Climate Change and Resource Pressures

A Photoessay By Nicoló Filippo Rosso

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Protester carries a child-sized cof n made of paper in a 2016 demonstration in Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolivár protesting the deaths of Wayuu children.

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Droughts in already dry places are lasting longer because of climate change and human intervention, but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish where climate change leaves off and human exploitation of natural resources begins. A case in point is La Guajira in northernmost Colombia, one of the country’s most remote and impoverished regions, home to more than 270,000 indigenous Wayuu.

There, longer droughts have meant that the streams feeding the aquifers and wells supplying water to the community got drier than usual, making any kind of meaningful farming impossible. Because of the lack of water, the region’s goat population is dwindling; the Wayuu are running out of their main source of food.

“[D]roughts can have different causes depending on the area of the world and other natural factors, [and] the majority of scientists have started to link more intense droughts to climate change,” observes the Washington D.C.-based Climate Reality Project on its website. “That’s because as more greenhouse gas emissions are released into the air, causing air temperatures to increase, more moisture evaporates from land and lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. Warmer temperatures also increase evaporation in plant soils, which affects plant life and can reduce rainfall even more.”

The survival of the Wayuus—Colombia’s largest indigenous group—is increasingly at risk. Climate change’s effects are complicated by the fact that La Guajira is also home to one of the world’s largest open-pit coal mines, Cerrejón, a conglomerate owned by BHP Billington, Glencore and AngloAmerican. The Cerrejón coal mine broke ground in La Guajira in the 1980s and has since become the world’s tenth largest.

Cerrejón’s huge drilling operations, daily explosions and high demand of water—which taxes a desert region already suffering from droughts—have contributed to the degradation of La Guajira’s environment and the indigenous population’s way of life. 

There was, however, hope for change. Initial plans for the construction of the El Cercado dam in 2011 included provisions to service nine municipalities in the department. But the pipes that should have brought water to the region were never connected to anything, as a consequence of unchecked corruption. Instead, water from the Ranchería River—the Wayuu’s main source of water—was funneled to the mine and nearby farmers.

Today, the community’s sources of water are rudimentary wells often located a several hours’ walk from where the families have settled. Years of drought mean the Wayuu must dig deep to find water, and even then it is often undrinkable, causing many to fall ill. Tracking the number of Wayuu casualties is nearly impossible, as the community does not keep an official count of births or deaths. The lack of hard data makes it difficult to judge the scale of the problem and draw international attention to the humanitarian crisis. The Cerrejón mine is a deadly resource conflict that threatens the survival of the Wayuu, an indigenous people exposed to extreme poverty, thirst and environmental degradation. Telling their story can contribute to a deeper discussion about the humanitarian consequences of cheap fossil fuel and its true costs in the context of climate change.

Nicoló Filippo Rosso is an Italian photographer based in Colombia.