My Fight for Land and Life in Colombia

My name is Angelica Ortiz. I am a Wayuu woman from the Ipuana clan of the Lomomato indigenous reserve in La Guajira, Colombia. I am a human rights defender and part of the Wayuu Women’s Force Movement. I am also a mother.

October 12th is a significant date for me and for the Wayuu people. It is the day they say they discovered America, but we were already here when the Spanish arrived. If they did discover our lands and our cultures, then they also found out the ways to force us into submission. Today is about remembering those cultures and peoples whose resistance wasn’t enough, those who’ve been erased.

In Colombia, the Spanish inquisition set up a system whereby indigenous communities had to pay the crown a royalty for being allowed to work the land. Through that system, they placed barriers on the original people of the land, rounded them up and told them “you can’t cross these borders”, and in the process, created the reserves that we live on today.

Irreversible impacts

Today, we see a new form of conquest, the land is being stripped of its minerals. For us, the coal, the oil and the minerals are the organs of our land, which is slowly being killed. If you take the organs out of a person, you kill them.

Cerrejon Coal, the biggest opencast mine in Colombia, has been present for four decades in La Guajira. More than 32 million tonnes are exported annually. Of this, 46% goes to Europe.

The exploitation and export of this coal, and the company’s intention to double these quantities, have led to the violation of fundamental rights of the African-descent, Wayuu and peasant communities of La Guajira, the second poorest province in the country, which has long suffered the consequences of the social and armed conflict.

Around 35 communities have been displaced by mining activity. Just five have been partially resettled. The health and livelihoods of the people have been affected, along with their access to water.

Those resources and people haven’t been protected by the Colombian state, instead president Santos’ mining and energy locomotive, which is what they call their development model, has caused great and irreversible impacts on us. If we look at all the impacts that we have had in the Guajira, it all comes down to their so-called development.

Things are not like that

For us, territory is everything. It is life, water and food. It is where we pass on our culture and knowledge. It is where we practice our spirituality. For the Wayuu, it is the right to self-determination and our ancestral rights, based on our history.

It is also where our economic activity takes place according to our needs, where we produce food free from GMOs and chemicals. It is about weaving the ideals of communities and respect for mother earth. Without territory, we cease being Wayuu.

Protecting our territory has been a commitment from the Wayuu Women’s Force Movement – of those who integrate it. Since this fight we started many years ago where we marked our spaces, water and health in defiance of the many interests there exist over our land.

Being a Wayuu woman means guarding our territory, taking care of it, protecting the water and the Woumankain – Mother Earth, the greatest woman of all, who gave birth to everything. Our womanhood is linked to the spirituality of each Wayuu community, the Wayuu woman plays a fundamental role in culture, as the transmitter of culture and a vital part of Wayuu society.We do this because we want justice for those who will come after us, we are not paid to defend the territory, it is done through conviction, and it comes with threats and violence.

I have two girls and a boy who have been displaced since the end of 2011 due to threats made against me. Last year, I tried to bring them home to live with me, but had to move again instead because it was too dangerous. I don’t get to see them often anymore. We have denounced the threats and intimidations to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. That was frightening too and I still don’t feel safe. Being a protector requires that sacrifice.

Nothing is celebrated

But not everyone is on the same boat. Unfortunately, leaders who previously defended all that is ours now stand on the side of the company. We regret that many people from our communities lend themselves to say that everything is okay, that everything is fine in la Guajira, but things are not like that.

Year after year, LMN and War on Want invite us to London but they also accompany us in our activities in our lands – showing the stark realities facing our communities in contrast to what Cerrejón, and its shareholders, say about what’s happening to a UK audience about La Guajira.

Therefore, communities and local organizations, in alliance with different sectors of society, have joined forces to denounce the environmental and territorial implications of mineral extraction and to speak about the alternatives for the defence of life, land and water. That is why I am travelling to London.

For us, indigenous development is shaped by another way of understanding social and economic relations, while government and states have declared their path of development, one which threatens our ways of life and our territories.

That is why on 12 October nothing is celebrated, on this date we commemorate all the indigenous peoples that have died defending the land, and we affirm our fight for the liberation of the mother earth. When we say liberation, we refer to the land returning to its true owners, not to those who have stripped those lands.

Transcript of a speech given in London on World Day of Indigenous Resistance, originally published in The Ecologist.

Angelica Ortiz is a Wayúu woman from the Lomguato Reserve and General Secretary of Fuerza de Mujeres Wayúu (Wayúu Women’s Force), an organization that raises awareness about the violations of human and ethnic rights in Guajira. They work to denounce the territorial impacts of mega mining projects, including forced displacement and the situation of violation of rights of indigenous women.


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