Working with the Wayuu

The Wayuu is an Amerindian group that numbers approximately 450,000 and inhabits the semi-desert Guajira Peninsula straddling the Colombia-Venezuela border, on the Caribbean Sea coast. Here, Wájaro is:

1) Accompanying an association of Wayuu protestant leaders working to strengthen their communities.

2) Collaborating with international and national NGOs to provide basic educational training to community leaders.

3) Helping to develop a women’s artisan association to create income generation possibilities for Wayuu families.

4) Partnering with a local indigenous seminary to offer theological education to protestant leaders from across the Wayuu territory.

Continue on to read more about each initiative…

For over 500 years the Wayuu have shared a history of conflict and resistance, acceptance and exchange with the non-native arijuna (non-Wayuu). The Wayuu are one of the limited number of indigenous tribes throughout the Western Hemisphere to have effectively resisted European control. In large part, their success lies in their willingness to appropriate outside influences they see as beneficial for their survival.

One clear example of appropriation that has shaped their economic identity was adopting pastoralism from the early European settlers. The Wayuu were originally horticulturalists and foragers, but they incorporated livestock into their economy within 50 years after the first European contact. Today, they find a balance between maintaining long-standing cultural traditions and values, largely revolving around their semi-subsistent pastoral lifestyle and the adoption of Western marketing of their artisan products.

Another example of appropriating outside influences has been the Wayuu’s receptiveness to protestant missionaries. Though Catholicism did not spread in the Guajira as it did in most of Colombia, the protestant evangelical faith did, and today there are more than 50 evangelical denominations with churches in the Wayuu territory.

Though the Wayuu have been able to preserve their tribal identity and territory, life is by no means easy. Due to paramilitary violence, drought and water-intensive extractive industries, the Wayuu have faced increasing displacement and urbanization since the 1990s. The peace accords, though a step in the right direction for Colombia, could make life harder for the Wayuu.

The peace accords will likely create greater security and integration in the Colombia interior. As a result, peripheral regions like the Guajira could become more vulnerable to drug cartel operations linked with paramilitary groups that involve trafficking.

Too, due to greater political stability and security, experts are speculating exponential growth of foreign investment in extractive industries. An abundance of mineral resources makes the Guajira a likely site for a spike in multinational extractive industries that use large amounts of water in their operations.

Lastly, as a result of the dissolving of the FARC (and the continuing destabilization of Venezuela) two “kinds” of Wayuu will likely return home to the Guajira Peninsula. The first is the Wayuu “guerilla insurgent”, and the second is the “un-traditionalized” Wayuu returning from Venezuelan cities that fled due to the armed conflict.

A strong social fabric is the glue that holds society together and is highly correlative to a community’s ability to withstand external pressures like the ones cited above. It is a metaphor for how well the community members interact amongst themselves. The tighter the weave (the more frequently and positively the members interact with each other), the stronger the fabric is; the looser the weave, the weaker the fabric, and the more likely to tear and fray.

Enhancing social fabric, then, means to foment more and better interactions between members of the community. In doing so, they feel connected, capable, and trust each other. They are more willing to help someone when there is a need and work together to keep their community healthy and safe.

Churches are found in every nook and cranny of the Guajira, and are potential nodes around which social fabric can be built and strengthened. Wájaro is working with evangelical leaders to strengthen the social fabric of the communities dispersed throughout the Wayuu territory where churches are located. As Wayuu pastor and traditional leader, Ricaurte Enriquez adamantly explains, “Because of macro forces the social fabric of our communities is beginning to tear. Our vision is that the church take the lead on defending life in our God-given territory”.

The following points explain how Wájaro is working to strengthen community social fabric in the Guajira Peninsula:
Accompanying an association of Wayuu pastors and leaders working to strengthen the their communities.

In 2008, two Wayuu pastors, Elias Silva and Ricaurte Henriquez, participated in a conference for indigenous religious leaders from across South America. The conference, sponsored by the National Council of Indigenous Evangelical Pastors & Leaders (Conplei) – a fraternity of 1200 Brazilian tribal leaders from almost 50 tribes – sought to encourage prominent tribal religious leaders to form territorial networks across denominational lines to enhance holistic progress in their respective regions.

Inspired by what they heard, Elias and Ricaurte returned home with the goal of encouraging their evangelical Wayuu brothers and sisters to work together across denominational differences. They returned to the Guajira and began inviting other pastors to join them in their vision. However, the response from their peers was skepticism and apathy. As a result, Elias and Ricaurte scrapped the idea and went back to focusing their energies on pastoring their own denominations.

In 2016, two major external influences created the conditions for the previously uninterested pastors to open themselves up to working together: 1) the Colombian government was about to put an end to its 60-year internal conflict that would have major implications, both positive and negative, for the Wayuu people, and 2) a five-year drought was causing a serious humanitarian crisis in the Guajira. With these issues as impetus, the process of creating Aspewa, a regional association of Wayuu evangelical pastors and leaders was begun.

To date the association is made up of 22 church leaders from 9 different denominations (170 churches) from across the Wayuu territory (Colombia and Venezuela), however the hope is that all of the more than 50 evangelical denominations in the region eventually become active and benefiting members.

For the last two years, the Wájaro Foundation has been helping Aspewa to lay the foundation to become an organization with the three-fold aim: 1) to strengthen and build the capacity of the Wayuu church 2) to work for the integral well-being of the Wayuu people via the church as an organization; 3) to become a kind of “gatekeeper” or controlling authority that interacts with local, regional and international actors with presence and/or influence in the Wayuu territory and that seeks to channel the resources and support coming from the outside in a more orderly, strategic and dignified manner.


Helping to develop a women’s artisan association to create income generation possibilities for Wayuu families.

In years with normal weather, the Wayuu plant twice annually following the rain patterns in the region. The harvests are used for family consumption and to feed their goat herds. Though life is by no means easy, with the harvests they eat well enough and are able to maintain their traditional way of life.

Due to new environmental pressures, namely a drastic decline in rainfall over the past two decades, artisanry is taking on increasing importance in the Wayuu economy. As a result, the economic role of women, who dedicate themselves to weaving and business in the cities, is growing significantly.

In light of this situation, Wajáro has been working with a group of roughly 25 women leaders to explore sustainable entrepreneurial activities that center on their skills as artisans. In addition to serving as bridge to outside markets, Wajáro seeks to ensure that throughout the process the women are building not only their market base, but also their knowledge of business, management, quality control, and finances.

Most recently, Wájaro has launched a partnership with a French company called Mazonia that sells Wayuu bags internationally. The company values transparency and accountability and is commited to giving the women a fair price for their artisan craft.  The company is also providing capacity-building workshops for the women to improve their skills as both weavers and entrepreneurs, This is one of many opportunities that Wajaro is pursuing.

Collaborating with international and national NGOs to provide basic educational training to community leaders.

The leadersship of Aspewa envision their territory being transformed by their churches. However, many of the men and women who find themselves in positions of church leadership need basic educational skills. For this reason, in partnership with a local vocational training organization (Cotelgua) and an international NGO (Alfalit), Wájaro has launched a comprehensive educational program. The program inlcudes literacy training, primary education classes, high school-level academic skills courses, and a vocational training initiative. To date, more than 350 church leaders have participated in the program.

Partnering with a local indigenous seminary to offer theological education to protestant leaders from across the Wayuu territory.

Wájaro is sponsoring Wayuu pastors from diffeent denominations to receive holisitc theological training at a local seminary called Cenfow. Holistic theological training as defined by Wayuu leadership includes the following areas of study: theology, stewardship, leadership, project management, indigenous issues, and environmental issues.

In addition to training pastors, Wájaro is helping to make improvements to Cenfow as a theological training institute. As part of Wájaro’s involvement, indigenous identity and learning to read and write Wayuunaiki is being emphasized in creative ways throughout the training as part of an effort to further develop and contextualize the program. Furthermore, Cenfow teachers are being offered opportunities for development as theologians and educators through participation in trainings, exchanges, conferences and workshops.