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.
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.