In Colombia, threatened women of the Wayuú community continue to fight rampant mining

  • The Wayuú Women’s Force, founded in 2006, is an Indigenous organization that denounces the coal mining that has dammed and contaminated rivers, leaving much of La Guajira without water.
  • Members of the organization have received death threats but continue to train women to stand up for their human rights.
  • In addition to their work in La Guajira, the Wayuú women are developing ways of holding companies all over the world accountable for their negative environmental impact.

This story was written in partnership with Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto.

Leaving the headquarters of the Wayuú Women’s Force, Mülo’u took the first taxi she saw. It was a little after 10 at night in 2008: fear of the paramilitaries was everywhere in La Guajira. Arriving at her destination, she received a threat from the driver: “You’re safe today, but it won’t be for long. I waited for you and brought you here, just like I have with the others that come out of your meetings. We haven’t killed you because we don’t want to, but we can shoot you all in those hammocks that you sleep in. Now get out of my taxi!”

Mülo’u obeyed the order. Shaking, she packed her bags and left. By then, the Wayuú Women’s Force —an Indigenous organization that Mülo’u had been a part of since its formation — was already known in Colombia for publicly denouncing environmental and human rights violations committed in her territory. The two years they had been working had been enough to put its members in the crosshairs of violent actors like the paramilitaries and other criminal groups. Since then, the threats haven’t stopped. They continued year after year, seemingly uncountable.

The most recent one occurred in March 2020, when a quarantine began in Colombia, the names of various members of the group appeared in a pamphlet signed by the “Black Eagles,” a loosely structured armed group that had not completely demobilized in 2006. In the pamphlet, they spoke of the Wayuú Women’s Force members as if they were a military rival, threatening to kill them and enroll their children into the group.

The organization is made up of 15 municipal coordinators and dozens of women and men that since 2006 have come together to resist the mine. Image courtesy of the Wayuú Women’s Force.

A month later, in another violent announcement, they gave Epaya’a, also a member of the Wayuú Women’s Force, 48 hours to leave La Guajira, the northernmost department of Colombia, where the group operates.

According to Mülo’u, after so much intimidation, the members feel as if they’re made of rubber. Yet fear forces them to stay vigilant in a country that had the highest number of murdered environmental defenders in 2020, according to Global Witness.

It’s because of that same cautiousness that the two environmental defenders in this story have been renamed to Mülo’u and Epaya’a. In Wayuunaiki, the language of their people, the first word means “greatness” and the second, “big sister.” These are apt descriptions. It’s what they have proven themselves to be, says Karmen Ramírez, the founder of the Wayuú Women’s Force, throughout these years of defending their territory and waters.

Left without water

Elders said that not even Spanish colonization changed the history of the Wayuú as much as the Cerrejón mining company, which has been in the territory for the last 30 years.

The women tell of having watched the open-pit coal mine, the largest in Latin America, displace Indigenous communities — as well as Afro and rural residents ⁠— and how they witnessed the diversion and damming of 17 bodies of water, including the Ranchería, the community’s river.

The Wayuú Women’s Force has heard and seen all of this but never stayed silent. They have traveled La Guajira north and south with an itinerant school that has trained more than a thousand women in human rights and political advocacy. They have presented reports and protection requests to the Constitutional Court regarding the impact of mining on their land. And they have testified before European governments and other international organizations, such as the United Nations, that their communities are being left without water or land.

Mülo’u and Epaya’a tell how, despite living in a largely desert area, the Wayuú had never suffered from want of water or food. Before the arrival of Cerrejón, they would plant squash and develop irrigation systems. They would put goats out to pasture and they had plenty to drink; they would walk for hours and always had ways to find water for their people.

Instead of thinking about “the world that they are going to leave for their children,” the organization thinks about how to leave better children for the world. Image courtesy of the Wayuú Women’s Force.

Today, they say that thousands of children have died from malnutrition. That’s the medical conclusion, but the Wayuú Women’s Force has other ideas.

Karmen’s voice breaks when she talks about it, she seems to be on the verge of tears: “They didn’t die from malnutrition. They were killed by a state that ignored the right to water by people who, before, if there was a drought, could move to different parts of the territory for water and supplies. These are people whose unique water spirit has been contaminated. Because, for us, the Ranchería is a spirit that has been contaminated and privatized by the Cerrejón, with the support of the state.”

She continued: “Today, they talk about Wayuú kids dying from corruption — and it’s true. But they also die from the accelerating exploitation and from the co-opting of territory by the mine, and with the knowledge of the state. In an area that produces one of Colombia’s more important economic resources, my people disappear because there isn’t water and it’s impossible to guarantee food for children. As a counterpart to being one of the largest exporters of coal, there are 5,000 children, a generation of my people, that have been killed.”

It’s a harsh, raw and painful testimony. And it’s reflected in the official figures. Cerrejón is the second-highest earning coal company in the country, according to information from the Business Superintendency, and has managed earnings of more than $265 million. Meanwhile, La Guajira is the second poorest department in Colombia, and 61.8% of residents live on less than $87 a month, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics. The contrast is clear.

In 2017, the group won a national award in Sweden for defending human rights, in the category of Collective Experience. Image courtesy of the Wayuú Women’s Force.

In 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that what happens to children in Wayuú is associated with a generalized, unreasonable and disproportionate violation of their rights. It also ordered a series of measures to guarantee water, food and health of Indigenous children, but it has never been properly carried out. In a June 2021 hearing, the General Procuracy and Ombudsman Office said that there wasn’t a rigorous action plan to address this humanitarian crisis.

And while necessary, the battle being waged by the Wayuú Women’s Force and the community is more than a little unbalanced, according to Jakeline Romero, another member of the organization. “When we have to confront big corporations, or the state that is backing these economic groups and not the communities, the work is very unequal,” she said.

Even the United Nations has asked Colombia to suspend, if only temporarily, activity in Cerrejón. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment said in September 2020 that mining activity has affected the air quality in the region and “led to the contamination of aquifer resources not just by diverting and using a large number of streams and tributaries, but also by dumping contaminated water with heavy metals and chemical products.”

Nothing has worked so far.

The mine continues to extract coal 24 hours a day, seven days a week. What is happening in Colombia is the complete opposite of what should be happening, according to international standards. The world discusses the elimination of carbon as an energy source at COP26, yet Colombia still hasn’t adhered to an agreement to reduce the production and use of fossil fuels, the largest contributor to climate change.

Mongabay and Rutas del Conflicto contacted Cerrejón concerning the complaints. The company said that, since 2014, it has given 200 million liters of potable water to affected communities in Alta Guajira through a program that is still in operation. It also said that, during the pandemic, it invested $3 million to strengthen the department health sector and gave more than $50,000 “to help communities in its area of influence.” It also rejected the claim that it contributed to the malnutrition of Indigenous children.

Karmen said that the solution to the situation in her community isn’t in the delivery of food or water. For the Indigenous leader, the solution is for the Wayuú to be able to return to cultivating as they used to, which means they need water and the freedom to move about their ancestral lands.

In that context, it’s easy to understand Epaya’a’s fast response to the question, What is your movement’s main priority?

“Definitely water as a means of our subsistence in La Guajira,” she said, “or rather, as a means of survival.”

The Cerrejón mine in the department of La Guajira, in northern Colombia. Image courtesy of Lucy Sherriff.

A tapestry of women

Epaya’a joined the Women’s Force the same year that Mülo’u was threatened in the taxi. Her life, since then, has been marked by violence. The state, the guerrillas, the paramilitaries and, as she mentioned, the multinational Cerrejón, had resulted in deaths and victims within her family and community. That gave her the motivation to join the process: to not be immobilized by her pain and the pain of others.

Epaya’a came into the organization via an invite from Jackeline and has experienced so much that she doesn’t count the years anymore. Jackeline had been invited by Mülo’u, who had been invited by Karmen, the founder. It’s a network that has been getting stronger since they started gathering to sow and talk about the experiences of their communities, of their sorrows and feelings. “The Wayuú Women’s Force has been our best exercise in resistance,” Jackeline said. “Sarcastically, in that environment of conflict and violence, we like to say that we recruited ourselves. One person brought on another. But we talk about it with words of peace: we recruit women for peace.”

Karmen remembers that the first motivation for organizing was the search for justice for the dead. They were committed to the need to tell their stories and show what has happened on their lands since 2000: killings, disappearances, displacement and massacres that were never talked about. During the first five years of the 21st century, La Guajira saw an expansion of paramilitary groups and some of the worst violence the region has ever experienced.

Group members typically travel through the Wayuú settlements training women, men and children to defend their rights. Image courtesy of the Wayuú Women’s Force.

Mülo’u — like Epaya’a and the majority of the organization’s members — suffered from that violence. In 2004, paramilitaries disappeared her uncle, who in reality was her brother, and it would take four years for her family to recover the remains.

Mülo’u says that she is a woman in a system that forced her to empower herself, “and when I say ‘forced’ it’s because I didn’t even do it for myself, I did it also to be an example to other women and say: yes you can, yes we do have the ability to champion these spaces, yes we can make ourselves visible. The task, in that sense, is to put a stop to all the violations that women experience.”

Each member of the Wayuú women, sadly, can tell a similar story. That’s why it’s been so important for them to travel through high, middle and low La Guajira with the “Indigenous Women and Other Forms of Wisdom” school, teaching the communities how they can find justice for their dead and demand restitution for rights that have been violated.

The school started in 2009 and already hundreds of women (and men) have benefitted from its workshops. As Mülo’u explains, the process has allowed the organization to grow hand in hand with the communities: “For me it has been nice to see women say: ‘Today, Cerrejón wanted to carry out a pre-consultation and I asked them, ‘Where are the documents? Where is the Ministry endorsement?’ Others also say: ‘I’m doing part of this process and my husband can stay with the kids.’ These types of things, before, were obstacles. So now I think: people really are empowering themselves.”

Workshops are held throughout the La Guajira. Image courtesy of the Wayuú Women’s Force.

The road hasn’t been easy. At first, residents accused the women of wanting to change the culture, of overstepping their boundaries and, as an insult, of being feminists. “That for us was a stigma. It was like, ‘Oh, no, we’re feminists? Similar to what? Terrorists?’” Karmen said.

The label, and also the fear that came with discussing the paramilitary’s actions, led some of the communities to turn their backs on the women. “We would arrive and they would kick us out,” Karmen said. “People were scared of speaking out with us because they thought that, if they did, the paramilitaries would come to kill them. Also, they saw us as ‘crazies,’ or ‘feminists’ trying to change the culture.”

On one occasion, after kicking the women out, a community poured water on the footprints that had been left in the sand. In Wayuú culture, this is practically an exile, a never-return-to-this-place kind of declaration. Days before, three people had been killed there and the women thought it was important to make the other residents understand they could demand justice. In that moment, none of the women were accepted. But today, many members of that same community make of part of the resistance.

There are also members of the Wayuú Women’s Force who aren’t ashamed to say they are feminists. Karmen said, “How am I not going to be a feminist if I want to defend mother earth?”

The organization has received support from donors and other international allies. Image courtesy of the Wayuú Women’s Force.

An international defense

They called Karmen Ramírez’s phone. They told her what clothes she had on and described what they would do with her in the place where she had denounced the armed conflict and La Guajira’s environmental problems. Because the harassment was constant, she left the country in 2009 and followed the defense movement from abroad. In Switzerland, she met the man who would become her husband. She says she’s a refugee of love: “I fled to him in order to not be killed in Colombia.”

Coincidentally, Glencore, the multinational company that owns Cerrejón, has operations in the country. The group has been linked to Colombian paramilitary groups. In fact, a former paramilitary leader said that he met with a Cerrejón staff member to discuss the killing of union members, while other have said that they surveil the territory around the mine.

Recognizing the unequal nature of the fight, as Jakeline says, the Women’s Force has shifted its efforts to an international audience. In Switzerland, Karmen and other Indigenous women from different parts of the world also affected by Glencore have carried out protests against the company. Additionally, they have met with Swiss organizations to tell them about what the company has done in Colombia.

In 2015, the organization carried out an “observatory” to document the situation of the Wayuú people. Image courtesy of the Wayuú Women’s Force.

These actions were a key factor that, in November 2002, led to a referendum held by the Corporate Responsibility Initiative, seeking to hold companies registered in the country accountable for environmental and human rights violations.

Despite that the initiative won the referendum with 50.7% of the votes, it wasn’t implemented because there wasn’t unanimous agreement by the Swiss cantons. However, similar work is being done to take action.

Defender Rosa Juliana Ramos said that “the enviable and wonderful thing” about the Women’s Force is that, because of its name, “one would assume that they are going to dedicate themselves to defending only the issues of the Wayuú. But no, the Force is an organization that defends all communities.”

The group receives the support of various international organizations. Image courtesy of the Wayuú Women’s Force.

What remains

Mülo’u recalls that, one day, while walking along the Ranchería, she heard a Cerrejón guard say that the members of the Women’s Force were called “The X20.” She remembers that he told her, “They monitor us from the mine, they ask us if the X20 are around, if the X20 have already passed through, if they have a meeting and with whom they are meeting.” They have never wanted to make direct threats, but the women have always felt that it was more than just armed groups behind the death threats.

Epaya’a recalls that the threats on her life began when she decided to defend the Ranchería against mining. It’s now been more than 10 years of dodging violence along the river, and she has never given into the fear. “It’s pushed me to keep defending human rights that I know can change. The fact that there are many people waiting for support, advice, and hope. I continue on in places where the national government isn’t present, in the places where everything is happening and it seems that nothing is happening.”

Coincidence or not, members of the Wayuú Women’s Force and other organizations have received threats while speaking out against the mine. One case occurred in 2019, when various leaders were named in a pamphlet by the Black Eagles days before they were scheduled to testify about the poisoning of the El Bruno creek.

Thanks to the work of the Women’s Force, around 1,000 women and men from La Guajira have been trained in human and environmental rights. Image courtesy of the Wayuú Women’s Force.

With regards to the threats, Cerrejón maintains that it “has strengthened its due diligence process to publicly reject cases, offering support to threatened people who so seek it, and requesting that the authorities accelerate investigations that allow the perpetrators to be held accountable, to ensure the life and dignity of these people.”

El Guajiro is a community and those part of the Force are women that have been forced to change their ways of life and culture. Communities that are displaced or resettled to make way for mining, like those in Tamaquito or Tabaco, have had to leave their houses for residential complexes that they never wanted to even see.

Epaya’a, like the others, is convinced that the life of her people would be more dignified without the mine. “If Cerrejón hadn’t ever come here, the territory would be the same as before: more productive, with agricultural peoples with cattle ranching and a better quality of life,” she said. And so her request is clear: “We don’t want dialogue. We want them to leave.”

Banner image: Illustration by Kipu Visual.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on Nov. 23, 2021.