The Washington Post published a heart-wrenching photo essay of the Wayuu people of the Guajira peninsula in August of last year. The Italian photographer, Nicolò Filippo Rosso, told the Post reporter that he had known he would have a hard time walking away from the Wayuu after his first meeting with them several years ago.
I connected with this sentiment from my own experience with the Guajiran community during my graduate field work in 2015. Rosso has continued to return to the Wayuu villages, as Nick Miroff writes in the Post’s coverage, ‘sometimes to photograph the community and sometimes to take them to the doctor.’ The Post has called the Wayuu one of FARC’s “annonymous phantoms.”
The photo below was taken from Rosso’s essay.
Maricela Uriana Epiayu, 22, was a mother of two children under the age of 5. Doctors said she had severe malnutrition and diabetes and had gone blind. With the help of a Bogota-based nongovernmental organization, Epiayu was taken to the hospital and received support at home with her children until her death from an infection in August 2016. (Nicolò Filippo Rosso)
In December of 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) provided precautionary measures PM 51/15 for the Wayuu children in three Guajiran villages. The IACHR formally recognized the death of 4,770 children under the age of five in from 2007-2015. A representative from the Wayuu tribe, which is one of Colombia’s oldest indigenous groups, told their volunteer counsel that the total dead was closer to 14,000. The discrepancy has been linked to the Wayuu custom to bury bodies close to their homes and without ceremony.
Since the issuance of the precautionary measures, President Santos has negotiated two peace agreements and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, the Santos administration continues to express skepticism as to the scale of suffering occurring in the country’s most arid region.
The crisis which the Wayuu have been experiencing for more than a decade now has roots intertwined with Colombia’s guerrilla war that Santos is credited with ending. Several Colombian officials, along with numerous international civil society leaders, have recognized the water insecurity in the department (state), to stem directly from government corruption and neglect.
The Colombian Inspector General, Alejandro Ordóñez, has publicly stated that “the problem in La Guajira isn’t the drought, it’s the corruption.”
Departmental and local governance in La Guajira has long been infiltrated by paramilitary and guerrilla networks that remain strong in rural areas, despite the (so-called) disarmament of the paramilitaries in 2004. Local politicians in the peninsula have been arrested for such crimes as manslaughter, bribery, murder and money laundering. Such corruption has been perpetuated by neglect and disinterest in Bogotá, resulting in endemic distrust between the local communities and their governing institutions.
The Colombian government in Bogotá has historically neglected the region, in part because of its geographical isolation, but also because of the discriminatory undercurrents toward the indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations. The region’s inhabitants, as well as Colombians living in more developed areas of the country, have operated under no illusions regarding the federal government’s priorities. Citizens are well aware of the government’s near tunnel vision on development concerns. Chief among these concerns has been the high-profile peace process, a necessary step in assuaging security concerns for Colombia’s investors.
Another such priority for development was the construction of the El Cercado dam in 2010. The dam and reservoir began as an initiative to distribute water to the nine northern municipalities of the department. However, while the dam was marked as completed in November 2010, the only irrigation lines that were ever installed were connected to large-scale agribusiness and the El Cerejon coal mine. Instead of providing water access for the local communities, the dam effectively dried up the rivers and streams they had previously depended on. The wells of the local communities run dry and filthy while the Cerrejón mine uses approximately 17 million liters of water per day, according to the mine’s own environmental impact report.
When asked why the dam operations failed to achieve all of its objectives, utility workers blamed a lack of coordination between governance and utility projects, as well as unclear policy surrounding water distribution.
Nicoló Filippo, VICE 2015
Focus on the peace process has not meant concern or support amidst the continued conflict and corruption within the La Guajiran department – or the others like it. (El Chocó, in particular.) Despite functioning under mafia-esc style governance for decades, deaths linked to lack of water far outpace those attributed to violence. The same is true for the country as a whole. Many I spoke with in the department, wished for the peace process to be successfully negotiated, not because they thought it meant justice or peace, but because they hoped it would allow the administration to (finally) focus on governing.
Meanwhile, the communities I met with in La Guajira in 2015 were well- organized and actively engaged in such issues as water management. When speaking of the federal government, the word “forgotten” was often used.
Nicoló Filippo, VICE 2015
The Wayuu people are facing a very real risk of extinction. In 2015, the communities were genuinely considering a collective suicide. They believed it would be more dignified than having such endemic suffering be ignored on both the national and now, with the passage and insufficiency of the IACHR’s actions, the international stage.
I left La Guajira believing that the Wayuu’s case ought to be prosecuted as a crime against humanity by the Uribe administration, which had commissioned and managed the El Cercado dam’s construction. The continuing lack of interest in the plight of these communities by President Santos, Uribe’s former Minister of Defense, has only fueled my empathy for these communities. As President Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, I couldn’t help but consider Colombia’s evolution in economic development. My research revealed that the country’s rise in the global economy has much to do with Bogotá’s ability to pass acquiescing legislation which earns a seat at the table of investment. All the while the government has largely failed to even concern itself with implementing the components of said legislation that are concerned with the well-being of its citizens. I wonder if this peace treaty will serve as yet another such example.