Thousands of Children Dying of Starvation in the Colombian Guajira

By Arturo Rosales
Axis of Logic
Thursday, Feb 11, 2016

La Guajira is a Colombian department bordering Venezuela and encompassing most of the Guajira Peninsula, on the Caribbean Sea. It is distinguished by desert landscapes, giant sand dunes and the remote ranches and fishing villages of the indigenous Wayúu people. The capital city Riohacha has a palm-lined waterfront, beaches and craft stalls, and serves as the gateway for adventure tourism in the region.

However, behind this image of an indigenous people living and preserving their millennium culture in their traditional territory, there is an epidemic of hunger and starvation present affecting mainly the children of La Guajira.

Just recent two more children from the Wayúu died from malnutrition in less than a week and this has been an ongoing problem that, in the words of Javier Rojas, a leader of this indigenous community, “is an epidemic that is undermining the childhood future of La Guajira”.

There has been no let-up in children’s deaths from starvation in the Colombian La Guajira. Part of La Guajira runs into Venezuelan territory where the Wayúu are still poor but thanks to the socialist policies of the Bolivarian Revolution, tragic cases of starvation and malnutrition of vulnerable infants has largely been avoided.

On the other hand, Colombia’s neoliberal, free trade minded government does not provide such effective social safety nets for the vulnerable Wayúu children and the results are as tragic as they are sad and hard to bear.

Reports on this situation have been filed with the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) and show that in the last eight years more than 4770 children of this indigenous community have died due to malnourishment and a lack of drinking water.

In 2015 the representative of the Shipia Wayúu, Javier Rojas, rejected the numbers mentioned by Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos concerning the number of Wayúu children dying of malnutrition in La Guajira. According to Santos only 300 children had died from malnutrition in the last eight years, which is an attempt to minimize or hide the true scale of this tragedy. In fact, in a report broadcast today on Radio Del Sur, some Colombian doctors are saying that the cause of death of many children has been heart failure and thus do not mention malnutrition.

In an interview Rojas stated that more than 3000 children had died from malnutrition and lack of drinking water according to a census carried out by indigenous families themselves. Rojas maintains that each week one or two children are dying from this cause.

For the Wayúu population as whole living in La Guajira the situation has been complicated by a three year long drought that shows no sign of breaking. There is little work, most of it temporary and paid at starvation wage levels and children in the area survive on a glass of chichi a day plus any extra food drummed up from the temporary work their parents can find.

According to Javier Rojas there is simply no work available and no governmental source of food. “In the salt beds, where there used to be work, the whole area is now being run by foreigners,” he said.

Last year the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) asked the Colombian government to “adopt measures necessary to preserve life and human integrity” of children and adolescents of the indigenous Wayúu community in the Guajira municipalities of Uribia, Manaure, Riohacha and Maicao. According to the CIDH the indigenous “are at risk due to the lack and access to drinking water and the state of destitution of children living in the community”.

The CIDH also asked the Colombian government to ensure the ”availability, accessibility and quality of health services focused on combating infantile malnutrition in the region”.

La Guajira has a population of 846,609 of which 54.8% live in the towns and 45.2% in rural areas. Almost 45% is indigenous which represents 20.2% of the total indigenous population of Colombia.

Unemployment in La Guajira is running at 47%, which is 300% higher than the national average in Colombia.

Water for coal mining but not for indigenous communities

 In La Guajira policies allow foreign investments to enjoy far more rights and importance than social policies to protect the population. Mining activities to extract natural resources do little to stimulate any social development and on the contrary increase the vulnerability of the inhabitants due to damage to the environment and the privatization of water resources in the area.

El Cerrejón is the world’s largest open cast coal mine. It is located at the source of the River Ranchería and produces annually 32 million tons of coal. This exploitation renders a high level of taxes for the country. There is also a railway consortium for transporting minerals for about 150 km direct to a sea port where vessels with a capacity of 180 thousand tons are moored.

Cerrejon Coal is owned by three mega mining multinationals listed on the London Stock Exchange and with offices in London: Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Glencore Xstrata.

Originally El Cerrejón was seen as the great hope for combating unemployment in the region, but it has been converted into a camp of human exploitation. Multinationals that get rich extracting Colombian coal, have been denounced by the miners for not complying with minimum labor or wage conditions. Workers mention long shifts under a searing sun; no recognition of work related illnesses such as silicosis, dehydration and physical injuries as well as hearing problems – and this is without even mentioning the long hours laboring in coal dust.

The indigenous community has also denounced the environmental and human impact that open cast coal mining has caused. They have lost access to the river as the land has been privatized as well as thousands of hectares of tribal lands. Nearby settlements suffer from noise, explosions, drilling and the rail line crossing their territory.

Despite protests there has been little or no response from the Colombian government to rein in this ongoing destruction of the life of the Wayúu. The main water source is controlled by the multinationals that run El Cerrejón. They have desalinization plants, water holding areas and water pumps for their industrial processes.

At the same time water resources are being denied to the Wayúu causing misery and death all in the name of the exploitation of natural resources for monetary gain.

Conclusions

Intervention by the CIDH has had little impact and so year after year, vulnerable Wayúu children are dying unnecessarily. Now, what are you doing with the taxes you collect from the coal mining carried out at El Cerrejón, President Santos? Millions of us would like to know.

Do you have no control to curb the anti human rights abuses of Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Glencore Xstrata who now own the natural resources of the Colombian people?

And one final thought – imagine the outcry if kids were dying of hunger in Venezuela as is happening in Colombia. We have enough mud thrown at us saying our economic model is wrong since people cannot buy the soap powder they want! God knows what would be said about the economic model if kids were actually dying in their thousands of hunger. The marines would already be landing.

The fact little is said in the corporate media about this tragedy of starving kids on La Guajira must mean that these unethical rags and their editors believe that the Colombian economic-malnutrition model is just fine.

Arturo Rosales writes from Caracas

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