On the Edge

How the Wayuu and Afro-Colombians struggle for cultural survival a photo essay made in the Northern department of La Guajira in Colombia.

Coal fired electricity plants are the most important producers of electricity worldwide. Lack of transparency of the energy companies about the origin of their material gives companies the possibility to avoid public and political pressure to improve the circumstances within their supply chain.

In the far North of Colombia live the indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian descendants close to Cerrejón, one of the biggest open coal pit mines of the world. The Wayuu and Afro-Colombians are semi nomadic pastoralist cultures who have lived here for centuries. Their way of living is being threatened by large scale mining activities. Without land they are not able to move freely, grow food, herd cattle and fish. Their land is their everything, the gateway to the survival of their culture.

Unfortunately this land holds carbon, the most important raw material for the production of electricity, which already accounts for 41 percent of the global energy production. A number that is likely to grow to more than 50 percent in the coming decades according to the World Coal Association (WCA). Cerrejón wants to expand its export capacity to over 40 million tons of coal by 2015, an expansion of 8 million tons a year. Land is therefore of big importance. Claims of the company that say they work environmentally friendly and taking notion of the surrounding communities turn out to be falls: culture, traditions and the survival of the indigenous population are still being threatened.

The mining company, owned by Multinationals Anglo American, BHB Billiton and Xstrata in equal shares, spans over 69.000 hectares of land and exports over 32 million tons of coal each year, where almost sixty percent is directly shipped to European harbors for use in electricity plants. Although the company states to work environmentally friendly and taking notion of the surrounding communities it is polluting ecosystems and has destroyed complete villages. Once a clear river teeming with fish, the Ranchería river is now a brown muddy stream with hardly any life in it. People from surrounding communities like Tabaco, have forcefully been removed from their land, making them one of the two or three million internally displaced people in Colombia. Which hold second place after Sudan with this number.
Even though Cerrejón has created living areas for some of the communities by means of compensation, life is not the same. People feel lost in urbanized settlements or are tied to the boundaries of reserves to live in houses with hardly any space for livestock, on soil where not a crop will grow. Many wait on agreed resettlement or reparation payments.

An abandoned house in Provincial with the outer edges of the mine in sight.

A family having breakfast in front of their home. The Cerrejon mining company exports over 32 million tons of coal each year, 40,5 percent of Colombians total coal export, making millions of dollars of profit. Meanwhile the department of La Guajira is one of the poorest of the country, where almost 60 percent lives in poverty.

An abandoned house in Provincial with the outer edges of the mine in sight. People left here due to the consequences of mining. Over the years the mine has come closer to communities alike, destroying whole settlements. According to the WCA the generation of electricity through coal will increase in the coming decades from 41 percent to over 50 percent.

Pointing at the edges of the mine, Jorge stands in front of Rio Ranchería. Once a clear river teeming with fish, it has now turned into a muddy stream. According to research studies done by Censat the mine uses millions of liters of water every day, to wash the carbon that is extracted. Leaving communities without fresh water.

A boy cycles in the community of Chancleta. One of the communities on the edge of the coalmine Cerrejon. The mountain is said to be waist from the company.

A meal is shared outside in the community of Lutamana. This Wayuu community right on the edge of the mine is under treat of land owners and the Multi-national, but is holding on to their land and traditions.

A displaced Afro-Colombian family from Tabaco. In April 2001 the community of Tabaco has forcefully been removed from their land with heavy machinery. Used to grow crops and herd cattle, many now live in the nearby town of Hato Nuevo waiting for agreed resettlement.

The house of a displaced Afro-Colombian family from Tabaco. In April 2001 the community of Tabaco has forcefully been removed from their land with heavy machinery. Used to grow crops and herd cattle, many now live in the nearby town of Hato Nuevo waiting for agreed resettlement.

Rogélio, an Afro-Colombian writer, has been forcefully displaced from his land in 2001. Despite governments' effords, displacement is still a serious problem in Colombia, where about five million people are internally displaced.

One of the few fresh water recourses of the region. Communities depend on this pond for water, while the main source of fresh water in La Guajira the Rio Ranchería is being contaminated due to mining operations.

With about 300.000 people the Wayuu are the biggest indigenous group of the country. Here on the edge of the mine the region is full with complaints about unfamiliar diseases: respiratory problems, lung problems and heavy headaches. All point to the carbon dust that is transported through the air. “When it rains again for the first time, the water that comes down from the roofs is pitch black”, tells Faustino one of the elders of the community.

Although the power of the mine is big, there is resistance. The Wayuu and Afro-Colombians show resilience. They unite themselves and get support from national and international NGO’s. Censat, an NGO from Bogotá who focuses on environmental issues, is giving workshops in this regions to inform people about their rights and the situation.
An important instrument for indigenous people is ILO convention 169, which gives them the right on a consulta previa, the right to be informed before plans are being implemented. This should give people influence in the process. Reality however is different. These consultas previas seem more like unplanned visits to promote new plans and to reduce the possibility of any influence and resistance.

Nevertheless communities had impact. Last year Cerrejón made plans to redirect the river Ranchería to be able to extract a large amount of carbon that lies beneath it, communities protested. Such an interference within nature goes against all the beliefs of the Wayuu and Afro-Colombians. This is why this led to big protests which resulted in the withdrawal of the plan, for the time being. An important moment for the communities.

Seen the economic drive to expand the mine communities surrounding Cerrejón are not safe. Like Lutamana, right on the edge of the mine, is under pressure of the Multinational and big land owners who want to pursue their land. The contrasts are enormous, while Cerrejón is using million of liters of water a day to wash carbon, only 16 percent in poor rural areas of La Guajira have access to clean drinking water.
In Lutamana people believe their only recourse of fresh water is being contaminated. Either by the daily dynamite blasts in the mine which transports fine coal dust into the water. “Or because we don’t want to leave and people did something with the water to get us out of here”, suggests one the inhabitants. The people here are not planning to leave, while this is the land where the souls of their forefathers rest in peace.

Young Wayuu girls from Lutamana will follow the footsteps of their elders, continuing their struggle for land. Some say they want to go to university so they are able to serve their community better.

The displaced Afro-Colombian writer, Rogélio, has created a little museum in his house to remember what they used to use in daily life. There are spoons, instruments and bottles made out of calabashes. In his little garden outside he still grows some medicinal plants he and his family uses.

A mother of an Afro-Colombian displaced family in her house in Hato Nuevo. A disproportionate number of internally displaced peoples are either afro-Colombians or indigenous people.

A young girl and her family are sitting outside their house in el Cerro de Hatonuevo. Although many of the children go to school now, they do not always learn the local language. This knowledge is slowly disappearing.

The water of the river is not useable any more due to the mining activities. The communities now rely on the distribution of portable water from the municipality. The access however is highly unreliable.

A meal is shared outside in the community of Lutamana. This Wayuu community right on the edge of the mine is under treat of land owners and the Multi-national, but is holding on to their land and traditions.

Ana Maria Epiayu, one of the elderly woman who knows about the time before the mine existed. In the mid 70’s the first outsider to appear in this area and tested the soil for minerals was a Dutch man.