Wayuu Indigenous Tribe Struggles for Survival

Photos by Fernando Vergara

Sadness surrounded Gladis Fatima’s mud house.

Three days before, her 14-year-old daughter died and a doctor’s certificate showed why: severe malnutrition led to sores in the girl’s mouth that prevented her from swallowing the vitamins and minerals doctors had prescribed.

“I didn’t have enough even to pay for them,” Fatima said of the supplements, resting in a hammock of vibrant colors as she stared, as if lost, into the bleak landscape.

Hunger, exacerbated by a 2-year drought, is among the biggest problems facing the Wayuu, a 600,000-strong ancestral tribe caught in the middle of Venezuela’s crackdown on smuggling along its western border with Colombia.

The Wayuu for centuries have dominated life on La Guajira peninsula, the northernmost tip of South America. They first resisted conquest by Spain, and since independence have freely crossed the Colombian-Venezuelan border that arbitrarily divides their ancestral homeland.

Members of the desert tribe don’t carry passports, nor do they recognize international borders. The women, who dress proudly in ankle-length robes, are responsible for preserving the group’s traditions and ethnic lineage.

Like Fatima, the majority of Colombia’s Wayuu Indians live in poverty. La Guajira has the highest malnutrition rate in Colombia, at 11 percent, according to the public defender’s office.

For centuries, the Wayuu have gotten by in this desolate, desert-like landscape, shoveling salt into large piles under an intense 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) heat. It’s a poorly-paid profession that nevertheless supports many tribe members.

But younger people are now substituting that traditional job with the smuggling of gas and other goods that they buy at cheap, government-controlled prices in Venezuela. They then resell the fuel and other products in Colombia at a huge profit.


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Text from the AP news story, AP PHOTOS: Tribe struggles for survival in Colombia, by Jacobo Garcia. 


Follow Jacobo Garcia on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jacobogg


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