Wayúu tribe in La Guajira

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Colombia Nitos

The Wayúu doll from Colombia-nitos

The wayuu or guajiros (Arawaks: “mighty man”) is a native people in the extreme north of Colombia and Venezuela. They inhabit a desert area of around 28,000 km², of which more than 15,000 km² in La Guajira, (Colombia) and 12,000 in Zulia, (Venezuela). More than 415,000 wayuu were registered in Venezuela and 270,000 in Colombia at the 2011 and 2005 census.


The wayuu are descendants of the Arowaks who reached the north coast of South America and the Antilles around 1500 AD from the Caribbean.
Although the wayuu had been in contact with the Spanish conquistadors since the sixteenth century, they were not allowed to participate in the board until late.
Both the resistance of the guajiros against the Spanish, British and Dutch conquerors and the difficult-to-walk desert landscape contributed to this.
Only with the independence of New Granada, part of the wayuu was promised a higher authority. In 1841 the number of wayuu was estimated at 18,000, 3,000 of whom were known for their fighting spirit and cruelty.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the guajiros were pushed back to smaller territory by both the Venezuelan and Colombian governments.


At a 2005 census, 270,413 people who called themselves to the Wayuú population reported, They are the largest indigenous people in the country. 48.88% are men (132.180 people) and 51.12% are women (138.233 people)
98.03% of the total population lives in La Guajira. Cesar followed with 0.48% (1,293 people) and Magdalena with 0.42% (1,127 people).
The traditional territory of the Wayuu covers the entire Guajira peninsula to Lake Maracaibo, areas near the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Serrania del Perija (Cabo de la Vela).
This area called “Jepira” by the Wayuu is a sacred place of great and is associated with the last voyage that the spirits make toward the sea, which is called “the land of the dead farmers”.
The demographic distribution is intrinsically related to seasonal changes; During the dry season, many Wayúu look for work on Venezuelan territory or in other cities or towns and in the rainy season many return to their “rancherias”.
The Wayuu are not evenly distributed across their traditional territory. The population density around Nazareth (corribimiento of Uribia) is higher than in the other parts of the peninsula. Other areas with high population density Guajira are located around Uribia, the Serrania de Jala’ala and savannas Wopu’müin, in the municipalities of Maicao and Manaure.
The wayuu village
The wayuu village
The population dynamics of this ethnic group is matrilocal and is characterized by settlements based on the rancheria or Piichipala. The rancherías are formed by different ranchos inhabited by extended families.
In the rancherías system, families live together in units, forming a group where the place of residence is determined by a collective garden, gardens, a cemetery. Some have a windmill on the water or Jagueyes (artificial wells) and casimbas (dams in river beds with pumps) to store the water. There is a close cooperation network on the right of access to a local water source.


The Wayúu are usually bilingual, although a fraction of them in the Media and Alta Guajira are monolingual. Their native language “Arawak” has two dialect forms. However, they understand each other very well: the wayuunaiki “arribero” (or Alta Guajira) and the “abajero” (or Lower Guajira). (Mininterior)

The mother tongue is spoken by 85.25% of the population (230,514 people). Over the total population, this testifies to a great chance of survival of their language. Women represent the majority with 51.14% (117,894 people).

This language is spoken by the majority of the wayuu and consists of six vowels and 16 consonants.


Traditional fishing and hats are two traditional sectors of the economy. Given the circumstances of their country, the Wayúu develop a mixed economy based on the breeding and grazing of goats and cattle (horse) combined with specialized horticulture of corn, beans, cassava, pumpkin, cucumbers and melons. They also live by hunting

In addition to being part of the food base and subject to exchange, livestock – especially goats – have a cultural significance that stands as a symbol of power, status and prestige. The indigenous families on the west coast, who are mainly dependent on fishing, anxiously guard their rights.

Every garden is owned by a man and he gives his children the right to use parts of the land. Every man cultivates his plot assisted by his wife. The exploitation of salt in Manaure is also another source of income, which is produced by mechanical or artisanal means;

Water shortage

The nearly 4,000 square kilometers of La Guajira department is a hot, dry and yet moist environment that receives less than 12 inches of water per year. The serious lack of drinking and agricultural water condemns Colombia’s largest indigenous population of more than 150,000 Wayúu to severe poverty, water and food insecurity, resulting in malnutrition and shortened life expectancy. According to UN World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, 5% of Wayúu children die in the first year; 7 times the rates in the US and 3 times the rate for the rest of Colombia.

The water crisis and the resulting problems of La Guajira have been considerably exacerbated by El Niño and climate change. There is a lack of rainfall that has a major impact on the already dry northern peninsula. The eight-year drought and the increasing effects of climate change make an already very difficult situation even worse.

wayuu water problem

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