TAMAQUITO II – When a new baby is born in Tamaquito II, a Wayúu indigenous settlement in La Guajira, in northern Colombia, the child’s family digs a hole near its pichi (hut) and buries the umbilical cord. The Wayúu practice this ancestral ritual as a way to connect to the land, to remind themselves where they come from.
About 150 umbilical cords are now buried in Tamaquito II. The most recent belonged to Geovanni Camilo Fuentes, born two months ago to Sandra Paola Bravo Epieyuu. His may also be the last. Right now there are two pregnant women in the settlement, but it is unlikely they will have a chance to follow the age-old tradition. Tamaquito II is scheduled to be relocated.
In 1965, when José Alfonso Epieyuu first came to Tamaquito, he never imagined that either the settlement or its rituals would one day be in danger. He came from Alta Guajira, by way of Lagunita, Descanso and Serranía de Perijá. All of those towns were part of a large territory that belonged to the Wayúu people. There were no fences, no boundaries.
For the Wayúu, Colombia’s largest indigenous group with an estimated population of 400,000, land belongs to those work it. Historically they have moved about as they please, worked where they wanted. José Alfonso reached Tamaquito on foot, following the nomadic tradition of the Wayúu. This was his land. Now he is not so sure.
The region’s Wayúu face a major threat in the form of multinational companies, which have seized thousands of hectares of land to extract minerals. One of the firms, a coal mining company called El Cerrejón, operates what is already one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. Now it wants to expand. Like a steam engine chugging full steam ahead, the company sold 32.3 million tons of coal last year. Its goal is to export 500 million tons. The expansion plans have José Alfonso and his fellow settlers on edge.
Tamaquito II is home to 32 families, 195 people in all. By mule, it takes about an hour to reach the border with Venezuela. At least it did, before the road was taken over and fenced in by a multinational.
By any means necessary
There are several hundred Wayúu families living on either side of the Colombia-Venezuela border, a dividing line they’ve never really acknowledged. Many of those families are safe, at least for now. But the ones in Tamaquito will have to leave, exiled from the ancestral land where they have buried their umbilical cords, guarded their secrets, kept their traditions alive.
“We’re prepared to use our arrows to defend what belongs to us,” says Jairo Fuentes, a young Wayúu man who is leading the fight to protect Tamaquito. Fuentes, elected in 2005 as the settlement’s governor, is part of the Pushaina clan, one of several family groups around which the town’s system of local governance is structured.
On several occasions in recent years, the Colombian army has set up camp near the settlement. Community members accuse the soldiers of spying on their meetings and assemblies. At first they did and said nothing, but later, when Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s current present, was still the minister of defense, they decided to register an official complaint. They also issued a warning, saying that if the army tried to spy on them again they would use their bows and arrows to defend themselves.
“We know that a battalion is in charge of looking over this area, but all they do is protect the interests of the mining company,” says Fuentes.
This year the community once again filed an official complaint against the soldiers, accusing them of invading its lands. The military responded by agreeing that soldiers are to remain at a minimum distance of two kilometers from the settlement. Tamaquito residents, doubting the army will actually respect the rules, have organized their own indigenous patrol unit.
The older members carry staffs, as tradition dictates. The younger one carry bows and arrows. They hide in the trees, camouflaged, maintaining order, keeping watch over their plants and animals, which have been decimated by intruders who log the nearby forests and use explosives to catch fish.
An environmental disaster
The area’s streams and rivers, which Wayúu consider sacred, have been polluted by the El Cerrejón mine, by the coal dust that gets spread about by the wind. Mining activity has scared away the howler monkeys. The panthers and pumas are gone too. The only animals left are iguanas and rabbits, plus a few agouti, a species of rodent, and peccary, a type of wild pig.
On the settlement itself, which is barely 10 hectares, there are only a handful of goats, pigs and chickens. Community members grow yuca, corn, beans, malanga (an edible root) and yams. The ancestors of these settlers used bows and arrows to hunt for food. Archery remains an important part of the culture, but as a sport. Nowadays, however, some of the youth walk around defiantly clutching the traditional weapons in their hands. “What do you use them for?” I ask. “To play,” they respond. Let’s hope so.
At about noon, an explosion rattles in the distance. The residents still cannot get used to the sound. Every time the mine blasts go off, people are startled. They cringe. The sky turns grey. The airborne coal dust damages their skin, gives people headaches. They suffer from respiratory and digestive problems. Even the goats suffer from the pollution. They barely reproduce anymore. After the explosion, some of the residents wander around the settlement. Yurani Mileni Fuentes, an artisan weaver, remains still. She then goes into her house, her symbolic territory. Buried in the ground outside is the umbilical cord of her son, Adrian. She does not want to have to dig it up.
Others seem to have accepted the impending loss. There is no choice left but to relocate, move to the plot of land that El Cerrejón has chosen for them. In the official relocation papers, the company claims that “the Wayúu communities have no traditional lands, much less symbolic, mythical and cultural references that tie them to the land.” This is how El Cerrejón justifies the move. Several other communities, including Roche, Las Casitas and Chancleta will also be relocated. “Why, if we’re happy here and living well?” asks Dayana Solano, 15, who travels every day to Barranca to study.
Those residents of Tamaquito II who are still resisting the move say that if, in the end, they are forced out, they will demand that the company at least conserve these 10 hectares as a sacred site. “We’re asking them not to touch it, that they respect our traditions,” says Jairo Fuentes.
The company is offering to set the transferred residents up with new, three-square-meter houses, like the ones they gave the people who were relocated from Patilla, another place that was bought up by the company. The people living in the tiny houses don’t even have enough space to hang up their hammocks. For many, though, the biggest challenge will be the loss of their spiritual ties. “In the new place, the spirits don’t know us. And the ones that are here, we can’t bring them with us,” they say. Nor can they take the 150 buried umbilical cords.