shares to the current owners of the mine in the years 2000 and 2002 respectively.

There are clearly some extremely powerful economic forces with less than stellar track records behind the drive for maximizing Cerrejon’s profits. This year the United Nations and Colombian Constitutional Court have urged and ordered Cerrejon to be more socially and environmentally responsible.

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Cerrejon is Latin America’s largest open pit coal mine. La Guajira, Colombia.

Cerrejon’s spokesmen often divert responsibility for the water and health crisis in La Guajira to the corruption of local and regional politicians and organizations. Instead of accepting any accountability, Cerrejon redirects the attentions to the failures of these actors in following through on promises to build pipes from the Cercado Dam to the Wayuu communities, and the lack of access to proper nutrition, medical care and education — all-the-while pocketing the money earmarked for these projects.

Unfortunately those claims of corrupt and incompetent governance are true, and possibly understated, but they also serve as a distraction from the extensive damage done by Cerrejon during the processes of land-use change (clearing land to dig holes for mining, which also often displaces communities) and the mining and transporting of coal. In terms of impacts on water supplies, Cerrejon both depletes river and groundwater, and contaminates what exits and trickles past the mine, above and below ground. Cerrejon has also been accused of contaminating jagueyes and soil that is close to their railroad, through toxic coal dust drifting from the open rail cars. The train transports around 10,000 tons of coal each trip from the mine to the Bolivar Port 150 km (93 miles).

Health Crisis: Multi-Year Food and Water Scarcity plus Advancing COVID-19 Epidemic

The result of these forces coming together is a health and humanitarian crisis for the Wayuu, who have also become culturally weakened and divided by the presence of Cerrejon and other socio-economic influencers such as tourism. Food and water scarcity is leading to malnutrition and dehydration, while contaminated water supplies lead to further illness within already compromised human bodies. Wayuu children suffer the most, with stunted growth and a range of maladies, including chronic diarrhea, respiratory and skin problems, vision loss and more.

In addition to the lack of access to clean water and food, when Wayuu children are sick, they lack access to medical care and are caught in the middle of an ideological conflict between Western medicine and the traditional beliefs of the Wayuu. The Wayuu are frequently suspicious of “Alijuna” nurses and doctors; they often prefer to interpret dreams, as is their custom, and to stay in their Rancheria until the “evil spirits” leave their children’s bodies, rather than travel to an urban environment that has a hospital. The costs of travel and boarding also creates obstacles for the Wayuu in getting access to proper medical care. All combined, this has led to an extremely high incidence of childhood malnutrition and mortality for the Wayuu since the extended droughts began in 2011.

A Wayuu child who walked several kilometers to reach the water of a Jaguey. La Guajira, Colomba. Photo by V.Circe.

A Wayuu child who walked several kilometers to reach the water of a Jaguey. La Guajira, Colomba. Photo by V.Circe.

Latest estimates state that despite the Wayuu representing 38% of La Guajira’s population, Wayuu children accounted for nearly 90% of childhood mortality in La Guajira between 2014-2016. Furthermore, between 2008 and 2016 an alarming 4,770 Wayuu children were confirmed to have died from malnutrition. These mortality statistics might even be low, as many Wayuu children (and their parents) are unregistered, and deaths that happen in the Rancherias often go unreported.

Along with the ongoing crisis of water scarcity and childhood malnutrition, the new threat of COVID-19 puts the entire socio-economic and cultural structure of the Wayuu at risk. For the Wayuu, elders and adult women are vital to the traditional hierarchy, beliefs and economy of the Wayuu. Their traditional communal social structures, where multiple generations commingle and sleep in intricately hand-woven chinchorros under the same roof on a daily basis, also further enhances the risk of transmission of this novel coronavirus.

The Wayuu have been attempting to self-isolate since late March of this year, in a desperate and necessary attempt to block COVID-19 from entering their territory, but there have still been verified cases (and likely many more undocumented). Extreme poverty, state neglect, lack of access to medical information, the pervasive presence of foreign industry and workers, an unregulated border with Venezuela (where the Wayuu also hold citizenship), and a lack of access to clean water, air and food, as well as electricity and medical facilities, increases mortality risk and makes preventive measures for COVID-19 impossible for the Wayuu. Malnutrition and pre-existing respiratory conditions — many of which are likely connected to persistent air pollution from Cerrejon — have also presumably made the immune systems of many Wayuu much weaker and less effective in fighting off novel respiratory infections like COVID-19.

The Wayuu live and sleep in communal spaces within their rancherias. La Guajira, Colombia. Photo by D.H. Rasolt.

The Wayuu live and sleep in communal spaces within their rancherias. La Guajira, Colombia. Photo by D.H. Rasolt.

Interconnected Threats and Responsibilities

Present day La Guajira is suffering from an extreme scarcity of non-contaminated water. The Wayuu Indigenous Peoples, their crops and livestock, and the endemic wildlife of the region, are becoming ill, dying and being displaced at alarming rates. This reality is the result of prolonged drought which is, first and foremost, due to global climate change that none of the suffering actors had anything to do with.

Further exacerbating the situation is an enormous multinational-controlled coal mine and the damming and diversion of La Guajira’s principal waterways, both of which the Wayuu communities never collectively agreed to. To top it all off, the Wayuu are now at the mercy of a global pandemic that they are extremely vulnerable to.

The interconnected and multi-dimensional environmental, health and socioeconomic crisis presently being experienced by the Wayuu is something that we all hold some responsibility for. Systemic change is needed in the long-run, but immediate action must be taken by the global community to protect the Wayuu from imminent physical and cultural death and displacement.

Why is it that the peoples that hold the least responsibility for the problems inflicted upon our living planet, are the ones who always seem to suffer the most?

Banner Image: “Below the Surface” – Vannessa Circe – Oil on Canvas – 40” x 48”


Ed. note: If you want to help the Wayuu communities in Colombia, you can donate through WaterAid Colombia.