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Indigenous community sues Colombian government

Twuliá Wayuu community in La Guajira are being displaced by coastal erosion

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Climate change-induced coastal erosion is having devastating effects on the Wayuu Twuliá community in the northern La Guajira peninsula in Colombia. This has led them to bring forward a legal case against the Colombian government which could become the first judicial ruling on displacement due to coastal erosion in Colombia.

The Indigenous Wayuu Twuliá community lives in La Cachaca III in La Guajira, on the northwestern Venezuelan border. According to an investigation by Colombian media outlet Mutante, in 2005, the community started to notice that coastal erosion was eating away at their territory. The community has found that since 2005, the destructive impact of the sea had swept away seven metres of beach. This has resulted in two houses, a water tank, and an ancestral cemetery being washed away, and the jetty for fishing boats destroyed. The effect on the jetty is a particularly devastating consequence as fishing is the community’s primary means of livelihood. Six families – a total of 30 people – have had to leave their homes and relocate.

 ‘So far, five entire families [from La Cachaca III] are displaced in Bogotá. The progressive advance of coastal erosion put them in danger by leaving them without the means to survive,’ Wayuu leaders Pedro Fonseca Epiayu, Clarena Fonseca Uriana, and Edwin Fonseca Redondo explain in the legal documents.

Since then, the community alone has been measuring the amount of land lost to erosion because no organisation has come to assess the seriousness of the problem or offer a solution. It is estimated by the community that in a matter of months the sea will destroy everything.  

The community estimates that the sea will reach their homes in less than six months. Graphic: CELEAM

‘There are also people at risk of losing their lives. Occasionally a ravine, weighing about a thousand tons, has nearly collapsed on a fisherman while he was at work,’ Clarena Fonseca Uriana, leader of Cachaca III, told El País. ‘All the hope of our culture is being swept away by the sea.’ 

Faced with a lack of action by the State, three members of the community, together with the independent Latin American Centre for Environmental Studies (CELEAM in Spanish) and the University of Medellín law clinic, sued the Colombian government, claiming that their rights had been violated. These rights include: the right to cultural integrity, food, basic water supply, life and livelihood, housing, health, a healthy environment, women’s rights, and the protection of human rights defenders.  

Their main claim is that the rights of people in difficult situations of human mobility due to  climate change, have been violated. With this claim, they are demanding that Congress or a sector of the Colombian government creates policy to protect the populations most vulnerable to the climate crisis, and that they prevent subsequent threats to human mobility.  

The local community’s culture is at risk of erosion too. Graphic: CELEAM

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In February 2024, the case was presented at a regional public hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, (CIDH in Spanish), in Washington DC. The case demonstrated four key points: 

• Climate change causes communities to be displaced

• Those most affected by climate change are historically marginalised and vulnerable populations

• There is structural racism behind the effects of the climate crisis 

• Indigenous communities are subject to special protection.  

Various entities of civil society including the press, environmental organisations, and communities came together to build this case. Evidence was then compiled to demonstrate the violation of their rights. The case has the potential to mark a turning point because what is implemented in the Twuliá community will set a precedent for what is to come for other communities affected by climate change.  

Andrés Aristizábal Isaza, a lawyer associated with CELEAM claims, ‘As more judicial processes bring lawsuits against this type of violation, the need to acknowledge this phenomenon may become more evident. We need public policy to address the implications of the climate crisis.’

Whilst policy on the issue has yet to be made, the emergence of the case itself paves the way for further cases of a similar nature to be brought forward.