A group of indigenous leaders traveled to Washington last month to propose legislation that would grant them access to a currently inaccessible river, leaving them without a water source and with mass health consequences.
The Wayuu people, Colombia’s largest indigenous group, are established in the extreme north of the country, in the desert peninsula of La Guajira.
The ethnicity lives largely in impoverished conditions, lacking food and basic services like electricity, water, healthcare and education.
The Rancheria River – the community’s only accessible water source – has been dammed and mostly dried up for years, leaving the Wayuu people in an extreme situation of thirst and starvation.
Most of the river is completely dry, with its flow directed exclusively towards large estates in the south of La Guajira and for industrial coal mine operations. The region’s exploitation of opencast coal mining is the largest in the world.
The state Ombudsman, responsible for the defense of human rights, has declared the situation a “humanitarian crisis.”
The Wayuu community last month attended a meeting of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, in a desperate attempt to safeguard their fundamental rights.
Five indigenous officials and their legal adviser, Javier Rojas, called for urgent precautionary measures from the IACHR, to re-enable use of their only accessible river.
The group requested the immediate opening of the gates that restrict the flow of water, in the hope this will stop the increasing number of deaths by starvation of children and older adults.
They requested that the CIDH draft both national and international legislation that states the primary destination of water should always, without any exception, be for human beings.
Only once a satisfactory water supply is guaranteed for the people, should the surplus be used for agricultural and industrial purposes, said to the Wayuu officials.
Colombian lawyer Carolina Sacicha Moreno drafted the request of the law.
The legislation would allow “the Wayuu community to access water in a secure, indefinite, prioritized and exclusive way,” Moreno explained.
It would facilitate the “good use of a public resource that today is repressed by a dam leaving the indigenous with no access,” the lawyer added.
The resultant death toll of indigenous people through starvation and malnutrition is built on estimations, as the Wayuu people lack a state presence in their region to provide precise figures.
Additionally, many children suffering from starvation have not been inscribed on the civil register at birth, and so their deaths are not reportable.
However, according to figures from Colombian statistics administration DANE, 4,151 children died between 2008 and 2013 in La Guajira. 278 died of starvation, 2,671 from preventable diseases and 1,202 died at birth.
This is ongoing despite the fact that La Guajira, with a population of more than 500,000, receives vast royalties for the extraction of their natural resources; carbon and gas. This is in addition to the money the region receives each year as part of the national budget.
However, most of this money is stolen by corrupted local public administration, according to Wayuu representatives Armando Valbuena y Javier Rojas Uriana.
For example, the Program of Food and Nutrition (PAN) received an annual investment of more than $15 million from the Colombian government. Yet this money remains trapped in a web of corruption, through which the money is illegally intercepted and used to collect votes in political campaigns, Uriana claimed in defense of his people’s rights in Washington.
Colombian journalist Gonzalo Guillen has created a documentary, “The River That They Robbed,” which includes images and testimonies from victims of the devastation in La Guajira. The film is scheduled for imminent release on a Miami television channel.
“El río que se robaron” – trailer