Drought takes heavy toll on Wayúu people


The indigenous Wayúu people have been nothing if not adaptable in the thousands of years they have inhabited Colombia’s Guajira Peninsula, a thumb-shaped projection into the Caribbean Sea and the northernmost point of South America. When food ran short on account of drought, they would migrate to friendlier climes. Confronted by Spanish armies in the colonial era, they learned to ride and shoot to defend themselves.

But the Wayúu now face what is arguably one of their greatest challenges ever, experts say, in this case a severe and devastatingly prolonged drought. La Guajira, the government department that includes the peninsula and runs southwest to embrace a portion of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia’s spectacular coastal mountain range, has always experienced dry spells. Yet climate scientists say intense El Niño weather patterns likely associated with global warming have made this drought particularly punishing.

The drought began in 2014, and started killing off crops in Alta Guajira, the peninsula’s northernmost and driest region. Soon after, livestock began to starve.

So, eventually, did the Wayúu. As the drought has continued, extending virtually throughout La Guajira, malnutrition has descended like a plague on Wayúu communities. Illness from contaminated water is now commonplace in the department.

The Wayúu in recent centuries have sustained themselves mainly through farming and ranching in a region which, while arid, typically has received rainfall in April as well as in September and October. With the amount of precipitation dwindling, many young Wayúu have been forced to leave their families’ traditional homesteads, called rancherías, to attempt a life in the city. The extreme weather is only expected to become more common in the coming decades. Experts worry that as a result, the Wayúu may not be able to preserve their culture and traditions, which are strongly linked to their land and subsistence-farming lifestyle.

Surrounded by a sea of sand and cactus, the Wayúu community of Namunashitou is not accustomed to visitors. The small group of rancherías can only be reached by helicopter or a grueling six-hour drive from the nearest town through the Alta Guajira desert. A visit to the village in August revealed that its wells had been dry for months. But largely because of the community’s remoteness, government trucks had not come by to drop off 200-liter, water-filled tanks for weeks. Corruption might also have been a factor: rather than transporting tanks to each community as they’re supposed to, government workers sometimes sell them to the highest bidder.

In August, community members reported rising before dawn to load their surviving donkeys with water jugs and make a half-day journey to the nearest functioning well. More and more wells were becoming polluted, said the community leader one afternoon, asking that her name be withheld. She looked out across the cracked dirt of the community toward parched land studded with dead trees, an area that in normal times would have supported pasture for cattle and goats as well as food crops. Then, in her native Wayuunaiki she said: “There is nothing here but thirst and hunger.” As a translator relayed her comment, she pulled the lid off an empty water tank.

Hurricane season later brought some rain to La Guajira, but the drought conditions have since continued. In normal times, rural communities like Namunashitou have lived in cycles. Thanks to the region’s traditionally rainy months the rancherías’ fields typically would yield yucca, corn and beans. In normal years grass for cows and goats grew long, and each home had a jagüey, an earthen hole in the ground to collect and store rainwater. Once the rain stopped, the Wayúu would rely on their food stores and livestock, and drink from the jagüey.

Over the last two decades the dry seasons have begun to intensify. According to Colombia’s Institute of Hydrology and Meteorology (Ideam), droughts in La Guajira have become more frequent and have tended to take hold at unlikely times of the year. At first, the Wayúu were able to sustain themselves. Because a small portion of the traditional Wayúu territory extends into Venezuela, the Wayúu can cross freely over the border into that country. During former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s reign, many Colombian Wayúucrossed the border to purchase price-fixed food to eat or to sell to other Colombians.

“The land doesn’t produce enough so what we’ve seen here is a strong tendency towards using the black market,” says Carlos Valdivieso, head of the government-run Colombian Institute for Family Wellbeing in La Guajira. “This market began to decline at the same time El Niño was at its worst and that is what brought us to this point.”

When drought struck in 2014, the government reported 37,000 people were suffering from malnutrition. Trafficking in contraband quickly shifted from a convenient way to make money to a critical food source for Wayúu who could no longer grow crops. Venezuela’s economy was already descending into its current abyss, and by mid-2015 food shortages in Venezuela cut the flow of cheap goods to Colombia. In 2016, border controls made ferrying contraband more difficult and now many Wayúu have begun to starve. Meanwhile, unusually dry weather has continued.

Compared to the rest of Colombia, La Guajira’s malnutrition rate has always been high, but since 2015 the government has been managing a full-blown crisis. As of September, 56 children had died of malnutrition in La Guajira in 2016, almost all of them Wayúu. Though comparative statistics are hard to come by, the government says the malnutrition rate in La Guajira is higher than elsewhere in the country. To combat the problem, Valdivieso’s organization has set up a network of rural day cares through which some 68,000 Wayúu children receive three balanced meals a day at locations generally within one kilometer of their homes.

Even with the government’s efforts, there are still approximately 5,000 children that the state does not reach. Non-governmental groups have filled some of the gaps, but in many cases the malnourished children have to leave their homes for treatment, accompanied by a parent.

The link between climate change and La Guajira’s drought, although widely suspected, has not been proved. But Ideam says its data does implicate back-to-back El Niño cycles—the climate phenomenon that every few years results in unusually high Pacific ocean temperatures off Ecuador and northern Peru, causing extreme weather—as the drought’s primary cause. And studies issued this year found links between climate change and increased frequency of El Niño.

Though detailed climate data for La Guajira is lacking, the information that does exist indicates rising average temperatures in recent decades. Experts anticipate that warming will cause more long droughts in La Guajira, as well as periods of intense rain and flooding, in the coming decades.

“The entire [South America] region has been impacted by the changes in the frequency of these phenomena,” says Martha Ligia Castellanos, professor at the University of La Guajira. “In the case of La Guajira, El Niño has caused less rainfall and very high temperatures.”

La Guajira’s travails reflect looming meteorological challenges Colombia as a whole will face on account of climate change. Situated near the equator with major rivers and coastline along both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Colombia is highly vulnerable to the volatile weather that experts forecast will become more common due to global warming. In multiple studies, the country ranks among the top 20 nations expected to be most affected by extreme weather related to climate change.

The problems already have begun. Though La Guajira’s has suffered a drought brought by El Niño, much of the rest of the country has been soaked by rains associated with the La Niña weather pattern—El Niño’s opposite in that it stems from cooler-than-normal ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. In 2011, torrential rains and record floods due to La Niña caused Colombia’s two largest rivers to overflow, affecting millions of people and displacing at least 69,000. Since then, rainy seasons have continued to be stronger than normal and seasonal flooding has become the norm.

In La Guajira and other Colombian communities, hostile weather of one kind or another has forced people to leave their homes. The dislocation has become so great that it has drawn comparisons to that caused by the country’s half-century-long armed conflict, which has displaced more than seven million Colombians. The severity of the problem has led agencies and organizations that typically have worked on population migration caused by war to focus as well on displacement due to extreme weather.

“Once the peace accords started to reduce the number of displaced people from armed conflict, we began to see all of these other issues that were displacing people,” says Elsa García, a climate-change specialist at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Bogóta.

Though armed groups continue to be the main driver of displacement, García believes that soon environmental causes will become the primary cause of forced migration within Colombia. And as occurred as a result of the armed conflict, many of the environmental migrants will likely never to return to their hometowns. A study conducted by the IOM in 2011 followed 2,000 people displaced by the floods and found that after two years, almost half remained in their new homes elsewhere, in most cases abandoning rural communities for large cities.

No subsequent studies on environmental migration in Colombia have been conducted, but the IOM and other agencies working with populations vulnerable to climate change see the trend continuing. In La Guajira, young Wayúu facing harsh drought conditions have begun leaving the rancherías in elevated numbers in search of new lives in the city. The same is true for rural flood regions. The new migration patterns, experts say, may put Colombian city planning to the test.

Cities feel impact, too

While rural areas have been the most affected by extreme weather in Colombia, cities have not been immune. During the 2011 floods, urban areas with improper drainage systems sustained extensive damage and, more recently, sea-water rise has begun causing erosion in coastal cities. Large cities such as Cartagena have rolled out plans to adapt to climate change, but none of them has begun planning in a serious way for the arrival of climate refugees.

In Riohacha, the capital of La Guajira Department, the effects of an influx of such refugees are already being felt. The city has experienced rapid population growth in the last several years, but still lacks employment opportunities for many of its people. Displaced Wayúu who settle in the city typically move in with relatives and struggle to find work. Riohacha’s main beach strip is frequented by Wayúu vendors selling traditional mochilas, or handwoven bags, to tourists. An hour outside of Riohacha, in Maicao, some Wayúu families in the city outskirts have attempted to recreate their rancherías, allowing their donkeys and chickens to roam freely through the streets.

Outside of La Guajira, many government officials in Bogotá have begun to recognize the potential for mass migration to cities in the coming decades. In 2014, Colombia became one of the first countries in the region to add climate-caused migration to its national climate-change adaption plan; nevertheless, the focus of the government and most nonprofits when it comes to migrants remains on victims of the country’s armed conflict.

Due to this focus on the armed conflict, most migrants forced from their homes by severe weather do not qualify for government programs designed to aid internally displaced people. Many climate migrants lack the skills and education for urban employment and wind up living in impoverished areas.

“In terms of the environment we are always ready to help in the case of a disaster, but the priority is centered around building peace and allowing people to return to their land,” says García of the IOM.

Will to stay

Though many Wayúu have left their homes and conditions no longer support historic population levels on their land, most here are determined to stay and continue their traditional subsistence lifestyle.

Organizations are digging new wells and installing pumps, but the Wayúu’s isolation has made such efforts difficult to organize at scale.

“The Wayúu are not concentrated within their territory and so institutional aid has been complicated,” Castellanos says. “We need to start proposing solutions that fit with the way the Wayúu actually live.”

In addressing the problem, engineers have turned to one resource La Guajira possesses in abundance: wind. La Guajira is one of the windiest places on the planet, and windpower has been used to operate water pumps in areas without electricity. In some parts of the peninsula, the same technology is being used to generate electricity for schools and health clinics.

Technology of this and other types can help many Wayúu communities in La Guajira, but the traditions of those communities will remain at risk if extreme weather continues. While working the land and caring for animals undergirds Wayúu culture, the livelihoods of many Wayúu now center on making crafts for tourists or working in jobs outside their communities. In some cases the lack of resources has spurred conflicts between Wayúu clans.

“The drought is doing more than just killing crops,” García says. “There is an entire generation of young Wayúu losing their identity. They are in a social situation that is about to burst.”

- Lindsay Fendt

Martha Castellanos
Environmental Engineering Professor
University of La Guajira
Riohacha, Colombia
Tel: +(575) 728-2729 Ext. 281
Elsa García
Environmental Monitor
International Organization for Migration
Bogotá, Colombia
Tel: +(571) 639-7777
Gladis Yamin
Aporta tu Granito
Riohacha, Colombia
Tel: +(57 301) 282-5425