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Climate Change Is Threatening to Exterminate the Wayúu People

In northeastern Colombia, corruption, climate change, and coal mining have collided to unleash a fatal drought.

By Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik


Wayúu native children pose during a ceremony in Guajira, Colombia. (Photo: Diana Sanchez/AFP/Getty Images)

Charred by the pulsing heat, the Earth has turned to dust. Rivers have thinned to threads. Wells and ponds have parched. Across the sun-punished lands of Colombia’s La Guajira province, the northernmost point of South America, the symptoms of drought are stark.

Water carriers walk for hours, bucket handles digging into their hands. Goats and cows, grazing for absent pasture, stagger with protruding ribs. Families ration portions of turbid water.

At underfunded hospitals, emaciated infants on stretchers are fed rehydrating salts. Maryangel, a young doctor, shakes her head. “We’ve had pregnant mothers come in weighing less than 30 kilograms.”

Far from access to proper medical care, shovels cut the suffocated soil to make way for bodies. Government figures indicate that thousands of children here have died of malnutrition and preventable illnesses in the last few years. Many more die unregistered, without noise. “Why would you inform the state of the death of a person they have abandoned?” a father asks.

The majority of these children are Wayúu, from Colombia’s most populous indigenous nation. Across the country, the fate of the Wayúu has largely been met with chronic indifference or ephemeral outrage. Politicians and state departments have played down the crisis, engaging instead in finger-pointing. But the brutal epidemic of hunger continues, its multiple causes unsolved or unrecognized.

“A Wayúu without their land is nothing. We are now in nothingness.”

At first glance, the drought’s origin appears to be primarily atmospheric: The absence of water stems from climate change and a fierce El Niño, which have ravaged the landscape and disrupted patterns of precipitation.

As Armando Valbuena, a Wayúu leader and former president of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia explains: “Here in the desert, we live on the blade of a knife. It’s a very fragile system. With climate change, sea temperatures increase. Fish move deeper into the sea to find colder waters and our fishermen are left without food.”

“Hurricanes, sacred for us as sources of water, are moving further north due to changes in water temperature. Rains are far less frequent. The trees are dying, the desert is expanding. Water is agriculture, agriculture is flora and fauna, and flora and fauna are our food. As soon as you disrupt that climate, you disrupt the water supply and, in turn, our food security. Here, climate change is no distant threat. It’s not an advertisement, a warning. It’s real.”

The Colombian government has similarly tied the drought to unprecedented water scarcity, placing emphasis on the severity of the most recent El Niño phenomenon. But critics point out that solely blaming weather patterns conveniently ignores the real culprit: a development model organized around mining and agribusiness, promoted in La Guajira over the last decades, which has privatized and plundered the region’s sources of water.

La Guajira is home to the Cerrejón coal mine, the largest opencast coal mine in Latin America. Every year, the mine extracts tens of millions of tons of coal, supplying European, North American, and Asian power stations. Since opening in the 1970s, Cerrejón has expanded significantly, occupying swathes of land and displacing hundreds of families.

To satisfy its sizable water needs, the mine has dried, dammed, or diverted entire bodies of water. What has been left is a situation of staggering inequality. According to the mine’s own figures, Cerrejón uses over 17 million liters of water every day. The average rural Guajiro citizen consumes 0.7 liters of water each day. Franco, a former worker at the coalmine, laments: “Under the promise of development, Cerrejón has [effectively] killed this region.”

Danilo Urrea, from the environmental justice organization CENSAT Agua Viva, explains that “the problem of drought fundamentally comes from what the country has been geared toward. Over the last decades, the determinant factor of public policy has been profit. It is no coincidence that in Colombia, you see the highest incidence of water shortage in areas with the highest exploitation of natural heritage, like La Guajira or the Oriental Plains.”

“Historical studies shows that this is not an area of water scarcity,” Urrea continues. “It’s arid, but 35 years ago, hydrological data indicated an abundance of water sources. Local communities had ample lands devoted to farming. But what has happened since? Those water sources have been affected by an extractive model.”

While the state has attentively encouraged the mining boom, many say it has turned a blind eye to the plight of La Guajira’s people. Today, over half of the province’s population lives in poverty, a quarter in extreme poverty. Necessary investments in health, infrastructure, and education have not been made. Colombia’s ombudsman, Jorge Armando Otálora, an independent public official responsible for protecting the rights of citizens in matters relating to state abuses, declared La Guajira to be the “object of constant and historical abandon by the state.”

Those funds that do eventually reach provincial coffers are depleted through corruption. Recent investigations have shown how billions of Colombian pesos allocated to school meals were siphoned off by public contractors.

External factors have also not helped ease the scarcities. Venezuela borders La Guajira’s eastern edge, and its porous frontiers have allowed for continuous trade. But over the last years border restrictions have tightened, stripping local residents of access to cheaper food.

The unraveling of La Guajira’s drought presents a cautionary tale on the future possibilities of environmental violence.

Beyond the immediate loss of life, local people are bracing for unthinkable long-term consequences. Valbuena, who teaches at a Wayúu school, says that many children are severely stunted in growth: “Because of the hunger, their cognitive ability and development is affected, a legacy we’ll only be able to overcome within decades.”

In the fields, the land has desiccated and lost much of its fertility. Clara, a farmer from the town of Barrancas, mourns the loss of her livelihood: “A Wayúu without their land is nothing. We are now in nothingness.”

With ever-expanding mining, intensifying climate change, and a state showing little willingness to implement systemic solutions, community leaders are concerned about the prospect of an unlivable future for their people.

Saúl Carrillo, president of the Association of Indigenous Wayúu Authorities of the South of La Guajira, says his community has started to take matters into their own hands. “We’re working on proposals to obtain food security, researching drought-resistant crops and methods of agriculture that use little water,” he says. “We need to figure out what to do to live.”

Wayúu communities have also blockaded train tracks and mobilized in the streets, demanding a structural response. National and international courts have ceded to their pressure, calling on the government to address the humanitarian crisis. Some rights groups have even proposed a truth commission to officially investigate the causes of the drought. But the situation appears to remain in a vicious cycle, moving from starvation to passing indignation to piecemeal reforms.

Valbuena, a veteran of the struggle for indigenous rights and recognitions, enumerates the toll of failing to address the catastrophe: “Our communities are facing a situation of severe climate change, of severe malnutrition. Over the last years, thousands of children have died. Those who haven’t, have suffered irreversible cognitive damage. Many lactating and pregnant mothers have also died. What’s the name for this? It’s a process of extermination, a genocide.”

The unraveling of La Guajira’s drought presents a cautionary tale on the future possibilities of environmental violence. First, it illustrates how state authorities can use climate change as a pretext for their own neglect. More worrying, it shows what happens when the furies of an altered climate collide with deeply unequal societies. In La Guajira, latent injustices — the abandonment of an indigenous community by the state, inadequate infrastructure, corruption — came to the fore as temperatures climbed and rivers dried.

Climate change should not be thought of as an isolated problem, but rather as a growing wind that blows on all the embers that are already there. With climate change, every callous policy, every deprivation, every oppression that exists in our societies, becomes a burning seed of further suffering.