- Text & Photography
- Jennifer Dunn
Forty five year old Luis Socarras leads me in the oppressive heat, along a sandy path towards La Completa’s village well. We weave through barren shrubs and cacti, and step into a clearing. Scrawny goats slurp thick, green water from a shallow pond.
Luis tells me, “People think there isn’t life in Guajira’s desert, but they are wrong. The Wayúu people have thrived on this land for thousands of years. We have always been self-sufficient producers, since long before the first aliwana (outsiders) arrived. But we can’t survive without water. Most of our goats died. We can’t farm anymore, so we can’t feed our families. Our people – especially young children – suffer many illnesses from drinking contaminated water.”
People of Guajira, a desert region in northern Colombia, are struggling through the most severe water crisis in the nation’s recorded history. Relentless drought, combined with the recent expansion of transnational mining and agricultural operations, have depleted this desert territory’s scarce water sources. Guajira’s indigenous Wayúu communities, most of which still rely on goat herding and subsistence farming to survive, have been hit the hardest. They have watched their crops and livestock perish throughout four years without rain. Vital stream and riverbeds are dry. Groundwater tables are sinking. Well water is dwindling and testing dangerously high in salinity.
Not surprisingly, Guajira has seen a surge in health problems and increased mortality due to the water crisis. At least 4,770 Wayúu children have died from chronic malnutrition within the past three years alone, according to Shipia Wayúu activist Javier Rojas.
In 2014, President Santos declared a state of emergency in Guajira. Since then millions of government dollars have been put into aid and relief efforts. These funds are supplemented by the royalties received from the region’s profitable natural resource extraction. Guajira is host to El Cerrejon, the largest coalmine in the world, and Chevron-operated gas fields along the territory’s Caribbean shore.
Despite the increased attention, large-scale relief efforts so far have been disappointing. Colombian news outlets echo the public’s growing outrage in their nearly daily reports of more Wayúu infant and child mortalities. So who is to blame? Why, in one of the most resource-rich regions of the country, do so many children continue to die completely avoidable deaths due to malnutrition?
The answer, as well as the solution to the region’s recovery, depends on whom you ask. I spent six weeks traveling throughout Guajira with the support of the International Reporting Project. I met with indigenous leaders, physicians, activists, educators, students, and community members. I asked people to tell me how water shortages were impacting their lives, to describe their most urgent needs, and to share their perspectives on current relief efforts.
I was surprised by the diverse, and often conflicting, nature of their responses. In each Rancheria (Wayúu village) I visited, people offered different accounts of the crisis, and different assessments of the problems with aid. I also saw local solutions emerging from necessity, ingenuity, and a deep concern for the health and livelihoods of the Wayúu people.
According to Socarras, the water crisis will not ease until powerful transnationals are pressured to either leave or live up to their corporate mottos of environmental and social responsibility. Prominent Wayúu leader Ernesto Hernández Wasayu disagrees with Luis. He says transnationals are well-positioned and willing to help the Wayúu through the crisis, but need more guidance from local communities. Ernesto explained how the region’s history of armed conflict leaves many communities excluded from relief efforts. In the small community of Mayapo, conversations centered on how poor oversight has caused many promising aid projects to fail. In the capital of Riohacha, Wayúu pediatricians and their colleagues cautioned me to avoid the endless debates on who should bear blame for relief effort failures. They said this should be a time of action and urged more media attention to both the community’s needs and the progress that locals themselves defined.
Some Wayúu activists have called for global boycotts on coal exports from El Cerrejon. Others have asked for legal support in securing resource rights disrupted by civil conflict. Some people said their most urgent need was a meal, a water storage tank, or clothes. Some said they hoped for better roads, assistance repairing well pumps, or help seeking medical attention for a gravely ill child. Most people said corruption was a massive barrier to relief progress. Everyone said they needed more water, and expressed a deep desire to protect their Wayúu culture and self-sufficient way of life.
Who determines how to prioritize these different needs? Who can decide the right and wrong ways to distribute aid in a region fractured by harsh topography, poor infrastructure, and armed conflict? How can relief efforts be effective, when the communities in most urgent need don’t share a language or a culture with the people making aid decisions on their behalf? How can well-intentioned NGOs overcome locals’ deep distrust of outsiders, distrust rooted in centuries of colonial aggression? How can the fatalities of the water crisis be curbed, when official Wayúu birth, medical, and death records are wildly inconsistent? How can a place and people recover from a natural disaster when that disaster won’t cease and is compounded by exploitation, neglect, and corruption?
There isn’t one answer to any of these questions. But locals aren’t waiting for one; they are taking initiatives to combat the consequences of the crisis with the information and resources they have to make steps towards lasting improvements in Wayúu lives.
Wayúu pediatrician Dr. Iliana Curiel is overcoming common barriers to healthcare access in La Guajira by ramping up health outreach efforts. She is leading other healthcare providers out to remote communities to treat patients who lack the resources to travel to urban clinics. She is also educating Wayúu mothers about how to recognize and respond to symptoms of severe malnourishment.
My guide through the desert, Socarras, leads peaceful protests against El Cerrejon coalmine expansion plans. Through his activism, he strives to keep Wayúu youth engaged in their culture and invested in protecting their land. He believes activism will help deter youth from the illegal industries (sex work, narco-trafficking) that have drawn other disillusioned Wayúu youth away from their communities.
Ernesto Jusayu, 57, President of the Association of Indigenous Wayúu Authorities, works tirelessly to improve communication and cooperation between Wayúu clans, outside aid agencies, and the powerful transnationals who control much of Guajira’s natural and financial resources.
Olga Rodriguez, a 64-year old Wayúu nurse, helps ensure financial and food supplements reach intended families by accompanying illiterate Wayúu women to the government offices charged with distributing those resources.
Countless people are speaking out against the corruption that swallows relief resources in La Guajira. Undeterred by the death threats or the actual attempts on their lives that follow them.
Many people are working to tell their own stories, in their own words, to a global audience. As Socarras told me, “If the international community does not pay attention to what is happening here, our people will be extinguished. The world will lose another culture.”