La Guajira is a dry and windy peninsular desert region between Northeast Colombia and Northwest Venezuela. The striking landscape has been harsh and borderline uninhabitable for many thousands of years.  

The southernmost parts of the peninsula border the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range, where the principal waterway of La Guajira is born, the Rancheria river. Here in southern La Guajira the montane ecosystems of the Sierra connect to the extensive Cesar river basin further south, and there is substantial moisture, vegetation and fertility for agriculture. 

To the north the lush greenery of the Sierra transitions into vast tracts of parched land and solitude. These more emblematic desert regions of the central and northern Guajira peninsula (known locally as “Media” and “Alta” Guajira) are much drier and windier, receiving the northern trade winds  and infrequent precipitation. It is here in Media and Alta Guajira where the territory of the Wayuu tribe is concentrated, as well as Latin America’s largest coal mine, Cerrejon.

Alta Guajira, Colombia.

The Cerrejon Formation

In the distant past of the La Guajira peninsula, what is now semi-arid desert plain used to be wet rainforest, with extensive river systems. Specifically, in the Paleocene period (66 to 56 million years ago), the geological “Cerrejon Formation” took shape in the Cesar-Rancheria sub-basin that ranges between the modern-day Colombian departments of La Guajira and Cesar. 

In the Cerrejon Formation, fossils from the first recorded “neotropical rainforest” are found. During the Paleocene, atmospheric carbon dioxide was higher than today (some accounts suggest as much as 2,000 parts per million, though these particularly extreme levels of C02 may best be associated with the transition between the Paleocene and Eocene epochs, when pronounced rises in atmospheric carbon and global temperatures occurred; this period is known as the “Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum,” or PETM), and temperatures were also higher. Interestingly this ancient neotropical forest and some of its most unique plants and megafauna were maintained by the combination of these high levels of CO2, elevated temperatures and high levels of rainfall (around 4 meters, or 13 feet, of rain per year). Overall, the neotropical rainforest of the Paleocene Cerrejon Formation is believed to have been much lower in biodiversity than current “megadiverse” tropical forests like the Amazon. A fascinating range of plant and animal species did thrive there though, many of which were predecessors to the plants and animals that populate the tropical forests of South America today. 

One particularly incredible fossil found in the Cerrejon Formation that dates back to the Paleocene is that of the “Titanoboa,” the largest ever recorded snake, which reached lengths of an estimated 13 meters (43 feet) and weighed 1,135 kilograms (2,500 pounds). The largest snake currently in existence is also a species of the Boa family living in the tropical forests of South America: the Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus). This living analogue of the Titanoboa “only” measures six to eight meters (20 to 30 feet), and weighs up to a svelte 250 kilograms (550 pounds). 

The Cerrejon Formation exists to this day, down to a depth of around 750 meters (2,460 feet). Despite the presently harsh conditions and impacts of human land-use on the surface of the Cerrejon Formation, there is still significant biodiversity, and a number of endemic species that inhabit the area. Along La Guajira’s Atlantic coast, endangered marine turtles lay their eggs, though poaching, plastic, contamination and dredging of the beaches for port-related activities, threaten these nesting grounds.

Vannessa Circe – “Unmoved Mover” – 20″ x 20″ – Oil on Canvas – 2017

Within the Cerrejon Formation extensive bituminous coal deposits are found. This coal developed over millions of years through the pressurized decay of the extensive organic matter that was present as far back as the Paleocene neotropical rainforest. These lowland wet forests, through flooding and other natural events, were buried under levels of soil. As more soil accumulated on top of these former forests, the pressure and temperature increased, and the vegetation was compressed. Over many hundreds of thousands of years, this buried plant matter gained depth, and was first accumulated into peat bogs, and then “carbonized” into coal under increasingly higher pressure and temperature. 

The Wayúu Ethnic Group

The local and ancestral inhabitants of the La Guajira peninsula are the Wayúu ethnic group. The Wayúu are the largest indigenous group in Colombia with a population of approximately 270,000 (20-30% of Colombia’s total indigenous population). More than 100,000 Wayúu live across the border in Venezuela where they are also the largest indigenous group of the country. 

The Wayuu live in small dispersed communities called “Rancherias,” where families of upwards of twenty people live inside one mixed mud, hay and cactus hut.  A typical Rancheria contains five to seven of these huts. The Rancheria itself is organized around one extensive family, who share collective spaces and resources, including gardens, corrals for their goats, and wells and “jagueyes” for extracting and storing water. Some larger jagueyes, which are artificially formed reservoirs for storing water in dry seasons (for humans, crops and animals alike), are shared between multiple Rancherias, and in times of extended drought long walks may be necessary to access the nearest water-containing jaguey. 

Wayuu woman in her rancheria. Alta Guajira, Colombia.

Clans make-up the larger social structure of the Wayuu, and are formed and associate with each other through the grouping of families and Rancherias by way of different types of alliances, traditionally through the women of the tribe. Marriage and burial ceremonies are of particular importance for the Wayuu clans, and are moments when these alliances can be formed, dowries and debts paid, and goods exchanged. Goats in particular are a major status symbol as well as a form of currency exchange during these ceremonies. There are believed to be approximately 30 distinct Wayuu clans, each defined by their own totemic animal. The Wayuu are a matrilineal and semi-matriarchal society, where women play prominent roles and often occupy leadership positions for both families and entire clans, along with the “maternal uncle,” who takes on an overall leadership role for extended families. 

The Wayúu are a traditionally semi-nomadic tribe, following migration patterns based around extensive dry seasons, and times of rain. Dry seasons would take them to more fertile areas, along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta for example, while times of rain would bring them back to their Rancherias. Hunting and fishing used to be an essential part of the Wayuu lifestyle, but since contact with the Spanish in the 16th century, they have devoted more time to ranching (mostly goats, but also cows), agriculture, and some fishing along the Western coast of the peninsula, with less focus on migration between the wet and dry seasons. 

Until recently, there also used to be significant temporal migration between Colombia and Venezuela for the Wayuu, who are granted citizenship to both countries. They would follow weather patterns, legal and illegal trade routes, and seasonal work opportunities. However, due to the recent ecopolitical crisis in Venezuela and the frequent closing of the border between Colombia and Venezuela, this cross-border economic and migratory activity is no longer practical for the Wayuu.

Preserved Traditions

Many Wayúu still do strongly adhere to their traditions, and continue to speak the Wayuu language, “Wayuunaiki,” which is part of the larger “Arawak” language family that the Wayuu are descended from. Myths, philosophies, dances and traditional symbolism is passed down through the generations, especially by the strong female leaders of the clans, who are also responsible for interpreting dreams. Dreams hold a special significance in the Wayuu world view, and many actions and interpretations of events in the conscious world, come from the analysis of dreams. 

Wayuu woman weaving an intricate mochila in her rancheria. Media Guajira, Colombia.

Female leaders of the Wayuu teach their daughters and granddaughters to weave these symbols and interpretations of dreams and the natural world into intricate single-thread cotton “mochila” bags and other textiles, such as “mantas” (typical Wayuu dresses) and large hammocks called “chinchorros,” which are what the Wayuu sleep in (often with husband, wife and child in a single chinchorro). Weaving is an extremely important part of the female identity for the Wayuu: In the Aruatachon rancheria in Media Guajira, the female leader Cármen Palmar Uriana has an expression in Spanish that she likes to communicate: “para tejer es ser mujer,” which translates into “to be a woman is to weave.” The women of the Wayuu tribe are known for being extremely skilled artisans, and in the present day, their work brings some much needed income into the increasingly stressed and impoverished rancherias.

Cármen Palmar Uriana in her Chinchorro in Aruatachon rancheria. La Guajira, Colombia.

Interference and Resistance 

Historically, the Wayúu were also famous for being a warrior tribe and putting up intensive resistance both to Spanish conquistadors and further attempted entries into their territories by “Alijunas” (referring to non-indigenous people, with a negative connotation). The successful “Guajiro rebellion” of the 18th century against the Spanish illustrates the strength and resilience of the Wayuu people in the face of threats to their territory and culture. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were also forced evangelization attempts of the Wayuu by Catholic missionaries described as “Capuchin friars.” Although there were some localized “successes” for the Capuchins in “civilizing” the Wayuu in La Guajira, and a recognition of major Christian holidays in majority-Wayuu municipalities on the peninsula, the mass conversion of the Wayuu to Catholicism was not achieved. 

Most Wayuu still consider their god “Maleiwa” to be the creator of all, the bringer of rain, and the center of the universe, while “Pulowi” and “Juya” are more personified gods related to natural occurrences. Pulowi, a feminine figure, is the goddess of wind and dryness, while masculine Juya is the god of hunting, strength and violence. Wanülü is a darker figure related to sickness and death. 

Vannessa Circe – “Pulowi” – 24″ x 28″ – Oil on Canvas – 2016

The mid-to-late 20th century brought exploitative enterprises of natural resource extraction to La Guajira, through partnerships of multinational corporations and the Colombian government. Drilling for oil, natural gas and the mining of salt, all have a presence in the peninsula, and have had social and environmental impacts. It is Coal mining and the entire infrastructure built around it (which began in earnest in La Guajira in the 1980’s with the opening of Latin America’s largest coal mine, Cerrejon), that has had the most widespread impact on the environment of La Guajira and the territories, health and culture of the Wayuu people.

A Tenuous Future for La Guajira and the Wayuu

La Guajira has been one of the planet’s harsher outposts of human habitation for many thousands of years, and the Wayuu have evolved and adapted to these circumstances through very specific traditions and practices regarding water conservation, and the raising of animals and crops suited to the climate. Seasonal migrations, jagueyes, goat-herding, cactus-fruit, beans, cassava and cotton cultivation are just a few examples of traditional Wayuu practices that helped them survive in the Guajira peninsula. The Wayuu still proudly exclaim that they are autonomous and were never conquered, despite centuries of attempted intrusions into their territories, and manipulations of their language and beliefs, 

Forces out of the Wayuu’s control are making their already untenable existence extremely precarious. The impacts of climate change, especially extended draughts, are exacerbating the stresses on food and water in La Guajira and for the Wayuu. Corrupt and incompetent local governance has also both caused and exacerbated problems for the Wayuu, limiting their access to clean water, medical care and education. It is the reinforcing combination of local, regional and international human actions that may be ultimately responsible for the contamination and full degradation of much of this expansive region. The resulting extreme scarcity of clean water and food will lead to the displacement and death of many of the Wayuu people.

Resources and Further Reading

Barras, C. “When Global Warming Made Our World Super Hot.” BBC Earth. September 2015.

Chomsky, A. “Closing coal mines can further victimise victims of coal mining.” The Irish Times. January 2019.

Contreras, D., Bhamidipati, S., Contreras, S., “The Fight of the Wayuu Ethnic Community against the Drought in La Guajira, Colombia.” IDRC Conference Paper. 2016.

Ethnologue: Colombia.

Head, J.J., Jaramillo, C.A., et al.. “Giant boid snake from the Palaeocene neotropics reveals hotter past equatorial temperatures.” Nature. February 2009.

Lorens, H., Santiago, R. “Coal’s Open Wounds/ Las Heridas Abiertas del Carbón.” NACLA. September 2018.

Monroy, B. “La rebelión Guajira de 1769: algunas constantes de la Cultura Wayuu y razones de su pervivencia.” Banco de la Republica Colombia. 

NOAA. “Surface Ocean Currents: Trade Winds.”

ONIC. “Pueblos Indígenas de Colombia: Wayuu.”

Rosselli, A. “Colombian Communities Shift From Sea Turtle Predators to Guardians.” Conservation International. June 2013.

Trujillo, F., Baez, L., et al.. “Biodiversidad en Cerrejon.” Fundacion Omacha, Cerrejon, Fondo Accion. 2014.

Wing, S.L., Labandeira, C.C., et al.. “Late Paleocene fossils from the Cerrejón Formation, Colombia, are the earliest record of Neotropical rainforest.” PNAS. November 2009.

Wyss, J. “Still closed Colombia-Venezuela border creates new crisis for those in need.” Miami Herald. March 2019.