Special Edition: Gender and Climate Change: Case study La Guajira, Colombia. — by María Catalina Monroy H. and Juan Pablo Vallejo A.

As soon as we landed in Riohacha (La Guajira´s capital), we both concluded: “Yes, definitely Riohacha is hotter than last year”. The heat was unbearable, and so was our body temperature. Only two years passed since our last visit, and we now could feel, breathe, suffer and understand what temperature rise really meant. Making our best effort to overcome the high temperature, we will now concentrate in our main purpose, that is, finding out how climate change affects men and women differently. We hope you enjoy this brief narrative of what is going to be part of our initial “gender and climate change” research ascribed to the WomanStats project. We also hope you enjoy the pictures we so gladly took at “Ranchería El Ahumao”, La Guajira, as part of our field work.

Wayúu. In order to better understand the effects of climate change on population, we chose a rural and very unique Colombian indigenous population called the Wayúu, which constitutes approximately 45% of the Guajira´s total population. In fact, La Guajira is the department[1] with the majority of indigenous population. Wayúus communicate in their own language, wayunaiki, although most of them speak perfect Spanish, especially because they depend on trade and merchandizing their arts and crafts, as well as their crops. Wayúus live in communities composed of Rancherías, small houses built of mud and yotojoro wood with a sand foundation, although we found that they are starting to innovate in new modern materials.

Blog 1*We took this picture in “Ranchería El Ahumao”, about 40 minutes away from Riohacha. 
The image shows a woman with four girls wearing typical dancing costumes outside of a 
typical “Ranchería”, a mud and wood- made housing. 

Wayúu women: Yes, this is our main interest during this field research.  It wasn´t until we interviewed a palabrero, a male figure in charge of facilitating dialogue among different Wayúu clans and also, with outer communities or people, that we were able to understand that we should not always blindly believe our readings, but sometimes what really matters is human perception from in-depth local experience and studies. Of course, it is not an easy task to be able to reach an interview with a member of the Wayúu community, but we were very lucky since we have good friends working with the Wayúu community in Riohacha that were able to help us out. Hence, good for us! Because we can keep visiting this fabulous yet grieved region.

Blog 2*This is Germán Aguilar Epieyú, the “Palabrero”. He belongs to the Epieyú Clan. 
His knowledge was a true gift for our research.

In sum, some interesting facts: the Wayúu’s “currency” is represented by material belongings, such as goats, cattle, chicken, among other, making up what they call “dotes”. Barter is how they pay their debts and, more important, how they pay when men “buy” women to marry them. Therefore, women become another asset to be sold. Nevertheless, according to a Wayúu woman we interviewed, “men do not buy women, they are investing”. But what does this mean? Women are sold and bought for cattle and goats to please a man that, by the way, can marry another three women since polygamy is allowed. “This is horrendous!” we thought, until we learned that despite these traditions, women are the most respected being in the Wayúu culture. How is this so?

In the Palabrero´s own words: “Women represent life. Imagine a tree. The brown trunk stands for the land, and the green leaves for women. They are green because they live and share life. Instead, men represent yellow leaves that perish. Women are responsible for the communities’ own survival. Women are sacred in our culture”.  His words were beautiful, even if minutes ago he was telling us how submissive women were in the Wayúu culture.

Being a Wayúu women: An underestimated source of power. Before our visit, we had read that “matriarchy” was another feature of the Wayúu culture; we then realized that this idea only applies inside a home held by a woman leader in the absence of a man. So how real is matriarchy in this case?  “Oh, it´s still matriarchal”, they told us, “because men are allowed to marry different women and lead different homes that are left alone most of the time, when men are absent (fishing, hunting or ruling)”. Only then, “matriarchy” exists inside a home with no man, but instead a mother with her 10 children (an average of 7 to 12 children per women) and her sisters helping out. Here, matriarchy becomes a utopia.

What is really interesting is that women have a very special and tight bond with other women, something that doesn´t occur in other communities or among peasants. In fact, we heard several stories that made us realize how supportive women could be, not only in attending their daily activities and chores together, but also in taking care and educating their friend´s children. This solidarity among women astounded us. As a Wayúu women told us: “yes, we are all sisters. We even help out with breast feeding when one of us give birth. We also help feeding, nurturing and educating our children”.

Blog 3*The woman holding a baby is Fidelia, a teacher in the Arpushana Clan. 
She was very helpful and friendly inviting us to come back and 
spend some more time learning about their Wayúu culture.

Another interesting fact is that Wayúu women are not only considered sacred, but also a key instrument to achieve and maintain peace. The Wayúus have the special feature of being bellicose among men, and their own laws and justice represent their aggressiveness: when a murder is committed, it is culturally acceptable to pay it with another death. But killing a woman…this is another story, and the worst-case scenario; killing a woman will lead to a never-ending war among clans claiming vengeance until the last descendant of the killer dies. However, when another conflict that does not involve the death of a woman occurs, women assume their leading role and negotiate with the confronted community. “Only women´s life will be respected by the other clan. Only women can bring peace,” the Palabrero told us.

Climate change and women´s vulnerabilities. As soon as the Palabrero was talking about how green stands for women, and women for life, our minds came back to the issue that has dragged us to the Ahumao community: Climate change and its impacts on population. As we looked around, we saw no green in trees but rather bare branches. For us this was an analogy of what drought and lack of rainfall was causing to women and to the community´s welfare.

Why does this happen? La Guajira is one of the most arid regions in Colombia: despite the fact that there are two rainfall seasons during the year, the dryer seasons and the higher temperatures dry out most of the main water sources, making the resource scarce, especially when infrastructure is not designed to collect large amounts of water when it is possible to. In the case of the Wayúu communities for example, they build artisanal land depressions known as jagüeys where superficial water is drained to and accumulated during the rainy season. These jagüeys are designed to last two to three months, the duration of the dry season; however, according to Antonio Coronado from the Sijona Clan, during 2014 they haven´t received a single drop of water. Climate change has definitively arrived to stay, and it is making traditional problems even worse, it is increasing vulnerability.

Blog 4*La Guajira is one of the most arid regions in Colombia. Since the last three years, 
rainy seasons have become shorter and temperature has increased. 
Climate change is a permanent reality.

Blog 3*The Jaguey at the El Ahumao Ranchería has been dry for the past 9 months. 
Community depends on a monthly supply that is sent in water trucks 
by the Municipality of Riohacha.

The Palabrero made it clear for us: “climate determines behavior, and women depends on it”. After a three-day immersion inside the Wayúu culture, this was clear for us: women are the ones in charge, they are the ones responsible for the well being of their own families and their own communities: Women collect daily water needs, grow crops, feed animals, cook and educate their children. They also craft the mochilas which they will bring later to the local market to be sold. This multitasking was astonishing. While men govern in the communities, women administer welfare and wellbeing. And as we have learned, these two essential values deeply rely on the environment; that is why women are the green leaf of the tree of life. AND IT MUST REMAIN GREEN.


Blog 5*We took this picture when we were walking around the Ranchería and 
we spotted this woman walking back from a pond where she was collecting water. 
Sometimes women must walk up to 10 miles daily to complete this task.

Blog 6*These crafts are called mochilas, representing women´s work. 
It takes about one week to elaborate each of these, 
and are later sold for 40,000 pesos (20 dollars). 
We believe this price does not reflect all the work it represents.

Blog 7*This is a picture of Juan Pablo with local boys standing next to the dried up jagüey
due to this year´s temperature increase, rainfall decrease, 
and therefore intense drought. 

Blog 8*It was such a wonderful experience! We hope to be able to contribute to promote research
that will result in policy recommendations, in this case, that will help women adapt
 to climate change in a more effective and real way. In general, to improve the lives of 
women, men and children and as a result, our own´s.

[1] Colombia is a unitary centralized Republic composed of 32 “departments” and its capital city, Bogotá.


By María Catalina Monroy H. and Juan Pablo Vallejo A.

One thought on “Special Edition: Gender and Climate Change: Case study La Guajira, Colombia. — by María Catalina Monroy H. and Juan Pablo Vallejo A.

  1. LAE says:

    I find this blog post very interesting because it speaks to something that is very important, but does not get nearly as much attention as it rightly deserves. I must admit that I struggle to really grasp the concept of global warming and all that it entails, but to think about how much women can be affected by it is mind boggling. Great blog post, and I look forward to learning more about this subject from your two Co-PIs.

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