CASTILLETES, Colombia (Reuters) - In the sun-baked scrubland of northern Colombia’s remote La Guajira province, a bitter quarrel rages between two neighbouring Wayuu indigenous families, one of them seeking refuge from a humanitarian crisis across the border in Venezuela.
Their feud was sparked by goats. Without fences to stop them, their herds mingle amid the low bushes between the two homesteads, whipped by a hot and dusty desert wind here in ancestral Wayuu territory.
One family, the Ipuana Montiers - who recently arrived from Venezuela, fleeing shortages of food and medicine - say they have lost 50 goats to the herd belonging to their more established neighbours, the Ipuana, who count local leaders among their ranks.
Such conflicts over land, water and animals are increasingly common as Venezuela spirals into disaster and thousands of indigenous Wayuu who once left their Colombian homes for Venezuela return. The influx is testing the limits of tribal unity, according to Wayuu police and tribal mediators, known as pütchipü’üs.
In a dark green house with plastic siding at the end of a long, rutted dirt track, Rangel Ipuana - a pütchipü’ü who is the patriarch of the Ipuana clan - says he wants to avoid conflict, but many of the returnees from Venezuela have forgotten the Wayuu way of life.
“Families are returning to where their grandparents lived and there’s been so much conflict and theft because they don’t know how to manage the land,” said the 72-year-old.
Wayuu people - who generally speak both their own Wayuunaiki tongue and Spanish - have citizenship rights in both countries.
Some migrated to Venezuela over the past two decades to take advantage of free education and other benefits. But hyperinflation and a six-year recession under President Nicolas Maduro have driven thousands back, part of a wave of some 1.7 million people who have fled Venezuela for Colombia in recent years.
For already-struggling communities - which often scrape by on subsistence ranching and gasoline smuggling - the needs of returning Wayuu are hard to meet. Malnourishment has long plagued Wayuu children and many communities can ill afford more mouths to feed.
With dozens of disputes now raging, Wayuu leaders say they hope mediation will head off escalations in violence, as brawls break out between neighbours and within families.
Yohedys Palmar, a Wayuu police inspector in Castilletes - which overlooks an aquamarine bay in the eastern reaches of Upper Guajira - said there are about 10 active disputes in his area alone, the majority involving returning Wayuu.
“There has been violence,” said Palmar. “Up to now it hasn’t come to deaths, but that could happen if conflicts are not resolved.”
Palmar said he had heard of killings related to returnee disputes in the inland settlement of Jarara. Reuters was not able to independently confirm this.
Scant mobile phone service makes communication difficult in the impoverished and isolated region, where the Colombian state is virtually non-existent.
The hyper-localized system of pütchipü’üs also makes data collection on the conflicts difficult, said Alberto Henriquez, the secretary of indigenous affairs for the Uribia municipality, which includes Upper Guajira.
Palmar’s father, Rafael Sapuana, is the pütchipü’ü in charge of the Ipuana dispute involving the Venezuelan returnees.
“They come with so many needs, with hunger, without work,” said Sapuana, a father of 50 children, from a nearby grouping of houses where he lives with some of his family. “We want to avoid blood-letting ... War doesn’t bring anything good.”
“We hope the government, President Duque, will give us a hand with the crisis.”
Maria Elena Ipuana is the matriarch of the Ipuana Montiers. She has returned to settle on this patch of family property with her husband Angel Jose Montier and more than 40 of her children and grandchildren, after years of sporadic travel back and forth to Maracaibo, a centre of the oil industry in Venezuela.
“Food used to be really cheap in Venezuela, now it’s so expensive,” Ipuana said. “We have to survive however we can.”
The family is squeezed into five small makeshift houses. Two of the grandchildren, ages 1 and 4, have frail limbs indicative of malnutrition.
And the family is about to grow - Ipuana’s sister, brother-in-law and 22 of their children and grandchildren will arrive soon from Venezuela, she said.
A resolution to the goat disagreement would take at least one problem off the family’s long list, Ipuana said.
“We need this problem to be mediated, to be resolved, to avoid conflict with the other family,” she said.
The following day both families descended on the Sapuanas’ homestead to shake on a deal: any further dispute between them would result in the aggressor owing the other family 50 goats or sheep. They sealed the agreement with shots of burning chirrinche liquor.
A reconciliation is the best-case scenario, but there is no shortage of disputes.
Uribia, where the population of 205,000 is 95% Wayuu, has had at least 38 cases of land conflicts to date involving people returning from Venezuela, said Henriquez.
Because local government has limited power in Wayuu territory, that may not be an accurate representation of the frequency of disputes, he added.
“There’s lots of cases where the family uses a pütchipü’ü and it’s solved based on custom.”
Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O'Brien