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Colombia's Forgotten Humanitarian Crisis

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LA GUAJIRA COLOMBIA
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LA GUAJIRA, COLOMBIA - As the international community is closely following the recent rejection of the peace deal in Colombia, another key issue has long been ignored in this war-torn nation: there has been an ongoing humanitarian crisis in the northern Colombian province of La Guajira, a remote and impoverished desert peninsula.

A few kilometers away from Venezuela, the Wayuu community, the largest indigenous tribe in Colombia, is slowing dying from thirst, hunger and malnutrition.

They have also been caught in the bloodshed between guerrillas fighting against the government, the army and paramilitaries in this militarized corner of the world.

The dire situation is due to years of drought, the Colombian government's neglect of this ethnic group and the environmental impact of mining extraction in the peninsula.

The El Cerrejón mine, Latin America's largest open-pit coal mine southeast of La Guajira, has allegedly displaced tens of thousands of Wayuu and contaminated the scarce water, indigenous groups say. A former Exxon concession, it is now jointly operated by Australian, English and Swiss companies.

The face of indigenous resistance against multinationals, Luz Ángela reached out to a local judge in her province of Barrancas to complain about mining's environmental and human impact and ask for compensation.

Indigenous communities accuse the El Cerrejón mine of contaminating the scarce water.

Her two-year-old son, Moises, has serious respiratory issues because of the coal dust produced when extracting coal, she says, about one kilometers away from their house.

As Luz Ángela sits on her traditional hammock to breastfeed her youngest child, one can hear the vibration of the ground induced by mining extraction.

The indigenous woman hence brought the issue to court to get justice.

"How is it possible that a multinational that has all the money and the means to help us and to take responsibility for my son's treatment [doesn't do anything]? Why don't they reduce their contamination too?" she says, as tears start shedding on her cheek.

El Cerrejon, which markets itself an "environmentally responsible" mine, denied the allegations.

"We're not generating any toxic waste or substances dangerous for the community," says Gabriel Bustos, Head of the Environmental Management Department at the mine.

Luz Ángela's struggle is emblematic of the Wayuu's ongoing fight against the mining industry in Colombia.

The indigenous tribe took the street in the city of Riohacha in La Guajira on August 19 in one of the largest protests in the department. They also blocked for several days the railway the mine El Cerrejon uses to transport coal on their ancestral land.

Indigenous communities accuse the El Cerrejón mine of contaminating the scarce water.

Despite the drought, El Cerrejón's spokespersons say the majority of the water it uses comes from rainfalls and dirty water unsuitable for human consumption.

The mine reported using 17 million liters of water daily in 2011. In comparison, residents of the the northern part of La Guajira use 0.7 liter of water a day, according to the United Nations Development Program.

Local indigenous organizations hence presented reports to the United Nations denouncing human rights violations on their land and asking for recognition. They also filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for violation of their fundamental rights.

Kamilia Lahrichi was a fellow at the International Women's Media Foundation in Colombia in August 2016.

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