Wind Turbines and the Wayuu

Updated: Oct 4, 2020

La Guajira, Colombia, is a land peopled by numerous Indigenous groups. The economy was once dominated by coal production, but with licenses expiring and patterns of consumption changing, coal is being phased out. While it's possible that renewable energy could take its place, for IFLA! Issue 4, James Morrison reports that the building of wind turbines threatens the culture and practices of the local Wayuu People. He argues that we must not replicate colonial, extractive mindsets with green technology. He calls for green infrastructure that engages with local people and communities.

In 1550, the Spanish Crown held a debate in Valladolid to consider if Indigenous Amerindians in the ‘New World’ had souls and were therefore human. The debate was of great importance: if they were deemed to be less than human, the conquistadores could continue to exploit Indigenous peoples with impunity. Though both sides claimed to have won the argument, Spanish treatment of Indigenous people changed little. The power dynamics that characterised this initial colonial encounter have since justified the extraction of fossil fuels from the Global South. Now, however, the impending green energy revolution risks perpetuating these same harmful, asymmetric relationships. 

Colonial encounters have seen Indigenous and western values held in opposition, with the former disregarded as primitive. Indigenous practices that sustainably interact with the natural world are generally considered to be inferior to the western desire to dominate nature in order to accrue maximum material benefit. This tension erases any alternative relationships that people may have with their environment. As the Spanish debated the humanity of Indigenous people in Valladolid, Amerindians in the Antilles were drowning captured Spanish soldiers in order to answer the very same question – only, their concern was whether or not the Spanish had bodies like them, or whether they were ghosts. The Amerindians believed that all entities – trees, rocks, birds, fish – share the same form of soul but are differentiated by the perspectives of their relative bodies. 

Indigenous peoples’ particular relationship with elements of what we call ‘nature’ is of great importance to the design of energy projects. In the Andean region of Peru, anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena has shown how non-human persons – or ‘Earth beings’ – within indigenous cosmologies can become potent political actors.[1] 

Ausangate mountain’s status as a powerful Earth being was central to the protestors’ opposition

In response to a proposed mine near a mountain named Ausangate, the mountain itself emerged as a significant figure within the opposition to the mine. While attending a protest against the mine, De la Cadena expected people from adjacent villages to be motivated by the proposed destruction of grazing pastures crucial to the local Indigenous economy. Instead, she found that Ausangate’s status as a powerful Earth being was central to the protestors’ opposition. They said he would not allow the construction of the mine and that, to prevent it, Ausangate would harm or even kill people. The threat of landslides, earthquakes, and droughts turned Ausangate into an important political actor.

This idea is also relevant to the development of renewable energy projects. For the past forty years, the economy of La Guajira, a semi-arid peninsula in northern Colombia, has been dominated by El Cerrejón, the largest open pit coal mine in Latin America. Covering an area the size of Paris, El Cerrejón exports coal across the world, primarily to the US and Europe. However, as the world transitions away from carbon intensive energy production, the end of mining in La Guajira is in sight. El Cerrejón’s mining licence is due to expire in 2034, though a sharp fall in global coal prices in 2019 threatens to cease production sooner. As a result, La Guajira is preparing for a post-mining future. The desert of northern La Guajira is an ideal location for wind energy production, with wind speeds regularly reaching 40 kmph. There has been a wind farm in the region since 2003, butbut plans for an additional 36 are in the pipeline. It is hoped that these wind farms in La Guajira will produce 20% of Colombia’s electricity by 2030.

The Wayuu were born out of a combination of two natural elements: the Wind God Jepirach and Igua, the Goddess of Spring Rains

The proposed wind farms, however, bring a unique cultural threat to the Indigenous Wayuu of the region. The Wind God Jepirach is an important figure in Wayuu cosmology and central to their genesis story. The Wayuu were born out of a combination of two natural elements: Jepirach, and Igua - the Goddess of Spring Rains. In the Wayuu cosmology, the exploitation of the energy potential of an important figure presents a particular form of cultural harm. With plans for wind development in the early stages, Jepirach has not yet emerged as a political actor in the manner of Ausangate, but this doesn’t mean that its impact should not be ignored. To wilfully ignore the possible implications for Indigenous peoples through renewable energy developments would be to replicate the power dynamics that define existing relationships with them.

This problem points to a wider issue with renewable energy projects. Though the environmental damage they cause is minimal, wind farms can still inflict widespread social and cultural damage. According to the Colombian Ministry of the Interior, the 37 wind farms currently licenced in La Guajira will impact 128 Wayuu communities in the municipalities of Maicao and Uribia. However, according to research by the Colombian NGO Indepaz, the Ministry’s consultation process minimised the number of Wayuu families and communities deemed to be within the impact area. In reality, the wind farms threaten to affect all of the Wayuu territory in La Guajira. One prominent anti-mining activist has warned of the potential cultural destruction that accompanies the green energy revolution. ‘They are proposing many alternatives to mining that are going to be worse,’ he warned, ‘the wind farms they are creating are going to take away thousands of hectares of land that are ancestral territories and sacred places and no one will be allowed to enter.’

‘I am against relocation because our ancestors live here... It would be like walking with our eyes closed

Wind farms require a huge amount of land. The proposed developments will cover an area of almost 30,000 hectares, over five times the size of Manhattan. This includes rows of turbines up to 120m in height and the network of access roads that enable the farms to function. The displacement and restriction of movement that this entails cannot be compensated in purely financial terms. Complex social relations are indelibly tied to concepts of land and territory; as one Indigenous woman commented: ‘A Wayuu is not a Wayuu without their territory’. When an Indigenous group such as the Wayuu are displaced from ancestral lands, these social relationships are divorced from their common point of reference. The loss of territory is closely linked to a loss of cultural identity. In the case of the Wayuu, this is especially expressed through the loss of connection to one’s ancestors. A woman whose community has been offered resettlement explained her reasons for opposing the move: ‘I am against relocation because our ancestors live here. Before moving, we would have to consult them and see if they want to move. It would be like walking with our eyes closed’.

The example of wind farms in La Guajira is a useful reminder that the expansion of green energy infrastructure should not be blindly celebrated. By excluding thousands of Indigenous people from their ancestral lands, the creation of wind farms threatens to further harm cultures and peoples. These groups have already suffered severe cultural and spiritual loss, first as a result of colonialism and then at the hands of multinational mining corporations. To place the industrialised world’s need for energy above Indigenous cosmologies merely reproduces the epistemological superiority that has existed for centuries. Current renewable energy projects frame areas such as La Guajira as void zones of nature, unburdened by human settlement and therefore free to ‘develop’ without considering the consequences of doing so.

The current expansion of wind energy threatens to repeat the cycle of delegitimizing the concerns and traditions of Indigenous peoples

The necessary revolution in renewable energy production will be insufficient if it replicates the neo-colonial power dynamics that define current fossil fuel developments in the Global South. Climate crisis is not only the result of excessive use of carbon intensive energy sources, but also of a logic of endlessly expanding capital accumulation, which views the natural world solely in terms of its economic potential. The current expansion of wind energy threatens to repeat the cycle of delegitimizing the concerns and traditions of Indigenous peoples through efforts to capitalise on nature. Renewable energy production should be understood within a framework that centres Indigenous concerns, so that local meanings are mutually intelligible and the cycle is not repeated. The new phase of wind farms should be developed in deep consultation with Indigenous communities, based on a recognition of their worldview and needs. Developed in such a way, wind energy offers the potential for a better, more sustainable future for everyone, including those on whose land the energy is produced.

[1] A cosmology relates to a theory on the origin of the universe.

By James Morrison
Illustrated by Joey Yu