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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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