Colombia’s largest indigenous group, the Wayuú, have been left for dead after the Colombian government diverted the Rancheria river to South America’s largest coal mine in 2011.
Five years ago, Colombia’s government completed the construction of the Cercado dam, a project they claimed would improve the lives of all in the arid Guajira region by supplying 9 towns with a second source of drinking water, employing 1,000 workers and providing irrigation for 18,500 hectares of farmland. However, the dam’s impact on the lives of Colombia’s largest indigenous ethnic group, the Wayuú people, was ignored entirely. The river was the only source of drinking water available near the Wayuú and its disappearance from the landscape has had dire consequences. Now, the Wayuú must walk over three hours to water wells filled with dangerous bacteria and salt, making health complications and diarrhea the new normal.
The area is entirely devoid of clinics and hospitals. Without the river, the Wayuú can no longer cultivate their land, leaving them not only thirsty, but hungry as well. Since the dam was completed in 2011, over 4,700 children, most of them under the age of five, have died from thirst or other complications associated with a lack of clean drinking water. Of course, these are only the documented deaths. The Wayuú, whose population now hovers around 100,000, say that more than 14,000 have died.
Cerrejón is the largest open pit coal mine in South America
Did the Colombian government live up to its lofty promises of offering water to new communities and farms? It turns out the largest beneficiary of the Cercado dam is a giant coal mine, known as Cerrejón, that uses more than 17 million liters of water a day while the Wayuú lives off of less than 0.7 liters a day per person, though their water is often too salty to drink. Cerrejón, whose logo reads “responsible mining,” is South America’s largest pit coal mine and produces an estimated 32 million tons of coal annually.
Though originally founded by ExxonMobil, the mine is now jointly owned by a consortium of some of the largest mining companies in the world – AngloAmerican, BHP Billiton, and Xstrata. The Wayuú and their leaders have worked tirelessly to try to confront these mining behemoths who have stolen their water and threatened them with extinction. However, the mining companies often work with right-wing paramilitary groups, who are responsible for the deaths of thousands, in order to get what they want. The Colombian government is also uninterested in improving life for the Wayuú as its mining ministers are notoriously corrupt. Just this March, Colombia’s mining ministerresigned amid a corruption probe.
A father and son observe the remnants of the Rancheria river on Wayuú land / The Cercado dam and reservoir was completed in 2011
However, just last month, Wayuú resistance paid off when the Supreme Court of Colombia ordered President Manuel Santos to ensure that children and adolescents of the Wayuú receive access to water, food, health care, housing, and other basic amenities to stop the needless deaths of so many children.
This follows an Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) ruling last December, which demanded the Colombian government take immediate measures to offer basic necessities to the Wayuú. In the 9 months following the IACHR decision, the Colombian government did nothing to lessen the Wayuú’s suffering. Instead of offering any kind of assistance, the advocate representing the Wayuú in the IACHR case, Javier Rojas Uriana, received death threats from paramilitary groups who wanted him to stop the legal battle to save the natives from extinction. It remains to be seen if Colombia’s government will heed the Supreme Court’s decision or if it will continue to be complicit in genocide.