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Wayúu in Colombia

  • Wayúu are known as the people of the sun, sand and wind. Their lands are in the arid Guajira in northern Colombia, and northwestern Venezuela in the states of Zulia, Mérida and Trujillo. The Wayúu language is part of the Arawak family and is called Wayuunaiki. The community is matrilineal and is made up of about 30 clans that are represented by distinct animals. The mother’s brother is an important father figure for children, and women have a great deal of autonomy and are active in the political life of the community. Women as well as men are spiritual leaders.

  • Wayúu are the largest indigenous people in Colombia, where they represent 20 per cent of the indigenous population in the country, comprising approximately 380,460 people. They have long faced severe discrimination, although community members have risen to prominence as artists, merchants and activists. The Wayuú people have also preserved their traditional language, Wayuunaiki, which is still widely spoken within their communities. Water is a constant problem for this desert people and has historically made Wayúu very vulnerable during periods of drought.

  • The Colombian authorities have issued permits to mining interests on Wayúu (Guajira) lands along the border with Venezuela. The Colombian Constitution recognizes the right of indigenous peoples to manage the resources found on their territories. However, whereas private concessions to extract salt on Wayúu land have been granted, Wayúu have been denied the right to do so. Coal mining undertaken on their lands also appears to be in contravention of constitutional law. The presence of multi-national mining companies on their territory not only monopolizes land but spreads pollution. The ILO has requested information on the suitability of the lands on which, owing to the resulting contamination, affected Wayúu communities were relocated, and as to whether damages for this contamination have been paid.

    Numerous Wayúu leaders and community members have been assassinated. In 2021, for example, Aura Esther García Peñalver was killed by two assailants. She was a prominent social leader and traditional authority who had previously demanded protection from the authorities after she and other activists had received numerous death threats.

    In addition, the Wayuú people experience high rates of child malnutrition, which poses a significant concern. Disturbingly, in 2022 alone, 85 children lost their lives due to this phenomenon. Compounding the issue, the limited access to health services further exacerbates the situation, depriving the population of the crucial medical treatment they need.

Updated June 2023

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