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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,

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,

El Tiempo, “Dueños de vehículos venezolanos tomaron ayer las calles de Maicao,” May 26, 1995,

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.

Mobility as Investment in Southern Peru: Notes and Images from a Moving Field

Mobility as Investment in Southern Peru: Notes and Images from a Moving Field

Eric Hirsch | Ph.D. Candidate, Anthropology

Photo 1. El Señor de los Milagros.

   There are plenty of ways of getting around southern Peru’s Colca Valley. Many people find themselves in packed Toyota Hiaces, plunging through streams and over rocks as impressively as any off-road vehicle. Others watch the scenery unfold from the windows of nearly empty Mercedes vans used to shuttle tourists between their hotels and the Cruz del Condor, a lookout point marked by a cross where the famous Andean condor can be seen up close. In Colca, a basin of twenty interconnected villages, constant mobility is essential to daily life.

In this context, my dissertation, “Investing in Indigeneity,” investigates the ways development organizations, national initiatives, and municipal institutions are trying to put the idea of local indigeneity and other imaginings of what it means to be Colcan to work for economic growth. One surprise when fieldwork began was that so much of this research has consisted of traversing between Colca’s villages in various forms of transportation, accompanying many different kinds of investors. One of my initial research questions asks, what does it mean to make an investment? Now, as I approach the end of my fifteen-month stay in Peru, one answer to that question can be found in how people move throughout the valley and the region.

The further you go into the Colca Valley from Chivay, the provincial capital, the more you have to wait, and the more of an investment of time, money, patience, and physical endurance it entails to move from place to place. Peru has adopted a large-scale policy of political and economic decentralization over the past decade (see, i.e., The  Economist 2014). But in the Arequipa region, where Colca is located, this has not meant a true local autonomy, but rather a series of hubs and spokes, where the hubs today have much more power than they used to with respect to Lima, but in their zones remain a highly centralized focus. This means, in practice, that participants in so many different economic sectors, from merchants to manufacturers, to healthcare workers and teachers and development experts, must make constant regular commutes to the capital city of Arequipa (see photo 2). In a contemporary variation on what Andes historian John Murra famously called the “vertical archipelago” (1972)—in which families, since before the Inca and Spanish invasions, would colonize land at distinct altitudes in order to diversify their crop supply—many families maintain an archipelago of homes, terrains, businesses, family members, and contemporary social networks in multiple sites in the region that crisscross through the capital city.

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Photo 2. On the Road to Arequipa.

   It is not only where people are going, but also the way they move, that can reveal a great deal about what it means to belong to these communities. The details I note here may not be completely unique to Arequipa and Peru, but what I want to suggest in these moving scenes is that at the level of ethnographic methodology, the textured ways in which people circulate through space deserve our attention. For a great number of Colcans, much of economic life here depends upon spending a great deal of time on buses. Most of the longer journeys between Arequipa and its hinterland take place on large coach buses such as those of the Señor de los Milagros line (see photo 1), some of which are so old that they cannot exceed 40 miles per hour, even on the puna’s desolate open highways. What happens on the bus is a kind of opportunistic convergence: near the city and the rest stops, men and women board for some fifteen minutes at a time selling snacks, sodas, and newspapers, spending their days zigzagging back and forth along the bus route selling their wares; passengers may also be witness to the occasional infomercial-like lecture from a representative of Herbalife or somebody selling magazines or self-improvement videos, advertising the value of reading and the idea that “culture begins at home” to a captive audience. People who caught the bus at the last minute or who could not afford a seat might sit and sleep on the cold floor, trying their best to make themselves comfortable. Spending so much time on buses seems a peculiar, and perhaps even unnoticed, form of labor: the labor required to bridge the gap between hub and spoke, center and periphery, town and country, always reinforcing and reforging that relationship in a way that goes much deeper than simply passing time. The time spent on the bus is full time. It’s eventful; it is in turn relaxing and tedious. It’s a public in motion.


Photo 3. Combi

   Shared Hiace, or combi, rides become a form of delivering supplies—sending packages to work around an unreliable mail system, transporting corrugated tin for making rooftops, and driving the occasional alpaca to pasture along the combi route. When they fall on religious holidays, these rides are sometimes an occasion for singing Church songs. A person’s habits and practices of getting in and getting out of the van index his or her respect for the elderly. In the afternoons, young students pile in, excited to be on their way to the nearest Internet café. Long rides and long waits become fora for public debate about the upcoming elections, collective reaction to Profesor Celso’s radio talk show about local politics, and arguments over the merits of a combi timetable. In sum, moving publics at various scales put both what communities value and what people aspire to on display.

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Photo 4. Pickup truck.

   The pickup truck has its own role as a moving stage of investment (see photo 4). For an ethnographer, there is something special about getting into a truck. These were the vehicles of choice for contracted trips used in focused interventions. Pickup trucks became the lifeblood of some of the most important investment projects happening throughout the valley ranging from a development visit to a political campaign, and as in many places around the world, were the highly conspicuous indicator that members of the NGO class were approaching. At the core of my research was a group of twenty young entrepreneurs living in Colca who had won seed capital investment from the Desco NGO, and thirty others who had won non-monetary support, for business plans they had proposed. Much of the daily work on a development intervention was spent in the NGO’s Mitsubishi truck traversing the valley. Rides lasting more than an hour, for example between the NGO’s offices in Chivay and its entrepreneurs in Lari, would often become informal staff meetings.

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Photo 5. Sierra Sur INTERCON.

   A second intervention I’m following, the Sierra Sur initiative, a program run out of Peru’s Ministry of Agriculture, gives us a distinct image of development investment as a movable system of staged exchanges: Sierra Sur staff hold periodic contests in public squares throughout the region—spaces founded in the Spanish colonial reducción, or massive effort to resettle a dispersed Andean population into dense, gridded, Christian villages—which they transform into sites of evaluation that cultivate the newly valued figure of the indigenous Colcan entrepreneur (see photo 5). Between these and the many other investors who make daily trips traversing the valley and the region—political candidates (see photo 6), construction workers, miners, farmers reaching their far-off terrains—we can begin to paint a picture of investment in Peru’s Colca Valley as a process of keeping communities in motion.

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Photo 6. Ricardo Ramos


The Economist. “Divide and bribe.” 7 October 2014. [Accessed 14 October 2014.]

Murra, John V. 1972. “El ‘control vertical’ de un máximo de pisos ecológicos en la economía de las sociedades andinas.” In Iñigo Ortiz de Zúñiga (1967-1972[1562]), Visita de la provincia de León de Huánuco en 1562. Vol. 2. John V. Murra (ed.). Huánuco: Universidad NAcional Hermilio Valdizán, 427-476.

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The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.