The Agricultural Potential of the Wayuu Tribe

By Isabel Morales

Those that travel to Colombia will surely see the patterned and colorful handwoven Wayuu mochila bags sold everywhere, whether it is in a small town or at the airport. They are made by hardworking Indigenous women from the Wayuu tribe in the northeast of the country, who sustain their families by making artisan products. The artisan weaving industry now plays a vital role in the local economy (Wayuu Market, 2020). Despite recognition for the iconic mochilas, the Wayuu tribe is also characterized for its people’s resistance to constant social and ecological challenges including historical displacements, rapid urbanization, exploitation of natural resources, violence introduced by paramilitary groups, and climate change. Yet, even with these obstacles, the Guajira region, where most Wayuus are found, continues to be a location with great agricultural potential.

The Wayuu Indigenous tribe, known as “the people of the sun, sand and wind”, reside in the Guajira peninsula in northeastern Colombia. The National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) of Colombia, calculated there were about 270,413 Wayuus in 2005, positioning this group as the largest Indigenous community present in the country (ONIC, n.d.). They arrived in the Guajira from the Amazon rainforest nearly 2000 years ago to escape hostile environments and seek a more habitable location (Lastrucci, n.d.). The Wayuu are descendants of the Arawak and Carib tribes that spread across the Caribbean, mainly in its coastal areas. They live in the Guajira peninsula, which is a semi-desert zone close to the Colombia-Venezuela border. Yet, after the official demarcation of the modern border with Venezuela in the 1850s, some Wayuus moved to the urban outskirts of Maracaibo in Venezuela. Others transit back and forth between both countries for work and commercial exchange (Olivella, n.d.). Therefore, their demographic distribution is intrinsically related to seasonal changes. During the dry season, many Wayuus seek work in Venezuela, while in the rainy season many return to their homes (ONIC, n.d.).

Besides seeking work elsewhere, due to the Guajira’s harsh environmental conditions, the tribe used to survive by herding goats, creating crafts, harvesting wild fruits, cultivating guajiro beans, and pearl diving for aquaculture. These practices remained strong until commercialization and the selling of fraudulent pearls began to threaten their wealth. Additionally, the 21st century brought prolonged droughts, caused by climate change and the El Niño phenomenon, that affected the tribe’s ability to continue sustainable farming (Petroni, 2020; Wooldridge, 2017).  

The Colombian National Indigenous Organization (ONIC) issued reports on famine affecting around 130, 000 Wayuus in the Guajira (Lastrucci, n.d). So, over the last few years, the already delicate situation was exacerbated because of droughts—making people highly dependent on food from Venezuela. Specifically, they relied on the subsidized groceries given by the Venezuelan government to survive and buy rice, sugar and coffee. But, due to Venezuela’s severe economic crisis, closing borders, and a major migrant crisis, one of their main sources of food is no longer an option (Lastrucci, n.d). Many in the community abandoned farming, turning to government support in the form of food stamps, but the promised support rarely arrived. A report by the Universidad de los Andes, reports that between 5,000 and 14,000 Wayuu died while waiting for state assistance, caused by the combination of malnutrition and thirst (Petroni, 2020).

In 2016, the UN General Assembly declared beans, such as chickpeas and lentils, as a crop that could tackle world hunger and mitigate climate change. The guajiro bean stands out because it fixes plenty of nitrogen in the soil, providing chemical support for other crops. If treated well, the bean can bear pods for months even in dry environments. Its adaptability to harsh climates makes it a sacred crop for the Wayuu and a main ingredient in their traditional dishes. How to cultivate the bean properly became an essential Wayuu tradition passed on to other generations. In a Wayuu community in the Guajira called Ishashimana, children learn that the bean can be paired with other plants, such as corn and pumpkin through a system of nitrogen fixing that benefits food growth. The community’s gardening project was a success with the support from federal and non-governmental organizations, like Slow Food, an “international movement that fights the disappearance of local food cultures around the world” (Petroni, 2020). Liliana Vargas, the coordinator for Slow Food Colombia, stated they found the guajiro bean to be a promising crop that could help communities in certain areas to achieve food security.

With external help and a water well, the Ishashimana community is slowly recovering their way of life and feeding its community after five years of hard work and planning. This community is becoming a case study for governmental institutions and international NGOs that are attempting to replicate the agricultural process in other parts of the Guajira desert. Yet, the same process is more complicated to implement in other areas of the desert because few have a promising water supply. According to Orlando Cáceres, an agronomist, there is water, but they need wells to extract it. Therefore, government support would be needed if they want to dig wells and expand the irrigation system. The Colombian government occasionally sent food packages and water tanks during the ten-year drought, but these communities need a long-term sustainable agricultural plan, such as pumps to extract water (Petroni, 2020).

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) introduced a program in 2018 to support and train farmers to increase food production in the Guajira. Niccolo Lombardi, an FAO specialist, stated that the program teaches communities about “drought resistant crops and seeds, veterinary services, feed and treatments for livestock, hens for egg production, and all the rehabilitation of wells to set up micro-irrigated community fields for the production of different types of crops” (FAO, 2019). Different ethnic groups participated in the training including the Wayuu people, Afro-descendants, and Venezuelan migrants. The FAO program does not necessarily fix the environmental challenges the Guajira region faces, but by increasing food security and spreading knowledge about agricultural techniques in harsh environments, helps to improve the livelihoods of members throughout different communities (FAO, 2019).

The Guajira is among the poorest regions in Colombia, and despite this fact, it is also one of the most forgotten. The climate in the Guajira region is especially hard to combat because when there is no drought in the rainy season, there is excess rain that leads to flooding and equally hurts harvests. Despite the climate related challenges that the Wayuu people and Guajira residents face, it is not a lost cause. There are solutions available—that may help these communities prosper amidst these difficulties—because the Guajira is a complex region, but it is not completely unmanageable. Many of the Guajira’s potential is wasted because people are not prepared to tackle climate changes. Therefore, greater support from the government and organizations like the FAO are fundamental for restoring some of the potential of this region, which can help support big communities inhabiting it, like the Wayuu.

Isabel Morales is an international student from Colombia at the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently a sophomore majoring in Economics with a minor in French and a Certificate in Latin American Studies. Through her experiences living in Colombia, the United States and Israel, along with the opportunities offered by the university, she has become greatly interested in Latin American affairs and its role in the study of development economics.


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