Social Issues

Water dispute in Colombia’s La Guajira: Where people do talk about Bruno

By Laia Mataix Gomez

Albania, Colombia, May 19 (EFE).- An elderly Wayuu indigenous man in Colombia’s arid, far-northern La Guajira department says Pulowi – a female spirit believed to protect lakes and rivers – appeared to him in a dream and told him to “bring harmony” to a stream known as Bruno.

That creek that flows into the Rancheria River was partially diverted to allow for an expansion of the massive Cerrejon open-pit coal mine.

And now a legal battle is being waged over whether the original bed of that creek on the boundary of the municipalities of Albania and Maicao can be mined for that solid fossil fuel.

In La Guajira, unlike in the 2021 Disney animated movie “Encanto” about the fictional Colombian multi-generational Madrigal family, people in this region do talk quite a lot about Bruno. The elderly Wayuu man had the dream in 2018, but for the members of that indigenous group the river’s health remains an unresolved matter.

That waterway was not the first to be diverted to expand Cerrejon, Latin America’s largest open-pit coal mine.

Intervention efforts in La Guajira, Colombia’s largest desert region, have affected more than 16 other streams, Andronico Urbay, a Wayuu community leader, said in an interview with Efe.

But Yo’uluna, as Bruno is known in the Wayuunaiki language, “has great significance because it is located on Wayuu land and is the main tributary of the Rancheria River,” one of the region’s principal water sources, he added.

In 2014, the National Environmental Licensing Authority authorized Cerrejon to partially divert the 21-kilometer-long (13-mile-long) stream to allow coal to be extracted from the original river bed.

That year, Cerrejon diverted 3.6 km of the lower section of Bruno, reorienting its flow to the north before returning it to its original course at a spot 1.5 km from where it enters the Rancheria.

After the Wayuu indigenous community took legal action to protect their rights, the Constitutional Court issued a ruling in 2017 in which it said a decision would be handed down only after a thorough technical study is conducted to assess the impact of the river diversion and expanded coal extraction plans.

The Wayuu say neither Cerrejon nor the national government has complied with that order.

Cerrrejon, for its part, calls the diversion of the Bruno stream, known as La Puente initiative, a “unique engineering project in Colombia” that shows “that it is possible to combine ecology and engineering to undertake mining responsibly as regards the environment and communities.”

“Five years after the partial modification of the Bruno stream, the new channel, in addition to maintaining its water flow, has become a biodiversity corridor that is home to 390 species of animals and 70 of flora, connecting the Montes de Oca forest reserve and the Rancheria River,” that company owned by Anglo-Swiss mining giant Glencore says on its website.

But the Wayuu believe that if coal is extracted underneath Bruno’s original channel, that activity “would kill the stream” and also cause irreparable damage to their culture, Urbay said.


Jazmin Romero, a female Wayuu leader, told Efe that 87 percent of La Guajira’s territory is semi-desert with a high risk of desertification.

Mining activity has been carried out in Wayuu territory for nearly 39 years and has destroyed 12,000 hectares (46 square miles) of tropical dry forest,” she said, adding that “17,000 liters of water per day (are used) to wet a road while on the other side of the Upper Guajira, or in these same communities, there’s no water.”

Romero was referring to air-quality measures carried out by Cerrejon, which includes the wetting of roads with water (which the company says is unfit for human or animal consumption or crop irrigation) and a dust-suppressant additive.

“Every day I feel more threatened,” Leobardo Sierra, an authority of the Wayuu community of El Rocio, told Efe “The coal is doing away with La Guajira. It’s slowly killing us.”

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