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Environment

Climate change threatens Colombia's largest indigenous group

Colombia is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. In the dry north, the climate crisis is already forcing people out of their homes.
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12 Oct 2016 – 12:50 PM EDT
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A Wayuú ranchería sits on the horizon of La Guajira's expansive desert. Crédito: Lindsay Fendt

By Lindsay Fendt

WUINKUARU, WURU, COLOMBIA — Every morning at 3 a.m., 11-year-old Carlos Jusayu leaves his indigenous community in Colombia’s La Guajira peninsula, in the country’s north, and pedals his bike into the desert in search of water. As he rides away from his mud-walled home, he passes the hollow crater his family dug years ago to collect rainwater. These holes, or jagüeys, have been used for centuries by the indigenous Wayuú to save water during dry spells, but the boy can’t remember the last time it was full.

After three years of drought, all the wells near the Jusayu family’s homestead, or ranchería, have gone dry. Crops no longer grow and once healthy herds of livestock have died off. All throughout Alta Guajira, the region’s extreme north, Wayuú are watching helplessly as their children and communities languish from malnutrition and disease from polluted wells.

Exposed to the elements in La Guajira’s arid desert, Jusayu and his fellow Wayuú have always lived on the edge of survival. The group famously resisted Spanish conquerors by learning to shoot firearms, and the same grit that has allowed them to survive in the desert for so long has helped them weather centuries of change. With more than 140,000 in La Guajira, the Wayuú are now the largest indigenous ethnic group in Colombia.

But an extreme drought is pushing communities to the breaking point. Unable to grow food or keep their animals alive, La Guajira’s Wayuú can no longer rely on the land to survive. Scientists say climate change is to blame – and that effects will only continue to worsen in the coming years.

Each day, Jusayu returns home after dawn with buckets full of brown liquid. The water is probably polluted, his father says, as he dips a mug into its murky surface. There is nothing else to drink.

“The elders say that this is a punishment from god,” said Veronica Joseyu, Carlos’ cousin. “They say it is for evil things happening in the rest of the world."

Scientists with the University of La Guajira attribute the severity of the current drought to repeated El Niño cycles, which typically cause higher temperatures and lower rainfall in the Caribbean. While El Niño has always occurred as a natural phenomenon, studies show that the cycles’ increased frequency is likely induced by climate change.

“We may not have the historical registries to confirm that this is triggered by climate change, but in the last few years we have seen temperature rises as well as sea-level rise,” said Martha Ligia Castellanos, a professor at the University of La Guajira who works with climate change issues throughout the region. “Both of those issues are often related to climate change."

While Hurricane Matthew recently brought relief to the region in the way of rain, its effects were short-lived. Conditions in La Guajira are not expected to improve anytime soon and climate models predict that drought in the Caribbean will intensify in coming years.

In the past, resourceful Wayuú would move during long droughts to other spots within their territory, which extends into Venezuela. But in recent years, many families have stopped migrating due to Venezuela’s economic collapse. With shortages in Venezuela, the cheap contraband food that many poor communities in La Guajira had relied on has also stopped, leaving many Wayuú with no affordable way to eat.

Many communities now rely on what food and water they get from the government or NGOs. In the more remote areas of Alta Guajira, this help is inconsistent if it comes at all. The shortages have spurred a growing malnourishment crisis among Wayuú children with 58 reported deaths this year alone.

At Aporta tu granito, a foundation dedicated to fighting malnutrition outside of Riohacha, La Guajira’s capital, all of the current patients come from Wayuú families. Traditional Wayuú hammocks hang next to each child’s crib for mothers to sleep in while their children receive treatment. The foundation opened eight years ago, but has seen a sharp increase in patients since the drought.

“We have always had Wayuú patients,” said Luz Angela Sierra, the primary doctor at Aporta tu granito, “but about three years ago patients started coming in saying all their animals and crops were dying. The drought has had a huge effect."

In a hammock on the foundation’s patio, 23-year-old Ana María Pushaina sits rocking her 10-month-old son Diego, who was diagnosed with malnutrition by a field worker two weeks earlier. Though Diego is now gaining weight back in her small community outside Riohacha, Pushaina’s parents are unable to find enough food for her other two children.

“Before we had yucca, beans and corn. In droughts we could drink from the jagüey,” she said. “The drought killed all of our goats and crops. I went to work in the city, but I had to give up my job to bring Diego here."

The crisis is causing many young Wayuú to leave the parched desert to try their luck in the city. Though drought is the driver in La Guajira, other climate affects are fomenting increased migration throughout all of Colombia, which ranks in multiple studies as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change.

According to Elsa García, a climate change specialist with the International Organization for Migration in Bogóta, climate change is expected to become the primary driver of displacement in Colombia, surpassing those fleeing armed conflict, which has uprooted some seven million Colombians over the past five decades.

With conditions worsening, García and others believe technology may be the only thing that could save the Wayuú way of life. Many rancherías already use water purifiers and windmills to extract groundwater, but the challenge is spreading these throughout La Guajira in a way that benefits the communities.

“Right now, we need to listen to them,” she said. “The Wayuú have always been self sufficient and now we need to find a way to allow them to continue that way, on their own territory, with what they need to live good lives."

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