Cut off on all sides, Colombia's La Guajira peninsula is a study in abandonment
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Cut off on all sides, Colombia's La Guajira peninsula is a study in abandonment

The northeastern region of La Guajira is one of the poorest places in Colombia.

Decades of corruption and government neglect have left the province, which has a sizable indigenous population, severely underdeveloped, despite the fact that it sits on top of billions of dollars’ worth of coal and natural gas resources. Over the last few years, the dire situation of the peninsula’s impoverished residents has been exacerbated by a severe drought that has dealt a blow to the subsistence agriculture and livestock upon which many people depend to feed their families.

This has contributed to the deaths of thousands of malnourished children, most of them from the indigenous Wayuu community, according to local authorities. El Niño, expected to hit in the coming months, is only going to make things worse.

Much of La Guajira’s economic activity comes from resource extraction. Yet despite the wealth of natural resources and the fact that the region is home to the continent’s largest open-pit coal mine, two-thirds of the province’s population still lives in poverty. Needless to say, the royalties earned by the local and national government from those extractive industries are not making it back to the population they are supposed to benefit.

Venezuela’s crackdown on poor Colombians’ ‘lifeline’

To add to the misery experienced by La Guajira’s poor, the Venezuelan government’s recent crackdown on contraband has cut off a vital source of desperately-needed cheap goods.

As Venezuela has been experiencing its own economic problems, one of which is the shortages at least partly caused by smuggling, it decided in August to slow the flow of subsidized goods out of the country with stricter border controls. One of the measures it took was to close the Venezuela-Colombia border crossing at nights, something the Colombian government was not happy about.

Read more: Border closing met with widespread opposition

Smugglers had been taking advantage of the price-controlled goods on the Venezuelan side of the border, which can be sold on the Colombian side for a hefty profit. Venezuelan government estimates indicate that as much as 40 percent of national products are smuggled to Colombia — most of them crossing the border into La Guajira.

Jim Wyss of the Miami Herald recently visited the peninsula and reported that people are complaining about the unintended consequences of Venezuela’s crackdown.

An indigenous Wayuu resident told him that the availability of staples like rice, butter and sugar has decreased markedly, while prices for the goods have doubled,

The Colombian government had been doing little to aid La Guajira’s poor, making the subsidized smuggled goods from Venezuela essential. As Wyss wrote in his piece, Venezuela’s “socialist policies have been a lifeline to residents.”

Colombia needs to step up

Sooner or later, Venezuela was going to have to stop the flow of contraband in order to protect its own struggling economy. That may prove to be difficult, as the incentives for smuggling remain high, but it is a goal Venezuela’s President Maduro appears to be taking seriously.

This means the Colombian government will no longer be able to rely on unofficial humanitarian aid from its neighbor to provide for its own citizens in La Guajira.

Read more: Community resistance in Colombia’s coal mining country

If the Colombian state actually wants to improve conditions for residents of the peninsula, it will have to begin investing in the region, providing significant resources to combat the effects of the drought and widespread poverty. While water and food are the most urgent needs, long-term development plans for the region — not just for its natural resources — will have to be implemented to provide residents with the standard of living they deserve.