The Divided Guajira

Author:  Alfredo Molano Bravo

Translated by: Chelsea Match

Edited by: Nora Walker


Alfredo Molano keeps track of the controversy over the Rancheria River diversion. The diversion would allow multinationals to exploit 600 million tons of coal that lie beneath its course.


For many centuries, the Guajira was considered a no man’s land: an unpopulated, deserted land where only the wind would blow. At one point there were pearls, but the Spaniards took them away. After, only cacti and loneliness remained. The indigenous people were classified as savages, therefore, it was lawful to kill them in order to defend trade and civilization. It was a wasteland. For Spain, the Guajira was a headache because the peninsula was a bridge between the mainland and the Lesser Antilles in the hands of the English and Dutch, who from there challenged the commercial monopoly of the Crown. Smuggled goods entered through Aruba and Margarita and arrived in Mompox, and from there went to the mining regions of Antioquia and Cauca. The Wayuu were more friends to the smugglers than to the authorities, and many took part in the wars and uprisings against Spain. The indigenous people were seminomadic, and they knew all of the paths like the backs of their hands. In the final civil war, the General Manjarres or the General Acosta – or either of them – used the indigenous people as trail guides. For half a century, the indigenous and mestizo people of the Guajira continued to use their territory as a route for smuggling.


The Border

Lopez Pumarejo declared the upper Guajira a free port. The border flexibility ended when large-scale exploitation of the oil in lake Maracaibo started. Therefore, the government got serious and signed a border treaty (1941) leaving the island of the monks up for grabs. Gomez’s conservative government tried to give Venezuela the island of the monks in exchange for the closure of the border to the Llano guerrillas and the surrender of Eliseo Velasquez, one of their leaders. A few years later, Rojas Pinilla, considering the possibility of a war with our neighbor, decided to win over the indigienous by installing hundreds of windmills and building small dams for them. The National Front created the governing body and declared Maicao a free port. Cigarrettes, liquors, clothing, and appliances left Bahia Portete to flood the San Andresitos (small contraband stores) of the entire country.

From Santa Marta to Puerto Estrella, the route map and lawlessness made the exportation of all the marijuana produced in the Sierra Nevada and the mountains of Perija in the 70s and 80s easy and created a mafia network that engulfed the public administration, the free port, and the weak legal economy. With the cocaine trade, the Mafia became a powerful paramilitary structure that replaced the State. Ports, airports, public offices, and private businesses were all part of a network that no government has been able to take down or subdue.


The Coal

During the reign of contraband, the middle and lower Guajira were passageways associated with illicit networks until the 70s when Cerrejon was discovered. Cerrejon was the huge coal mine that was exploited via open-pit mining a decade later. The attacks against the Wayuu villages were brutal. The security forces and armed mafia supported evictions, the split of ancestral territory, and the depopulation of the areas of mining interest. Conflicts between the indigenous people and mining companies have never ended despite the sustained efforts of the companies to capture, in any way, the cooperation of the Wayuu. The main lures have been the offer of employment, increased royalties, and improved public services, promises that have never been fulfilled: of the complex’s 10,000 employees, 4,700 are peasants and only 1% is indigenous. Regarding the improvement of the quality of life, there are economic proportions that show the real link between the mine and the region: investment in social compensation for the Wayuu communities between 1982 and 2002 was close to five million dollars, which represents two and a half days of coal production. Today, the Cerrejon produces 32 million tons of coal per year, half of what the country exports, despite the 70% of guajira people living in poverty and 31% in extreme poverty. The Vichada and Choco people are the only ones who are poorer.

The tragedy of Fukushima put the production of electricity from nuclear energy under scrutiny, and coal prices soared in the global market from 40 dollars a ton to 230 dollars a ton today. The Cerrejon, which now belongs mostly to the multinational companies BHP Billiton, Xstrata and Anglo American, has begun to implement an expansion plan that will allow it to reach double its annual production over the next 20 years. This goal involves exploiting a deposit of 600 million tons that lie beneath the middle of the Rancheria River. Exploiting this mine involves the diversion of a 26-kilometer stretch of the river that will affect 40% of the water provided by the alluvial aquifer located on its banks and under its bed. It must be remembered that the Rancheria is the only river that waters the semidesert area of the middle and lower Guajira, mostly Wayuu territory safeguards. The indigenous have protested because they fear that the work endangers their way of life, which the Wayuu Vicenta Siosi describes like this:

“The people here live off of fishing. Even the children capture mullet, catfish, bocachicos (a small native fish), and shrimp, which are our diet. The women gather cherries, iguarayas, mamoncillos (a lime-like fruit), cotoprix, and wild fruits to sell. Some Wayuu always have roses right next to the river. With great effort, they carry water with buckets and water plant by plant. Others take mud and water from the river to make bricks for inner-city housing.”

The expansion project, by law, should be consulted with the indigenous communities. Indeed, the company has begun to take steps in that direction while surrounded by a strange silence about the true scope and impact of the project. It seems that first they search for the acceptance of the communities before the statement of the purpose and effects of the work. Employees of the company, accompanied by officials of the Ministry of the Interior, mention the benefits of the expansion plans to the communities, avoiding or mystifying the negative impacts. The Government supports the arguments of the company with an apparently impartial silence but is loaded with content in favor of the company, which usually offers all kinds of gifts as compensation for those negative effects that they cannot hide. The strategy of both the mining company and the Government is to convince the communities with offers or at least divide them in order to negotiate with a group on behalf of the whole. Prior to the consultation, the company consistently paints a rosy picture of the future of the region. Needless to say, the expansion plans are accompanied by a significant increase in the presence of security forces and security measures.

As expected, the river diversion has effects not only on the people but on the flora and fauna. The “animals of the night” (as the Wayuu, whom we call savages, call them), would be herded toward designated areas via loud explosions, according to the company’s environmental plans. The “animals of the day”, i.e. domestic animals, suffer the same fate as the communities that would be displaced, as in the Manantial de Cañaverales. Manantial de Cañaverales is a township of the municipality of San Juan that has fertility and exceptional freshness for the region because it has a large water hole. It’s a niche surrounded by giant ceiba trees and caracolíes, inhabited by a family of churuco monkeys, where an aquifer creates a flow of clear, slightly bluish water. It is a small paradise that is taken care of by the community. The fountain waters the area and serves as an aquifer for the community. Even though the diversion isn’t in the plans for now, the population fears it because the carbon outcrop studied by geologists is less than two kilometers from the village. The whole world knows the story of Tabacal, a small village that was destroyed in 2001 by a judge’s order to satisfy economic interests of the concession to Exxon Mobil.



Through Manantial de Cañaverales, a highway passes where trails converge to unite San Juan with Maicao. It is the way of the so-called Caravan of Death. There is a permanent fleet of vehicles that transport contraband gasoline from Venezuela to Cuestecitas, on one hand, and to La Paz, Cesar, on the other. In Venezuela, a gallon of gasoline costs 200 columbian pesos, in Maicao 2000, in Bucaramanga or Barranquilla, 6000. Calculations on the route reveal that 9000 gallons of gasoline can pass through Manantial de Cañaverales daily. The strategic steps seem to be controlled by the FARC, while the caravan seems to be controlled by paramilitaries.

The route will cross with the railroad between the mines of San Juan and the new multimode port Brisas in Dibulla, which they have started to plan. It is a new project of exploitation, realized by the Brazilian company MPX, that has a reservoir of 5,200 million tons of coal, which will permit the exportation of 25 million tons annually. The initial investment is estimated at 5,500 million dollars and includes the 150-kilometer railway to the sea. Cañaverales and Papayal are in the orbit of the concession. The villages of the Wayuu in the area have created the Association of Indigenous Wayuu Authorities and Councils of Southern Guajira (Aaciwasug), who radically oppose the two large projects: the diversion of Ranchería and the Brisas railroad. Moreover, they do not accept the prior consultation: “We will never accept-they have postulated, the diversion of a river that gives us life. Before the right of consultation we are entitled to our way of thinking. None of us want to sell their dead, their cemeteries.”

The position of the indigenous people has won great regional support. In Riohacha, coal labor unions, peasant and student associations, local politicians, and citizens established the Pro-defense Committee for the Rancheria River and Manantial de Cañaverales to oppose the projects. They have organized forums and they are preparing a large departmental march. The dispute between the civic movement and the alliance – to not say gavilla – between the Government and the businesses will be a litmus test for the mining locomotive. Today, the Guajira is divided into three parts: the North, taken by paramilitaries – an issue that few authorities speak of- ; the Center, dominated by fuel smuggling, divided between ‘Urabeños’ and guerrillas; and the South, exploited by the most gigantic and powerful coal companies in the world. The die is cast. The future is no one’s.


Junguito: “This project is just under evaluation.”

Just two weeks after taking over the management of Cerrejon in March this year, Roberto Pombo Junguito assured, through various media, that the Rancheria river diversion project was in the evaluation process in order to determine whether or not it is appropriate for the region and the company.

“It’s a clarification I want to make because the news on the issue surprise me. This is one of many growth projects that we have, and it is just starting the long study process that could last between one and two years,” said the industrial engineer who replaced Leon Teicher in office and who had refused to speak publicly about it.

Junguito has indicated that the engineers are studying other ways to quantify the impacts on the environment and the community. “Any decision made will be made with the approval of the community.”


Liberals in opposition to the Rancheria River diversion

Upon learning the intention of the company Cerrejon to divert the Rancheria River in the Guajira in order to increase the exploitation of mineral, Liberal Party Chairman Simon Gaviria announced, “the commitment to defend the Wayuu and to oppose the project which aims to remove about 500 million tons of coal, affecting the indigenous communities.”

Gaviria denounced that in the minutes of preliminary agreements for the consultation process, they are making pacts with community leaders seeking their support for the project in exchange for boats, tankers, fillings for flooded areas, barbed wire, construction of a sports field, and even yarn to make crafts.

Gaviria affirmed that these negotiations are becoming so irregular that there is no major difference with what happened five centuries ago when Spanish colonizers exchanged gold for mirrors and items of little value.


(This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, and translator are cited.)

Location: The Guajira

Date Published: June 9, 2012

Source: El Espectador



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