Colombia’s largest indigenous group is dying with media complicity

Written by Dan Kovalik on August 23, 2016

Wayuu by Dan Kovalik

Indigenous Wayúu children in northeastern Colombia. Photo by Dan Kovalik.

Editor’s note: NB Power sources some of its coal from the Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia.

Earlier this week, on August 1, the Supreme Court of Colombia ordered President Manuel Santos and other individuals and entities to take all appropriate and necessary measures, in an efficient and coordinated manner, to ensure that children and adolescents of the Wayúu indigenous community receive access to clean drinking water, food, health care, housing and other basic amenities necessary for their survival.

This order follows the December 11, 2015 decision of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) which directed the Colombian government to take similar immediate “precautionary measures”  to ensure the lives and personal safety of Wayúu children in La Guajira, Colombia.  The IACHR decision was prompted by the documented deaths of 4770 Wayúu children during the past 8 years as a result of thirst, malnutrition and preventable disease.   For their part, the Wayúu claim that over 14,000 children have died.  In any case, these numbers are staggering for the 100,000 Wayúu who live in the communities covered by the IAHCHR decision.

The biggest threat to the Wayúu and their children comes from the lack of drinkable water – a fact which I witnessed on a recent trip I made to La Guajira with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).   The water that the Wayúu once had has been stolen from them – both by climate change which they had no part in creating, and by the damming of the Rancheria River which once fed their communities but which is now being used for the private benefit of coal mining giant Cerrejón.   Cerrejón uses 17 million liters of water a day while each resident of La Guajira is left with an average of 0.7 litres per day to live on.

Despite the IAHCR ruling nearly 9 months ago, the Colombian authorities have done next to nothing to alleviate the suffering and untimely death of the Wayúu children, thus precipitating the August 1 Supreme Court decision which again orders the government to take urgent measures to address this crisis.   In the meantime, as the IAHCR itself explains, the chief advocate on behalf of the Wayúu in these cases, Javier Rojas Uriana, has received death threats by right-wing paramilitaries trying to pressure him into halting his legal actions to protect the Wayúu.

Just as remarkable as the dire situation facing the Wayúu is the almost total lack of press coverage regarding their situation.   Thus, while the press covers the shortages in Venezuela nearly every day, and in a quite histrionic fashion which ignores the complexities and subtleties of the situation there, there is almost a total blackout of the real famine confronting the Wayúu of Colombia just over the border.   And, it is this media blackout, even in the face of major rulings by both the IACHR and Colombia’s high court, which of course allows this famine to continue without pause.

Dan Kovalik is a labour and human rights lawyer based in the U.S.

This article was first published by The Huffington Post.

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