Behind Closed Doors of Colombia’s Biggest Tribe in La Guajira Desert

Share this story

It’s romantic to think of deserts as serene. We fetishise them into beauty spots that sit still for our cameras. But like all interesting subjects, deserts move. People, politics and promises get lost in their sand. La Guajira Desert in Colombia has been home to the Wayuu people for thousands of years. Today, they’ve been displaced by a mine and made thirsty by a government dam. Tourism is their best hope for reclaiming their home.

Words by Megan Brownrigg

Photography by Megan Brownrigg & Mathilde Woestyn

Colombia’s largest indigenous population, the Wayuu people, are feeling invisible. Their desert has become an oasis for corporate corruption, without much noise from anyone. As tourists, we visit the Wayuu as a means to see their home. La Guajira’s shapeshifting sameness creates an album of moods for any photographer. Wind lifts sand like arrows in these plains, and drops them in folds of silk, turning beige hazes to angular valleys of rust. Eventually, desert meets sea, at the northernmost point of South America. The end of this continent is indeed a spectacle. But perhaps the most sublime vision in this desert, is how tourism can help an ancient tribe who are living without water in their homeland.

La Guajira peninsula has always been an unashamedly liminal space. Sitting between Colombia and Venezuela, it’s both forgotten and renowned – by modern life, governments, smugglers and corporations. But more remarkably, it’s a place plotted by the dreams of the Wayuu people. As part of their astral culture, Wayuu dreams determine where this desert’s wells are built. Their souls even wait here 5 years before a second burial of their bodies’ bones. To drink and to die, the Wayuu percolate the pores of dream and reality. And for 3000 years, this is how they’ve survived. But for nearly forty years, their desert’s belly has also been mined for coal. And after nearly a decade of drought, La Guajira’s body is looking very different. As a guest I only trod on its dusty skin, missing its undercurrents. But here they are: the Wayuu have no water. The authorities admit no accountability. And travellers have no idea.

“My fellow travellers and I were unwittingly standing on the vein of a humanitarian crisis.”

I should stress that the strong-willed Wayuu aren’t victim figures. These people are fierce. My first image of them was of their children barricading roads with string. Our driver, used to the show, didn’t slow down. The kids held their ground until we stopped. They were collecting their ‘sugar tax’. The ritual is a strong invitation to tourists to throw sweets from car windows. The Wayuu have good reason to demand a levy from strangers like us. Across history, they’ve fought off Spanish invaders, the Colombian government and Mother Nature to defend their home. Had I understood their story, I’d have offered stronger currency than sugar.

It’s also vital to appreciate that the Wayuu are progressive people. Feminism has always been part of their culture – Wayuu women are weavers, dreamers and decision makers. Which in turn makes them the breadwinners, spiritual healers and heads of their community. It’s no surprise that Wayuu children bear their mother’s second name. Meanwhile, the Wayuu’s choice to live in small communities of less than fifteen homes for millennia, was born of innovative farming. The distancing was to stop rogue goats mixing with neighbouring herds. Self-sufficiency is what made this kind of isolation possible. The Wayuu are free of any country’s laws and once grew their own crops, had their own river, and relied on no one.

But plentiful harvests are sadly a faint memory. There’s no denying that climate change has played a part in this struggle – 2011 marked the region’s last rain for seven years. Uneducated and unable to farm, Wayuu men are now outcast as depressed drunks in their own desert. Which, as a first image to outsiders, is not an accurate depiction of who these people are. But none of the Wayuu are putting all their problems down to a warming planet.

Placing Latin America’s biggest open mine alongside Colombia’s largest indigenous population was never going to make pretty sounds. The Cerrejón mine is co-owned by the Swiss company Glencore, the British-Australian company BHP Billiton, and the British-South African company Anglo American. Its slogan is “Minería Responsable”. Mining Responsibly. Posing for photos by a remote railway in the desert, I had no idea it was a privatised train for the mine. One that didn’t even bring aid to or evacuate the Wayuu during the 2016 hurricane. In fact, its construction displaced many scattered communities. Dust from its trains suffocates Wayuu crops. And the railway’s noise at night disrupts spiritually significant dreams. Smiling on its tracks, my fellow travellers and I were unwittingly standing on the vein of a humanitarian crisis.

And this is a humanitarian crisis. The Wayuu are forced to leave their desert to drink. The Bruno Stream, a tributary of the Río Ranchería, allowed the tribe to fish and drink for thousands of years. Now, it runs dry, as the mine diverts 3 million litres of water a day. The first Wayuu children I met face to face, begged for bottled water. I was holding sweets. I’ve since learned that La Guajira has the highest rate of child malnutrition in Colombia. According to their 2017 report to the UN, NGO Human Rights Watch revealed that Wayuu children made up 90% of the region’s malnutrition deaths. Indigenous people only make up 38% of the population itself.

Figures like this underline the biggest problem. The indigenous people who occupy La Guajira’s in-between are overlooked. The food subsidies they relied on from the Venezuelan government quickly dried up in the migrant crisis. Other authorities have happily forgotten them. The region’s familiarity with drug-traffickers and crime exposes the Wayuu to corporate corruption. This can be seen nowhere clearer than in the Colombian government’s El Cercado dam, built in 2011 to replenish water for the Wayuu. The dam’s pipes were never connected to the nine promised communities. There’s plenty of speculation about where they lead instead. But for the Wayuu, the dam’s bulge of water is a stillborn promise.

“Perhaps the most sublime vision in this desert, is how tourism can help an ancient tribe who are living without water in their homeland.”

Travellers are sold on La Guajira’s beauty and arrive without understanding the bleak. Hurtling to a cape to see and photograph the end of a continent, you miss the nuances of the desert’s residents. But this shouldn’t paralyse travellers, just alert us. There’s a great opportunity for a relationship here, which allows us to explore the region and empower the indigenous population. Positive tourism in La Guajira starts with understanding Wayuu culture.

“The Wayuu customs aren’t obvious”. Diana Salazar, from Colombia Solidarity Campaign UK, is right. To naïve visitors, the Wayuu can seem unfriendly and even aggressive. I was lucky enough to enjoy broken Spanish, hugs and hairstyles from the little girl who asked me for water. It was a welcome I hadn’t earned. The Wayuu are acutely aware of how western influence can trample on their traditions, and we should be too. Oral tradition holds these communities together in absence of written constitutions, putting huge value on the spoken word. And whether it’s been a government orating about aid, a multinational mine miming compensation, or tourists saying they’ll buy something – the verbal promises they hold sacred, have been broken by outsiders over and over again.

Founder of responsible tourism company PuraGuajira Travel, Beatrice Silvestrini insists we can show interest in the Wayuu whilst keeping a respectful distance from their culture. “There should be a line between privacy and tourism. Once this line of respect is drawn, tourism will work for both sides”. Beatrice believes it would be a tragedy if Wayuu people became performing parodies of themselves, wearing costumes and following scripts for tourists. A good way to avoid this, she suggests, is to remain completely separated from their sacred ceremonies, like the burials. Some things should remain unseen.

“Positive tourism in La Guajira starts with understanding Wayuu culture.”

Then comes trade. Perhaps my biggest regret about the way I visited La Guajira is that I didn’t buy more bags. The boldly coloured mochila bags are the Wayuu women’s trademark. Made with either one or two threads by weaving a series of knots, each bag tells a story of tribal life – down to details as minute as mosquitoes. The bags take between 15 and 30 days to make. If I’d have known this, I wouldn’t have waited pathetically for the ‘right’ one, or worried about luggage space. I’d have put more money straight in Wayuu hands.

It’s worth saying that my lack of specific knowledge about La Guajira wasn’t down to a bad tour guide. I was lucky enough to be shown the desert by Angelo, who is Wayuu. Not being fluent in Spanish or Wayuunaiki, I should have done my research prior. But by travelling with Angelo, I knew that my money was going directly back into a Wayuu family. It also meant we were able to navigate communities sensitively, and Angelo made sure we bought water in towns instead of wasting village stocks. PuraGuajira Travel are in a position to employ Wayuu staff like Angelo, because they operate out of the relatively nearby town Riohacha. But many tourists jump in a truck at the more ‘convenient’ Santa Marta, 500km away. These trips are rushed, detached, and give little back to La Guajira. Yes Colombia is “too big to see in two weeks”, but we can all sacrifice something off the tick-list for slower, more responsible travel.

The marketing of La Guajira also needs to change. Its seascapes are stunning, but at the moment they’re all we’re sold on. The privilege of meeting the Wayuu people should be pitched in tourist offices, as well as the pretty pictures we’ll get. The tribe have battled everything from pearl-divers and pirates to drug traffickers and the El Niño phenomenon. Frankly, they’re pretty cool and interesting. La Guajira also offers a wealth of opportunity for innovative farming projects, as the indigenous communities have no choice but to become experts in new techniques such as drip irrigation. Once we see the Wayuu as the pioneers they’ve always been, we can have a healthy relationship with them. From here, we can develop responsible tourism strategies together, which excite the traveller and help the Wayuu.

The northern strip of La Guajira is an unseen place. It’s what makes it so hypnotic for its guests, but it’s also what makes it easy to exploit. The government’s dam floodgates will likely never open for displaced communities, but the doors of tourism can swing much wider. However uncomfortable I found my visit; my takeaway was NOT not to visit this desert. It was to come back with bells on. With knowledge, with purpose, with plans of positive trade directly with the Wayuu. Instead of seeing them as roadblocks holding string, they should be the people we go to meet.

For now, we can bring accountability to their ancestral home from afar. We can demand transparency from our mining companies for their actions overseas. We can support campaigns, charities, and crowdfunders, like this one from London Mining Network. It’s hard to dream up a certain future for this tribe, but we can show up with respect, knowledge and support. Perhaps then, the dreaming can once again be left to them.

Share this story

Megan Brownrigg

Megan Brownrigg is a British writer. As a freelance journalist, Megan has worked as a BBC radio producer and her writing has appeared in The Telegraph. She loves talking to people in their various places in the world, and believes it’s the best way to sustainably travel. Her blog The Ink Tapes describes her encounters in short stories.

2020-07-28T03:32:11+00:00Categories: Travel|Tags: , |