RIOHACHAGraciela Cotes Arpushana has been living by the road between Riohacha and Valledupar, on Colombia's Caribbean coast, for 45 years. Three generations of her ancestors are buried near her ranch, called Ocushimana. Her animals are there too, along with her crops and her extended family members, the Arpushanas, who live on neighboring lands.

But this is also the place part of the territory of the Wayuu, one of the native peoples of the Guajira peninsula where the city of Riohacha, population 250,000, decided to install a large dump. Needless to say, Graciela and her neighbors aren't happy about it.

For more than a decade, she and other locals have done everything in their power to stop the project, demanding, among other things, that the Interior Ministry consult them first before moving forward with the dumb. The efforts did, finally, halt the $730,000 project, but only temporarily, and not until after it was approved by the Guajira department's environmental authority, the CORPOGUAJIRA.

The Arpushanas say the chosen terrain is on ancestral lands that have effectively been confiscated. Dumping trash near their burial grounds would violate their spiritual condition. The Wayuus consider graveyards "the most important cultural symbol within the cosmos," they argue.

Opponents say CORPOGUAJIRA crossed "the black line," that by approving the project it violated constitutional norms protecting native lands of cultural and spiritual importance. And at no point, they argue, did the authorities in Riohacha ever seek the input or approval of nearby residents.

For these reasons the State Council, the country's highest administrative arbiter, ruled that in spite of the "urgent need" for a dumping site, there needed to be a regional vote to ascertain the opinion of 25 native communities. But only eight of those communities are based around the 60 hectares envisaged as a landfill. That, says Graciela, is a problem, because "most of those Wayuuu leaders live far from us and don't care about our land."

The middle-aged Wayuu woman thinks the State Council included all those other communities on purpose, knowing that they'd be easily swayed. And it seems to have worked. "They are not going to have flies in their homes or smell the odor like we will, because the wind blows fast and it won't reach them," Graciela says of the other communities included in the regional consultation. "And sure enough, they've signed on and said yes to the landfill, in exchange for compensation."

Who would want trash dumped on their land?

Thus the project is still on in spite of the opposition of seven communities totaling almost 1,300 people. "[The other communities] preferred to receive 5 million pesos ($1,740) so that thy could carry out the spirit ritual, a Wayuu ceremony to bring peace to the land," Graciela explains. "But they have no spirits in this soil. Not like us. We've buried our dead here. That certifies our ownership, and these are our documents."

The head of CORPOGUAJIRA, Luis Medina, says the rituals are the "last delay" before work can begin on March 15. Opponents say the land for the dump was obtained improperly. But Medina says the Riohacha municipal government has its papers in order, that this isn't an expropriation. Locals like Graciela disagree, saying they have been living here for decades and the city's supposed ownership documents "only appeared a few years ago."

Wayuu girl — Photo: Juancho Torres/ZUMA

Medina says courts have ruled that the dumping ground must benefit all native communities, and the city will use technology to minimize its environmental impact. "We're not going to make the natives sick," he says.

But numerous studies say that's exactly what landfills do. Greenpeace has reported on dumps in Argentina where, despite precautions, nearby residents have been sickened by gas emissions from decomposing trash. The list of the potentially serious consequences for people includes circulation and breathing ailments. Children and the elderly are most at risk.

"Who would want trash dumped on their land?" Graciela asks. "There are many places in Guajira. Why don't they do it on the lands of a city resident, and see how they like it? I know Riohacha needs a well-organized landfill, but if this is built, the vultures won't let our dead rest in peace."

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