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Life in “Colombia’s Indigenous Capital”

We travelled to the Guajira territory to highlight the importance of supporting the weaving industry and to learn more about the lives of the Wayuu people


The Mochila bags we sell are mostly purchased from a contact we have of a family that lives in the Wayuu community (“Rancheria”) of Nazarel in Northern Guajira. However, during our last trip to this region we also bought some mochilas from artisans from Uribia. As part of this trip, we visited Colombia’s Indigenous Capital Uribia and Riohacha, the largest city of the Guajira department.
Riohacha known for its nice beaches and the “Malecon” its the most famous tourism attraction; this is a picturesque local walking path near the beaches and the commercial district. To gather insight into our ongoing research of the weaving industry, we visited where the Wayuu artisans sell their mochilas. When I looked to compare prices and styles, to my surprise, the price of mochilas in Riohacha are the same as in Uribia.
Malecon Rioacha Mochilas
Malecon, Riohacha

 

Uribia is located over an hour from Riohacha, there is no bus service available within these two locations. Independent cars offer transportation services, departing from a designated area at Riohacha’s center. Scheduling travel can be tricky as the vehicles don’t leave until they are full. A one way trip Riohacha-Uribia costs $15.000 Colombian pesos/person (about $7 CAD). The road to Uribia is in the middle of a desert. It’s flat, unoccupied and there is only one small community before reaching Uribia. Enroute we saw: wild goats, cactuses, small trees, soldiers, some people selling gas on the side of the road, a lot of garbage and the Cerrejon’s freight trains (for more information about the Cerrejon, check out our blog post Indigenous Human Rights and The Ethics of Mining Natural Resources).

Guajira Mochilas
Intersection for connecting transportation to “Alta Guajira”

A few kilometers before Uribia, travelers can find connecting transportation to get to northern Guajira in one intersection. This stop give travelers an opportunity to stock up on supplies, food and drinks.  Northern Guajira is the tourist area...it provides access to beautiful beaches and unique natural landscapes at Cabo de la Vela, Punta Gallinas and Las Dunas de Taroa (for more information about places to visit in the Guajira visit: https://www.viajaporcolombia.com/sitios-turisticos/la-guajira). Twelve years ago I had done a trip a trip to this area. The beauty of these places fascinated me.  They seemed authentic, untouched...unique and culturally rich in a way that broadened my world view at the time.

Sign of “Welcome to Uribia” at the entrance of the town

On arrival in Uribia, the poor living conditions in the town initially raised concerns for our safety and the safekeeping of our personal belongings.  Our concerns, based on a faulty correlation between poverty and crime, turned out to be unfounded. After assurances from locals that it was TOTALLY SAFE we stayed overnight and bought the Mochilas as planned from the local artisans.

The infrastructure of Uribia is rustic and in bad condition. The roads are unpaved and there is garbage everywhere. Being one of the largest cities of the region Uribia does have water and electricity, but that is not the case for many communities living in the Alta Guajira. Further, the combination of the heat, proximity to a huge coal open pit mine (the Cerrejon) and the many street gasoline vendors makes the air very toxic. The proximity to Venezuela, Venezuela’s cheap gas and the lack of financial means in this region has made the sale of gasoline a significant economic activity. Other common sources of income for inhabitants of the Guajira, are smuggling, drugs and prostitution (including child prostitution).

Centre of Uribia in a commercial area
Soccer field in Uribia

The town is very dirty, there is a clear need for greater education and better waste management infrastructure. It seemed common practise and acceptable to throw garbage in the streets. In speaking with the hotel manager, we learned that there are no recycling programs and the pickup of garbage is inconsistent and unreliable.

Gas vendors in the streets

The most well maintained place in Uribia is its town square where Wayuu artisans gather to make and sell their Mochilas. On the day we visited there were approximately 40 artisans. The artisans gather daily from 8 AM until 6 PM,  eager to sell and their prices are standard. Our goal was to purchase from as many artisans as possible, to distribute the profits. In the end we purchased Mochilas from 12 different artisans. As we chatted we learned more about the significance of the designs on these beautiful bags. Most artisans learned to weave as children, learning at their mothers side. Many of the artisans are extended family. They wanted us to know that our purchase doesn’t only benefit the specific artisan, but in fact, it benefits entire families and communities that are working behind the scenes to make these bags. For everyone involved in the Mochila making, this is a crucial economic activity and a way to incentivize their cultural survival. The tradition of weaving passes ancestral knowledge on and it is one of the very limited economic activities available to women in this community.

Mochilas

Artisan market in town square of Uribia

Overall, this trip left us sad and concerned about the situation in this region. Its inhabitants are extremely vulnerable, struggling to deal with the current living conditions and their many societal challenges. We are hopeful that the conditions will improve as greater awareness of the issues arises. la Guajira is a desert- it’s really dry, hot and not suitable for farming. The air quality is the worst I’ve experienced (and I have been exposed to bad air quality conditions in many places. Last year I was in Vancouver after the BC forest fires). Other impediments to progress include the lack of infrastructure, education and health institutions, limited electricity, water, poor sanitary conditions, corruption and thieving of funding for the community. These challenges also cause an alarming rate of mortality, particularly child mortality. In the last decade, a reported 4,770 Indigenous children have died from hunger in La Guajira. (Telesur, 2016)

Knowledge of this situation reinforces the importance of supporting the sustainable and clean economic option the weaving industry offers. Thriving industry could improve living conditions and encourage cultural survival. Unfortunately, the traditional weaving industry is being replaced by more profitable illegal activities such as smuggling and prostitution. Buying Mochilas and using fashion as a tool to create awareness about the plight of the Wayuu people has the potential to change their lives. Every contribution helps!

To conclude, we’d like to introduce a project we are supporting to help improve the quality of life of indigenous Colombians. In partnership with Munai, an organisation that helps address malnutrition (more info about this relationship in our blog post Colombian Indiarts & Munai- Combating Child Manutrition) we will be sponsoring a project in Nazarel, a rancheria of the northern Guajira. The goal is to introduce Moringa (a  highly nutritious “super-food”) into the local diet as well as providing dietary advice to the community to combat malnutrition with long-term, customized solutions. Stay tuned for more updates on this!

Buy your Mochila today!

 Source:

Child Malnutrition Deaths Triple in Colombia's Guajira, Telesur. (September 22, 2016) Retrieved from: https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Child-Malnutrition-Deaths-Triple-in-Colombias-Guajira-20160922-0037.html

Edited by: Kat Gracie