The indigenous Wayúu people: at risk of losing their ancestral way of life

The indigenous Wayúu people: at risk of losing their ancestral way of life

Two children from the wayúu community in Alta Guajira.

(José Fajardo)

“We are the most forgotten region of Colombia” says José Ipuana, a 75-year-old Wayúu elder, who remembers always having lived “in need”. To reach the region we are in, in the northernmost part of La Guajira, a desert in the northeast of the country on the border with Venezuela and the Caribbean Sea, we needed a jeep prepared to cross dunes and dry forests through remote tracks and to navigate impossibly steep slopes.

The Wayúu are the largest ethnic group in the country. There is no register to say exactly how many there are, as some live in Venezuela (they don’t believe in borders, the land they walk on is their country), but there are over 250,000 people divided into some 20 clans.

Colombia one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, with 102 communities living there. The indigenous population is young (70 per cent are under 25 years of age) and possesses invaluable riches (between all the ethnic groups they speak 34 different languages).

The armed conflict between the government and the FARC guerrilla group, which lasted over half a century, has left an alarming statistic: 34 of these ethnic groups are at risk of physical and cultural extermination, according to the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) created in 1971 and which represents 80 per cent of the regional associations.

The dramatic situation faced by the Wayúu is particularly bloody: their tenacious attachment to their customs has left them trapped in a hostile environment, made worse by a terrible drought since 2011 and the El Niño phenomenon between 2014 and 2015, the worst in four decades.

In the last six years, 90 per cent of their animals have died (cows, goats and sheep). It is a catastrophe: the goats are not only a source of food, they are also a source of power. They are the currency of exchange during wakes, they are used as a dowry for marriages, and to resolve questions of honour.

“Every family used to have about 30 head of animals, but now we barely have a handful. The goats have died of hunger and thirst, like our children” laments José Ipuana, leader of the Uchipa community (370 people).

"The politicians are lying to us"

La Guajira is the site of some of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, such as Cabo de la Vela, an oasis of sea and dunes. The access roads to this paradise are taken over by children cutting off the road with ropes and wires. Some can barely walk, they are babies.

They ask the tourists for money, biscuits, tins of food. A few of them sell shrimps and fish. “It hurts to see them like this, the people in our community are not beggars”, says a young Wayúu driver who prefers to remain anonymous. Together with his friends from the University of Riohacha, the capital (of la Guajira), he has taken part in the protests of the last few weeks.

- Why are you protesting?

- Because the politicians are lying to us. They are only interested in us when there are elections. The Colombian state has never done anything for us.

The former mayor of the capital and ex-governor of the department are in prison accused of corruption. “Our ruling representatives promised schools, hospitals, water supplies, roads, but they have done nothing”, says lawyer Carolina Sáchica, who has asked Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to declare the region to be in a state of emergency.

For the time being the government has decided to contribute funds to supply water, health and education in Guajira (259 million euros or US$280 million a year).

"It is an extreme measure, motivated by the seriousness of the emergency. The government would rather they solve their own problems. They should ask themselves why they elected a bunch of crooks to be their local representatives,” says Luis Guillermo Vélez, former secretary general of the President’s office.

Vélez has just been appointed Director of the National Legal Defence Agency. He recognises that the state’s action has so far been “insufficient”. Since 2014, through Decree no. 1953 signed by Santos, the Colombian state has begun to regulate the Indigenous Territories (or the autonomy of the indigenous people over their territories).

Carolina Sáchica laments that since December 2015, when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decreed some interim measures for La Guajira, over 100 children and adolescents have died of malnutrition.

“If this figure is not serious enough for the government to accept its responsibility, what needs to happen?” she asks. The rate of chronic child malnutrition in the department is 27.9 per cent (compared to an average of 13.2 per cent for the whole of Colombia).

The Colombian Attorney General’s office has just called for the declaration of a state of unconstitutionality, as a warning sign for the government to take action on the crisis.

“The measures implemented to date have not had the hoped for impact or results in terms of providing sufficient or good quality food security, health, and access to drinking water,” says the text. La Guajira is an example of a universal disaster: the state’s abandonment of the indigenous communities at risk.

A cry for help that no-one hears

In the absence of the state, only international organisations have come to the help of these people. All the communities that Equal Times visited (Uchipa, Wayamuichon, Watanalu and Panterramana, among others) are asking these organisations to stay longer. Epijaalee (“happy place” in Wayúu) is a humanitarian programme that has been carried out over the last year in Alta Guajira.

“The key approach has been to involve the local population, teaching them the techniques of resilience and empowerment, and offering comprehensive help” explains Silvya Bolliger, from ECHO, the European Commission’s civil protection and humanitarian aid service that has financed the project, and which includes UNICEF and FAO as members, together with the support of the World Food Programme, Oxfam and Action Against Hunger.

UNESCO has recognised the Wayúu concept of the ‘palabrero’, a wiseman who mediates conflicts by peaceful means, as part of the ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’. The tribe was one of the few to beat colonialisation through its skill with firearms and horses. They have resisted the bloodiest years of the drug traffickers, guerrilla warfare and paramilitary massacres.

The last six years have been the hardest in their recent history. Their traditional form of subsistence (crafts, agriculture, animal husbandry) is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. It is forcing them to change, to move away: the lack of water gives them no choice.

Since humans began to talk, 30,000 languages have disappeared: at least ten are lost every year, according to Unesco figures. The wayúu are worried that their children will have to emigrate and the wayuunaiki language will be destined for oblivion.

“We would like our young people to go away to study at university and then come back so that they can apply what they have learnt here” says Damián, at 29 years old one of the youngest Wayúu authority figures, who teaches at the school for the region’s children (it takes some an hour to get there on foot).

Aleida Tiller Works for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on projects with the communities. Her team visits families who live in total isolation. She studied in Barranquilla, a city on the Atlantic coast, more than 300 kilometres from her home. She is proud to be Wayúu.

“We are very supportive of each other, we always come back to our land and we protect our culture, we avoid confrontation and we have a great capacity for adapting to problems,” Tiller says.

In the Panterramana community there is no light, no water, no basic infrastructure. The Nazareth hospital, the nearest, is two hours away by jeep. The heat is suffocating. But 74 families live here, including many young people.

Óscar plays with a football, laughs, climbs trees and hides in the scrubland. He is dirty, he barely speaks Spanish, and he is seven or eight years old. While President Santos talks of peace and prides himself on a modern Colombia that is open to the outside world, Óscar has no idea what his future will be.

Elizabeth Carolina, a girl carrying two babies, says “We have been crying out for help for a long time, but our words are being lost in the desert.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.