Humanitarian disaster in La Guajira

La Guajira is located at the northern end of South America: in the peninsula between Colombia and Venezuela, on the Caribbean Sea coast. Around 600.000 Wayuu-indigenous straddle between both countries, living by their traditions, laws and world view. In La Guajira no paved roads exist but green ways, where donkeys take people to their destination. A Neverland, in which the rain dod Juya and the Goddess Pulowi reign. 

However, their lives are far from being idyllic. The Wayuu are starving due to corruption and political tensions between Colombia and Venezuela, as well as by the pollution of multinational mining companies.

Famine affect children and elderly people the most

The Colombian National Indigenous Organisation – ONIC – has issued alerts about the famine affecting 130.000 Wayuu people in La Guajira. Recently, the Colombian People’s Defender, Jorge Armando Otálora, informed that 40.000 indigenous are starving: 70% are children, women and elderly Wayuu people. In the Colombian 2965 children have died between 2008 and 2013,due to hunger and preventible diseases.

The problem: Wayuu people in Colombia depend on food supply from Venezuela

In the recent years the Colombian Guajira has been importing food from Venezuela at low costs, thanks to Venezuelan subventions. After the social unrest in Venezuela escalated, the 2.219 kilometer border with Colombia has been closed. Caracas justifies the shut down with the lack of food due to food smuggling in La Guajira as the main reason. Also the population from Venezuela suffers from the border being closed, as the imports from Colombia have diminished to 2.5 billon $ from 7 billion $, worsening the scarcity of products. Suspiciously, the Tachira State, where the Venezuelan opposition is the strongest, also limits with Colombia. Protests in Venezuela have precisely escalated due to the scarcity of common goods as flour, rice and milk.

Institutional persecution of Wayuu people in Venezuela 

The Zulia State government, a bordering state with Colombia, has repeatedly made responsible the Wayuu people of this product scarcity. Authorities claim that due to food smuggling, 40 percent of products in Venezuela are made unavailable to the general population.

In 2003 the deceased President Hugo Chavez began the export of gas via the Wayuu people to Colombia. Before that, gas smuggling was not common. In fact, the gas stations in Maicao, Colombia have closed only in the recent years. Mr. Chavez militarised completely the Venezuelan Guajira in 2010, as the gas business was upsetting the diplomatic relations with Colombia. Since then, 28 Wayuu have died. The NGO Human Rights of La Guajira has repeatedly denounced the human rights violations by the Venezuelan army, without success. The last victim by the Venezuelan armed forces is Nelson Enrique Gonzalez, a Wayuu teacher and policeman, who didn’t hear the stop call of a soldier and was shot dead in the head.

Military persecuting Wayuu people

Corruption in La Guajira: as strong in Colombia as it is in Venezuela

Luis is not indigenous but lives in La Guajira and works as dogwatch, smuggling food and gas from Venezuela to Colombia. He earns a month salary in 4 hours, around 50 $ in cash. Luis explains that in order to bring goods to Colombia, there are 6 military stations to pass by. His gang needs approximately 1.000 $ for bribing the Venezuelan military. Trucks carry a maximum of 32 gas pipes, each one with 216 litres. Food is sold 5 times more expensive, gas revenues promise a 100% margin selling it in Colombia.

The other issue is the corruption which is omnipresent in both countries. Even if the government has released funds to build schools and infrastructure in La Guajira, the funds never arrive and disappear in some politicians pocket.

Venezuelan media from left to right accuses the Wayuu people of being responsible of the food shortages. The accusations influence the public opinion, fomenting racism and prejudices toward the indigenous. In an article from the opposition newspaper La Verdad, the Wayuu people are described as: “modern slaves of the Mafia, living on the state subsidy and making a great business on expenses of the Venezuelan citizen”.

Extreme poverty and illiteracy

Following the Colombian Statistical Department, 80% of Wayuu people are illiterate, 30% live in extreme poverty with less than 1 $ a day and a daunting children’s mortality rate menaces toddlers. Benposta, a non government organization which helps indigenous children in Venezuela claims that indigenous women have up to 20 children to ensure that some of them will survive.

Exploitation of natural resources

Big mining companies, such as the Swiss-based GlencoreXstrata occupy the Wayuu-land. The mining activity pollutes their water source and causes environmental damages.  Clencore is to mine for coal The Rancheria river in Colombia, the only water source for the Wayuu.Currently there is a drought in La Guajira. This drought is a huge threat to the Wayuu people self-sufficiency, their animals and agriculture sharpening the dependence of food from Venezuela.

Misgovernment of Colombia and Venezuela is killing the Wayuu people

Daily, Colombia and Venezuela export millions of dollars in oil barrels, coal and salt. Paradoxically, the Wayuu indigenous people are dying of hunger and curable diseases.

The lack of literacy of the Wayuu indigenous is beneficial to the economic systems of Colombia and Venezuela. As both countries rely heavily on their natural resources, it is convenient that the indigenous have no idea how to defend themselves.

A call to all human rights and environmental activists

All this are devastating consequences of the misgovernment of both countries. If social, human rights and environmental activists do not work united, the Wayuu people will disappear. With them their 2500 year culture: a world’s heritage will silently die.