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Green Or Gone

In Colombia, A Losing Battle To Keep A Dump Off Native Lands

Indigenous communities in the country's Caribbean coastal area dug in for more than decade to keep their traditional lands from being trashed.

A gathering of the Wayuu tribe.
A gathering of the Wayuu tribe.
Camila Taborda

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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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Finally Time For Negotiations? Russia And Ukraine Have The Exact Same Answer

The war in Ukraine appears to have reached a stalemate, with neither side able to make significant progress on the battlefield. A number of Western experts and politicians are now pushing for negotiations. But the irreconcilable positions of both the Russian and Ukrainian sides make such negotiations tricky, if not impossible.

photo of : Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, presents a battle flag to a soldier as he kisses it

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky presents a battle flag to a soldier at the Kyiv Fortress, October 1, 2023.

Ukraine Presidency/Ukrainian Pre/Planet Pix via ZUMA
Yuri Fedorov


The Russian-Ukrainian war appears to have reached a strategic impasse — a veritable stalemate. Neither side is in a position at this point to achieve a fundamental change on the ground in their favor. Inevitably, this has triggered no shortage of analysts and politicians saying it's time for negotiations.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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These conversations especially intensified after the results of the summer-autumn counteroffensive were analyzed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valerii Zaluzhny, with not very optimistic details.

Though there are advances of the Ukrainian army, it is mostly “stuck in minefields under attacks from Russian artillery and drones,” and there is a increasing prospect of trench warfare that “could drag on for years and exhaust the Ukrainian state.”

Zaluzhny concluded: “Russia should not be underestimated. It suffered heavy losses and used up a lot of ammunition, but it will have an advantage in weapons, equipment, missiles and ammunition for a long time," he said. "Our NATO partners are also dramatically increasing their production capacity, but this requires at least a year, and in some cases, such as aircraft and control systems, two years.”

For the Ukrainian army to truly succeed, it needs air superiority, highly effective electronic and counter-battery warfare, new technologies for mining and crossing minefields, and the ability to mobilize and train more reserves.

China and most countries of the so-called global South have expressed their support for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. Meanwhile in the West, certain influential voices are pushing for negotiations, guided by a purely pragmatic principle that if military victory is impossible, it is necessary to move on to diplomacy.

The position of the allies is crucial: Ukraine’s ability to fight a long war of attrition and eventually change the situation at the front in its favor depends on the military, economic and political support of the West. And this support, at least on the scale necessary for victory, is not guaranteed.

Still, the question of negotiations is no less complicated, as the positions of Russia and Ukraine today are so irreconcilable that it is difficult to imagine productive negotiations.

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