Colombian Gov’t Sells Out Indigenous Peoples’ Drinking Water to Western Mining Interests*
Colombia’s Wayuú people have struggled to live without water since 2011, as a dam built that year has diverted the tribe’s only water source to a coal mine that consumes an astounding 17 million litres of water a day. The Wayuú say 14,000 children have died since the dam was built.
On Colombia’s arid Guajira Peninsula – a region famed for inspiring the magic realism of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García-Márquez – a quiet effort to eradicate the Wayuú people, Colombia’s largest indigenous group, has entered its sixth year. The Colombian government and Western mining corporations are complicit in this attempt to wipe the group off of Colombia’s map.
The victims of a devastating, manufactured drought, the Wayuú are fighting for their very survival, as thousands of children die every year. The deaths of nearly 5,000 children due to thirst or malnutrition have been documented since 2011, though the Wayuú themselves claim that the figure tops 14,000.
The Colombian government, as well as the Western media, have been eager to blame the drought on climate change and weather patterns like El Niño. But they have conveniently overlooked the 2011 construction of the Cercado Dam, which diverted the Ranchería River from its natural course. The government claimed that building the dam would improve the lives of everyone in the region by supplying nine towns with a second source of drinking water, employing 1,000 workers and providing irrigation for 18,500 hectares of farmland.
But the Ranchería is the only river on the Guajira Peninsula, as well as the only source of drinking water for the Wayuú people. The consequences of the river’s disappearance have been catastrophic. Now, the Wayuú must walk more than three hours to draw drinking water from wells, with each person living off of less than 0.7 litres a day. What little water they do obtain is contaminated with bacteria and salt, which has caused severe diarrhoea and cholera to run rampant among their quickly dwindling population.
They can also no longer grow crops to feed themselves or raise livestock due to the lack of clean water, adding hunger and malnutrition to the mounting problems they are facing. An estimated 37,000 Wayuú now suffer from severe malnutrition.
While the Colombian government sold the Cercado Dam as a way to increase water supplies for nearby towns and farms, it turns out that the project’s largest beneficiary has been South America’s largest open pit coal mine, Cerrejón. Cerrejón guzzles more than 17 million litres of water a day, much of which is used to water the roads surrounding it to improve visibility for the mine’s trucks and minimize dust pollution.
Originally founded by ExxonMobil, the mine is now jointly owned by a consortium of some of the largest mining companies in the world – including Anglo American, BHP Billiton, and Xstrata. The Wayuú and their leaders have tried for years to confront these mining behemoths and get their water back.
However, these same mining companies often work with right-wing paramilitary groups who have been responsible for the deaths of thousands in the past. Such groups have repeatedly threatened the life of the Wayuú’s chief legal advocate Javier Rojas Uriana, pressuring him to abandon the case.
Wayuú resistance over the years has paid off in some notable ways. Last August, the Supreme Court of Colombia ordered President Manuel Santos to ensure that Wayuú children and adolescents can have access to water, food, health care, housing and other basic necessities.
The court’s ruling followed an Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) ruling in December 2015 that demanded the Colombian government take immediate measures to offer basic necessities to the Wayuú. But in the years following the IACHR decision, the Colombian government has done little to lessen the Wayuú’s suffering, while threats against the Wayuú from right-wing paramilitary groups have been on the rise.
Meanwhile, there continues to be a blackout within both the Colombian and Western press regarding the Wayuú’s struggle to survive. These same media outlets have devoted constant coverage to the ongoing political crisis and food shortages in nearby Venezuela — a crisis also manufactured by the West.