democraciaAbierta: Investigation

Winds of change blow through indigenous lands in La Guajira

The Caribbean coastal desert is ground zero for Colombia’s plan to lead the region’s shift to renewable energy, but at huge cost to the Wayúu people

WhatsApp Image 2022-04-16 at 2.52.03 AM.jpeg Andres Bernal Sanchez
Francesc Badia i Dalmases Andrés Bernal Sánchez
22 December 2021, 12.01am
One of the three 49-meter blades under construction at the Guajira-1 wind farm at the end of October 2021
Francesc Badia i Dalmases

Looking like huge, beached white whales in an arid landscape, the wind turbine’s blades lie on the ground. This is Cabo de la Vela, a remote area on the northern tip of the Colombian Guajira, a huge desert region on the Caribbean coast. The turbine is one of ten on the first wind farm to be built in Colombia in 17 years. It will stand 78 metres tall, each blade 49 metres long. The turbines are the new improved variety – bigger, more powerful and more cost-efficient because they can tap higher wind speeds.

The wind farm, called Guajira I, is owned by the Colombian hydroelectric company Isagene. Next door is Jepírachi, a wind farm owned by Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM). Jepírachi was pioneering when it was inaugurated in 2004. Now, its rickety turbines are near the end of their useful life. Black oil runs down the towers, staining what’s advertised as a “clean” source of energy. When asked about this, EPM explained that the park was a pilot project, intended as a place “to learn about the technology, evaluate the benefits of wind energy and build a relationship with the Wayúu community”.

The blades for the new turbines are supposed to lead a regional revolution. They are manufactured by Danish wind turbine maker Vestas, and the Colombian president, Iván Duque, was present when they arrived at the port of Puerto Brisa. Colombia, he promised, would overtake “the leaders in Latin America in energy transition".

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View of the new Guajira-1 wind farm, under construction at the end of October 2021
Andrés Bernal

Transition is the buzzword now in Colombia, ahead of the May presidential election. Gustavo Petro, the left-wing challenger who is regarded as the frontrunner, told El Tiempo newspaper that he will move Colombia away from an “extractivist” economy based on fossil fuels if he is elected president. Meanwhile, Duque’s business-friendly government has committed itself to renewables. This comes at a time of increasing interest worldwide in wind energy. Guajira I is the first of 16 wind farms already approved for La Guajira.

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The old Jepírachi wind farm in La Guajira
Andrés Bernal

Colombia’s minister of energy, Diego Mesa, tweeted a promotional video linking the proposed wind farms to the mining of copper, nickel, lithium, lead, iron and zinc. Without mining these minerals, he stated, “the installation and operation of wind turbines would be impossible”.

To some, the Colombian government’s clean energy transition plan is controversial. In addition to promoting mining, it wants to exploit hydrocarbons and has already awarded dozens of exploration and production contracts to this end. This is in stark contrast to the international community’s push to phase out fossil fuels. The video released by the UN before COP26 in Glasgow underlined the urgency of the task. It showed a dinosaur warning humans against “driving yourselves extinct”. In 70 million years, it says, “that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard. At least, we had an asteroid. What’s your excuse?”

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Nancy Gomez, a Wayuú indigenous leader, spreading coffee for the souls at an ancestral cemetery near Cabo de la Vela, Guajira, Colombia
Andrés Bernal

Wayúu fears for the future

For the Wayúu communities in the north of the Guajira, extinction is not an abstract fear, something to be reminded of by a computer-generated dinosaur. “We see ourselves as on the way to extinction,” said Nancy Gómez, an indigenous environmental leader from the Cabo de la Vela community, as she pondered the likely impact of the wind farms on her people.

Gómez remembers what happened with other Wayúu communities more than 30 years ago, when the giant Cerrejón open-pit bituminous coal mine opened. The largest mine in the region and the tenth largest in the world, Cerrejón was acquired earlier this year by the London-listed miner and commodity trader Glencore for $588 million. This mining megaproject is a permanent point of reference in the region, as its socio-environmental impacts, with the displacement of local communities, contamination from coal dust and disruption of the ecosystem, have made it controversial throughout its history.

The Cerrejón experience has scarred the Wayúu community. Gómez saw the compensation promised by Cerrejón disappear without a trace while the negative effects of the mine’s presence remain. The mine’s owner disputes the compensation issue, insisting that it had complied with a mitigation plan put in place by a Colombian court. A spokesperson told Deutsche Welle, “Cerrejón complied with the implementation of the Immediate Impact Mitigation Plan, achieving 95.2% compliance.”

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An ancestral grave in a Wayuú cemetery near Cabo de la Vela, Guajira, Colombia
Andrés Bernal

Sacred land

Something that especially hurts the Wayúu is the aggression they perceive on territory to which they are intrinsically linked. The land on which the giant mine sits houses the graves of Wayúu ancestors, whose role is central to the spiritual life of the community. Gómez bitterly recalled what happened with a community living near Cerrejón. The mining company did not revere the ancestral cemetery, which was forcibly moved, an act that constituted an intolerable violation for the indigenous peoples of La Guajira.

Cerrejón serves as an example of what can happen when there is a new push towards an energy source. With wind energy the new buzzword in Colombia, the arrangements put in place for wind farms deserve scrutiny.

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Ancestral Wayúu territory in the north of La Guajira, Colombia
Andrés Bernal

Wind energy companies currently express satisfaction with the agreements they have reached with Wayuú communities. However, questions have been raised about these agreements. ‘The East Wind Comes with Revolutions’, a 2019 report on wind farms in La Guajira by the Indepaz peace research institute, said that construction of the power plants can fragment closely knit communities. Meanwhile, the companies are behaving as if royalties are a fix for everything, thereby ignoring a basic reality: the indigenous peoples’ relationship with their land is very different from that found in urban societies, where territory is a commodity that can be easily bought and sold. For indigenous communities, land is integral to their identity. In addition, they perceive the wind farms as controlling the wind, which is sacred to Wayúu cosmogony and is embodied by Jouktai, the wind deity.

Gómez is pessimistic about the large wind farms. Their arrival, she says, means there will be no future for the Wayúu communities. “Our territory is priceless,” she said. “They can give us all the thousands and thousands and millions, but we will still not be well paid. Our wealth is in the land. Our wealth is in the sea. Our wealth is in the air. How are we going to get rid of what is ours? How are we going to allow them to come and fool us like that, and talk about development?”

Such talk doesn’t cut it with business elites in Bogotá or Medellín. Their perception of the guajiros – the Wayúu people – is loaded with racist prejudice. They consider them violent, rebellious, ignorant thieves. It is often said that La Guajira is in a miserable state because the Wayúus stole all the compensation that Cerrejón offered and that the same will happen with the wind farms. But the truth is that while the region is starving, the railway track that is used to transport roughly 100,000 tons of coal a day to Puerto Bolívar, 150 kilometres away, is in perfect working order.

Alongside the train track, the Wayúu live in extreme poverty, comparable to some of the poorest parts of Africa. Child malnutrition is six times higher than the national average. There is hunger and thirst because much of middle and upper Guajira lacks water. There are no power lines, and the existing roads are in a sorry state, becoming impassable mud tracks when it rains.

A child from the Wayúu in Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira, Colombia
Francesc Badia i Dalmases

Abandoning the Wayúu

The abandonment of the Wayúu is hard to understand in Colombia, which is a member of the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries. In 2018, the government tried to improve access to water through the Guajira Azul plan. The first completed project was inaugurated in February 2019. The plan is supposed to cover 49% of the territory, which the government describes as follows: “The rural coverage of water is 4% in upper Guajira, and women and children travel an average of seven kilometres in search of water of poor quality and not suitable for human consumption.” As researcher Joanna Barney pointed out in a recent article published by Indepaz, not a single drop of water reaches any Wayúu household by itself.

By all indications, the 16 wind farms planned for La Guajira will become a reality. The project seems unstoppable, especially as Latin America bets on renewable energy and governments in the region set a target of meeting 70% of their energy needs from renewables by 2030. That said, the wind farms are expected to be controversial because of past experience with Cerrejón and the obvious absence of the Colombian state in much of La Guajira, especially the area along the border with Venezuela. There, corporate vehicles often need a military escort for fear of assault or kidnap.

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Women carrying water early in the morning in Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira, Colombia
Andrés Bernal

In the coming years, the wind farms will start to operate as the clearest example yet seen of environmental racism and disrespect for an existing ecosystem and an area’s indigenous inhabitants. There are fears, for example, of wind farms being established near sacred La Guajira cemeteries. Wilmer Igurán, an ethno-educator and member of the Uriana clan, one of the most powerful within the Wayuú community, reported that a private company has started to mark up the area just a few metres from the community cemetery. “When the deceased are disturbed, they look for a way to get revenge,” he said.

But the wind energy companies remain unmoved. EPM, owner of the Jepírachi wind farm, insists that its social management of the park “is based on respect for the ethnic and cultural integrity of the Wayuu community, on the establishment of relationships of trust and on the search for equity and mutual benefit”.

José Brugues Pushaina, leader of the Kashiworin community, whose small ranch is less than 200 metres from Jepírachi, disagrees. “From what I see, this area is going to be filled with wind farms. And that is a sadness, to see that our countrymen, our indigenous people, are fooled by a pittance. Let’s put it this way… They have been here for 20 years, now they are going to take the turbines away [because this wind farm is now obsolete and closing down], and we are still the same… Supposedly, they came to help, but what did they do?” EPM maintains that the company did in fact carry out “actions such as supplying drinking water through the installation of a desalination plant, contributions to the education of [the area’s] inhabitants, the transportation system, support for artisanal fishing and a number of activities beneficial to the community”.

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Wilmer Iguarán teaching class at the Ipapure community school, La Guajira, Colombia
Andres Bernal

Wind turbines and biodiversity

Another documented impact of wind turbines and the infrastructure needed to transport the energy they generate is on biodiversity. Wind farms cause flora and fauna to change. In the case of La Guajira, migratory birds, for example, will have to alter their routes. Bats, which play a central role in the local ecosystem as pollinators of the cardón cactus species on which the Wayúus depend, will be badly affected. Their wave navigation system gets thrown off by wind turbines. Mortality rates of these flying mammals soars on wind farms.

Bats carry a number of viruses, including coronaviruses. If the ecosystem in which they live is altered by human activity, the possibility of viruses jumping to humans increases, as the World Health Organization (WHO) suggested could have happened with SARS-CoV-2.

While it’s true that renewable energy is part of the solution to the climate crisis, implementation must take into account local ecosystems and communities.

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Talita, a Wayúu indigenous leader, in an ancestral cemetery near Cabo de la Vela, La Guajira, Colombia
Francesc Badia i Dalmases

The case of the Colombian Guajira is paradigmatic. It has been described as ground zero for Colombia’s wind energy industry, “the epicentre of Colombia’s energy transition,” in the words of Diego Mesa Puyo, minister for mines and energy. In the years to come, La Guajira’s landscape will be very different, with gigantic wind turbines as far as the eye can see. But neither the Colombian government nor the companies building the wind farms seem to care genuinely about what will happen to the area’s indigenous communities.

The wind farms, new sources of “clean” energy, seem no different from the old, callous extractivist model of Cerrejón.

This article, and the accompanying documentary, have been made with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Bogotá - Colombia Office.

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