Making Wind Energy with Venezuelan Horsepower
Steven Schwartz, PhD Candidate, Anthropology
In the arid peninsula of La Guajira, along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, wind energy is experiencing an unprecedented boom. Since the early 2010s, over a dozen corporations have been in the process of licensing up to 57 wind farms, valued collectively at over US$6 billion (González Posso and Barney 2019, 18, 28). In the coming years, thousands of turbines are expected to appear in the constitutionally protected territory of the Wayúu—the largest indigenous people in Colombia and Venezuela. The strong and steady trade winds that traverse this indigenous land are capable of fulfilling Colombia’s national electricity demand (UPME 2015). During 2018–2019, I conducted ethnographic research among Wayúu communities and wind energy corporations venturing in La Guajira to learn how low-carbon energy regimes are reshaping people’s everyday lives, economic horizons, and imagined futures.
Fig 1. Department of La Guajira, Colombia. Source: Wikimedia Commons
One overlooked aspect of the renewable energy boom is the dozens of vehicles that keep the flow of workers, goods, and equipment for current and future wind farms. The cars, driven almost exclusively by men, are critical for visiting prospective Wayúu hosts, carrying out community workshops and consultation meetings, and marking points on the GPS for future maps. The preferred vehicles are Toyota SUVs—4Runners and Fortuners—which are viewed as capable of navigating the rugged, unpaved, and heavily eroded roads of the rural peninsula without breaking down. Their air-conditioned and musicalized interiors (with non-stop Vallenato tunes) insulate staff workers from the extreme heat, the dusty wind gusts, and the bodily pain of long and bumpy rides. The nascent wind energy economy is intimately dependent on these cars: they are “unlikely nonhuman collaborators in the development of renewable energy” (Howe 2019, 74).
Toyotas embody the promise of prosperity, development, and the good life that is commonly attached to wind energy in Colombia. In fact, owning and driving a car for a wind energy company is a key source of income for many Wayúu and non-indigenous guajiros (as rental fees can go as high as US$135 per day). However, for NGOs, journalists, and indigenous leaders that are skeptical of the wind energy boom, the cars portend a wave of conflicts and territorial dislocations: they are a fossil-fuel technology aiding a novel form of energy extraction with potentially violent effects.
The extractive imaginary surrounding Toyota SUVs was vividly captured in a newspaper ad I came across by chance while reviewing old editions of Wayuunaiki—a bilingual monthly newspaper published in Venezuela aimed at a Wayúu readership. The ad, published in the early 2000s, had an image of a Toyota 4Runner and the phrase: “How far would Christopher Columbus have gone if he had had a Toyota? Till the end of the world, because Toyota is the most comfortable and resistant vehicle on the market.” A few weeks later, I heard the postcolonial version of this ad on a morning radio show broadcast from Riohacha, where Christopher Columbus had been replaced by Simón Bolívar—who led Colombia’s independence from Spanish rule in the early nineteenth century. Both iterations capture the ambivalent nature of these cars: while they crystallize rousing economic possibilities, they also evoke foreign and colonial actors that have arrived to capture a natural resource.
Fig. 2. Toyota Ad. Source: Wayuunaiki.
Yet, the Toyotas moving across the peninsula have another layer of ambiguity surrounding their identity. About 70 percent of all cars in La Guajira are Venezuelan (Benjumea Brito 2006), which is visible in their license plates—distinguishable by their white background and blue letters, the Venezuelan flag, and the Venezuelan states from which they originate. Most, if not all, of these cars also have a dark past: they were either stolen in Venezuela, or fraudulently reported as stolen to insurance companies, and then resold in the Colombian black market. The appeal of these vehicles is mainly their price. They can cost between 10 and 30 percent of the market price of a Colombian car (thereby making cars with Colombian license plates a sign of distinction). For this reason, the Colombian Guajira is filled with all kinds of Venezuelan vehicles, from motorcycles and old Ford-350 pick-up trucks to Toyota 4Runners and Fortuners.
Fig. 3. A Venezuelan Fortuner on the side of the road from Uribia to the Upper Guajira.
Most of these cars live relatively undisturbed due to a peculiar legal exception. Per numerous regional decrees, starting in 2003, these vehicles can go through a bureaucratic process—called interning or internación—after which they can move around legally, but only within the department of La Guajira. If they leave for the interior of Colombia, the cars will be detained. Ironically, they cannot circulate in Venezuela either, since owners fear that if they cross the border the police can easily confiscate the cars (since they remain reported as stolen). Neither fully Venezuelan nor Colombian. These are authentically guajiro cars that occupy a liminal space.
Since the 2000s, state governments in La Guajira have periodically attempted to legalize all Venezuelan cars, through the interning processes, yet new cars keep arriving. At several times in the past, they have also announced measures to eliminate their legal immunity to curtail the binational black market of stolen vehicles. Yet, these actions have been temporary and have almost always been met by protests (e.g., El Tiempo 1993, 1995). Interned cars are such an essential part of the social fabric of La Guajira that blocking their movements disrupts the entire region: it keeps children from going to school, people from going to work or to the doctor, tourists from reaching hostels, and kin and friends from visiting each other. Mobility in La Guajira is deeply intertwined with Venezuelan cars.
Interned cars are emblematic of the binational dynamics that have come to define La Guajira. They reflect the long and rich history of illicit flows that flourished since colonial times, from the smuggling of pearls and cattle to the Caribbean in the eighteenth century (Polo Acuña 2012) to the recent bonanza of marijuana (Britto 2020) and gasoline (Orsini Aarón 2007). The cars are both licit and somewhat illegal, periodically persecuted by state regulatory agencies, and yet a pillar of people’s mobility and social life. These cars also disclose the lurking and unexpected presence of Venezuela’s petro-state in fueling Colombia’s transition to a low-carbon energy future. In fact, most of them run on subsidized Venezuelan gasoline that has been smuggled across the border and sold in small plastic containers (see Fig 4). Subsidized Venezuelan gasoline provides up to 90 percent of the demand in the Colombian Guajira, powering many of the vehicles used to license, assemble, and maintain wind farms. Together, Venezuelan cars and gasoline demonstrate the “dim line between fossil-fueled modes of modernity and non-carbon-based forms of power” (Howe 2019, 75). They also suggest that Colombian wind farms are, perhaps inadvertently, a binational undertaking.
Fig. 4. Venezuelan Gasoline sold in Coca-Cola containers (called pimpinas) at the Jepirachi Wind Farm of Empresas Públicas de Medellín. Source: Photo by author.
Benjumea Brito, Paola, “En La Guajira 7 de cada 10 carros son robados,” El Tiempo, April 6, 2006, https://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/MAM-1979573.
Britto, Lina. 2020. Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
El Tiempo, “Controlarán carros venezolanos,” September 23, 1993, https://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/MAM-227487.
El Tiempo, “Dueños de vehículos venezolanos tomaron ayer las calles de Maicao,” May 26, 1995, https://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/MAM-333021.
González Posso, Camilo, and Joanna Barney. 2019. El viento del este llega con revoluciones. Multinacionales y transición con energía eólica en territorio Wayúu. Bogotá: Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz.
Howe, Cymene. 2019. Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Orsini Aarón, Giangina. 2007. Poligamia y contrabando. Nociones de legalidad y legitimidad en la frontera guajira siglo XX. Bogotá: Universidad de Los Andes.
Polo Acuña, José Trinidad. 2012. Indígenas, poderes y mediaciones en la Guajira en la transición de la colonia a la república. Bogotá: Universidad de Los Andes.
Unidad de Planeación Minero Energética. 2015. Plan energético nacional Colombia: ideario energético 2050. Bogotá: Unidad de Planeación Minero Energética.