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People of

Colombia’s Wayuu Indigenous
Community Confronts a Malnutrition
Crisis Amid Covid-19

By Hilary Rosenthal
Photos and Videos Helkin René Díaz

The Wayuu, the indigenous people of northern Colombia and Venezuela, have a saying molded by the centuries of hardship they have endured:

It is only from strong sunlight and harsh rains, that a seed can sprout.

It is through that resilient spirit that the Wayuu confront a devastating malnutrition crisis, heightened now more than ever as the spread of Covid-19 threatens their livelihoods.

Dubbed the land of contrasts by its inhabitants, La Guajira, a state in northeastern Colombia, boasts large expanses of desert alongside breathtaking dune-lined coasts. But it has earned a reputation as a region left behind in the dust: a lack of sufficient food, water, and access to health services, along with high poverty rates, complicated by a humanitarian crisis in neighboring Venezuela, pervasive government corruption and mismanagement, and climate change, have contributed to high levels of malnutrition in La Guajira, especially among rural indigenous communities. In this context, the Covid-19 pandemic not only poses another threat to the health of an already struggling population, but also has economic impacts that may deepen food insecurity and increase challenges in accessing water, healthcare, and education.

In mid-January, I traveled to La Guajira with a team of Human Rights Watch experts and public health and medical professionals from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Humanitarian Health to document the impact that child malnutrition is having on Wayuu indigenous communities.

Map of La Guajira

It was there, in a settlement known as Torres de Majayura, that I met María Clara. Windswept and wreathed in the smell of burning plastic, homes in the settlement are cobbled together from scraps of metal and driftwood. Under a tarp-lined shelter, María Clara told me about the passing of her 15-month-old daughter, Yamilet, three weeks ago.

Javier, Yamilet’s father, gingerly flipped over a bucket so I could sit while he and María Clara talked about the wrenching events leading up to Yamilet’s passing – the recurrence of vomiting, diarrhea, and fever; the scraping together of pesos for a long motorcycle ride to the hospital; María Clara screaming for help when her daughter stopped breathing.

“I walked around, asking if someone could lend me money for a little coffin… to bring my daughter home – it wasn’t easy at all,” María Clara described. And when they visit Yamilet’s grave now, her three-year-old son Jendri still begs her to bring back his sister: “he said to me, ‘take la niña out of there, mommy.’ And what can I say to him? I tell him she’s in heaven.” A lone tear rolled down her face as the roof, made of tarp, flapped furiously in the wind.

In La Guajira, malnutrition claims the life of one in every 10 children younger than the age of five. Here, more children than anywhere else in the country die of malnutrition or causes associated with malnutrition, and at six times the national rate, according to data reported by Colombia’s Ministry of Health. Since 2016, a child under the age of five dies of malnutrition in La Guajira on average about once a week. In 2019, La Guajira accounted for over one fifth of deaths due to malnutrition in children under five in Colombia, despite having roughly seven percent of the country’s population. Many more deaths, occurring in homes rather than hospitals, go unreported. And children who survive suffer lasting consequences for their health and development.

María Clara and Javier are members of the Wayuu, the largest indigenous population in Colombia. Although the Wayuu make up less than half of the population of La Guajira, they account for the vast majority of malnutrition cases. Prompted by the deaths from malnutrition of thousands of Wayuu children over eight years, in 2015 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on the Colombian government to take urgent action to guarantee Wayuu people the right to food, water, and health. In rulings in 2016 and 2017, the Colombian Constitutional Court also ordered the government to address the situation.

Colombia’s government has an obligation to ensure that all people have an adequate standard of living, without discrimination. That includes, at a minimum, access to adequate food, safe and affordable water, accessible and affordable health services, and other essentials for a life with dignity. It is also obligated to address general conditions — like those present in La Guajira — that prevent people from enjoying these rights. Despite government initiatives in recent years aimed at addressing the crisis in La Guajira in response to the courts’ orders, our research shows that the government has made limited, if any, progress in ensuring these rights for the Wayuu in La Guajira.

Food and Water Insecurity

Although María Clara lives in Torres de Majayura now, she didn’t always. She was born in Colombia but started raising her family in nearby Maracaibo, Venezuela – until Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency took its toll. No matter how hard she worked, María Clara couldn’t make ends meet. “I would come home, and my children would cry and ask why there is no food,” she told me. Some days, they ate nothing.

Desperate, María Clara took Jendri and joined the exodus of Venezuelans to Colombia in 2017, leaving her three older children with relatives in Venezuela. In Colombia, she joined her sister Daniela and her family, who were living in a ranchería – a rural Wayuu settlementcalled Kurari, named after a plant in the Wayuu’s native language, Wayuunaiki. Once Yamilet became sick in the ranchería, María Clara spent more time in Torres de Majayura, where she could more easily access medicines for Yamilet.

Although Kurari is not far from Torres de Majayura, it feels worlds apart. Once the sandy road to Kurari became too loose for our vehicle to traverse, María Clara guided me along winding footpaths dotted with towering cacti. We reached a field of yellowing corn and cassava plants, clinging to life in the parched soil. Jendri, hearing María Clara’s voice, stumbled out of a hammock slung in the shade of a house beside the field, reaching for his mother’s arms. María Clara swept him up, smiling as he pressed a hand to her heart.

After María Clara introduced me to the rest of her family, they began telling me of the hardships they face in accessing sufficient food and water in Kurari. Sadly, it is a story common to many Wayuu.

Wayuu people may travel hours on foot or bicycle to get water from wells or natural aquifers called jagüeyes. Even when they reach water, it is often turbid, salty, or contaminated. Goats, dogs, and other animals frequent the jagüeyes. Yet, the water from the jagüeyes often remains the only option the Wayuu people have for drinking, cooking, hygiene, and washing. In Kurari, María Clara and Daniela have a wind-powered well, but “when there isn’t wind, there isn’t water;” in those cases, they have to walk for an hour and a half to the nearest jagüey.

I spoke to leaders of more than 60 Wayuu communities from across the state about their obstacles in accessing water: Everyone said their communities were struggling with insufficient water. A staggering 96 percent of people living in rural La Guajira lack reliable access to potable water, the Ministry of Housing confirms with Human Rights Watch. A prolonged drought has made water scarce, and, because Wayuu communities tend to be rural and dispersed, delivery of potable water is a challenge. Existing wells are often poorly maintained, and jagüeyes dry up when there is no rain.

Access to sufficient food and quality nutrition is just as dire. La Guajira’s environmental agency, Corpoguajira, reports that as many as three-quarters of La Guajira families are food insecure. In La Guajira, many children eat only once a day, and those meals, such as chicha, a fermented corn drink, or arepas, cornmeal bread, often fail to meet nutritional needs. Others, who have access to nearby schools, rely on the government-provided food there for their daily meal. Some mothers told me that they and their children may go days consuming only water.

The chronic lack of nutritious food and safe water has led to the high rate of malnutrition in La Guajira. Insufficient and contaminated water contribute to poor hygiene and diarrheal diseases, which, combined with a diet lacking key nutrients, create a high risk of mortality in children. Neglect by government authorities, through recurrent mismanagement and inadequate delivery of public services, has exacerbated the situation.

The daily struggle to obtain sufficient food and water affects every aspect of Wayuu people’s lives. One day, Daniela told me, she was surprised to find her children at home planting yucca and asked them why they weren’t at school. “They said, ‘mommy, I stopped going. I have to work, I have to sell empanadas and plant yucca for our family.’” Daniela shook her head. “That is what pained me most. Growing up, my thoughts were always, when I have my own family and my own house, I’m going to make sure that my kids can study, get their degrees, that they do what I couldn’t.” She tells me with pride how her eldest plans to graduate from the eighth grade, and only hopes her other children can manage to do the same.

The Impact of Climate Change

La Guajira is one of the hottest and driest regions of Colombia, and is among the regions of the country with the greatest increase in temperature and decline in precipitation in the last thirty years. Colombia’s national environmental agency reports that temperatures in the region are projected to continue to rise by 1°C (1.8°F) over the next two decades and by 2.3°C (4.14°F) by 2100. Environmental scientists predict the area will see at least a 20 percent decrease in rainfall over the next century.

Without the rain and cooler winters that the Wayuu once relied on, sources of nutritious food and fresh water will become even harder to find as jagüeyes and wells reliant on groundwater dry up, livestock die, and water to irrigate crops becomes a thing of the past.

The Wayuu are already suffering consequences from extended periods of heat and drought linked to El Niño, a cyclical warming of ocean water that changes weather patterns, that left La Guajira with the lowest monthly average amount of rainfall ever recorded in the region in 2015. Nearly every older Wayuu resident with whom I spoke said in their experience crop yields have diminished over the past decade and it has been harder to sustain livestock. Where Wayuu people once relied on a seasonal harvest and goats for meat and milk, they now resort to low-cost staples that yield less nutritious meals, like chicha. Further increases in temperature and declines in rainfall, as predicted, could be devastating.

Access to Health Care

Because many rancherías in La Guajira are remote, Wayuu people need to travel long distances – sometimes up to seven hours by motorcycle – to reach hospitals or clinics. The cost of transport, as well as of shelter and food in an unfamiliar city, can be prohibitive. Providing food and care for children left at home is an additional worry, which forces many Wayuu parents to stay home rather than make the arduous journey to get treatment for a sick child.

Even if a child does make it to a health facility, that facility is likely to be understaffed and poorly supplied. Secondary or tertiary care, involving equipment like feeding tubes, specialized expertise, or extended hospitalization, is scarce or non-existent in La Guajira. And while the government has expanded nutrition screening across the province via mobile units and established two recovery centers for children suffering from malnutrition, many communities still report that their children have received no medical attention, and find the barriers to access it without assistance are prohibitively high.

Corruption in La Guajira has also marred access to healthcare. In just two of the many investigations into corruption in La Guajira, prosecutors found that officials and private contractors had misappropriated over US$900,000 from 2015 and 2016 plans designed to provide food and healthcare to children and pregnant or breastfeeding women.

The health system does little to accommodate Wayuu patients’ customs and needs. Many Wayuu people speak only Wayuunaiki, and not Spanish, and are unaccustomed to staying in hospitals. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a hospital bed is strange to some, who are used to sleeping in hammocks. Some Wayuu distrust Western medicine and report feeling discriminated against in the health system, and so choose to keep even critically ill children at home rather than deliver them over to strangers in a bewildering or hostile environment. “Imagine,” Katarina, a Wayuu healthcare worker, told me, “day after day, your child is getting sicker, and you don’t know what the doctors are telling you, and you don’t understand what’s happening – you too would want to take your child home.”

The Impact of Venezuela’s Crisis

Everyone in La Guajira has some version of the saying: “for the Wayuu, borders do not exist.”

A traditionally nomadic people, the Wayuu have long traversed freely between Colombia and Venezuela in search of food, productive land, health services, education, or employment. Like María Clara, many Wayuu have family on both sides of the border.

But now, the ongoing crisis in Venezuela – which has forced over five million people to leave the country – has reduced the cross-border markets and resources on which many Wayuu people relied. Additionally, Venezuela is generating its own deadly hunger: one of every three people in Venezuela is food insecure, and many are fleeing the humanitarian emergency that has collapsed the health system.

Colombia hosts about a third of the millions of Venezuelans who have fled, and many have passed through or are staying in La Guajira. The municipality of Maicao alone, where María Clara entered, recorded almost 200,000 Venezuelans crossing in 2018. Many more likely came in unreported via one of La Guajira’s 180 informal crossings. Thousands of others, as in María Clara’s case, are “returnees” – Colombians who lived in Venezuela for years but have recently returned.

Venezuelans sometimes arrive at the border drastically underweight and malnourished, and those presenting at La Guajira hospitals tend to have more severe cases of malnutrition than people already living in Colombia. Some Venezuelans live in a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shelter in La Guajira, but many others have no running water or electricity, or sleep on the streets. Some are exploited for labor or sex.

Like many Wayuu people living in remote areas, the majority of Venezuelans entering La Guajira lack official Colombian identification, according to data collected by the UNHCR. This can make it harder for them to access basic services, including healthcare.

The massive influx of Venezuelans has severely strained La Guajira’s already scarce food, water, and medical services – and the prospect of Covid-19 rapidly spreading through Venezuela’s depleted health system will likely push even more people into Colombia.

Covid-19 in La Guajira

As of July 27, there were 248,976 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Colombia, including at least 1,808 cases and 103 deaths in La Guajira. At least 49 Wayuu people have been infected. Cases have also been reported in the neighboring Venezuelan state of Zulia, including in a Wayuu couple, and in people arriving to La Guajira from Venezuela. There are likely more cases that have not been detected. Because many people enter and exit La Guajira at unofficial crossings, and with a lack of clean water within Wayuu communities, La Guajira could become a hotspot for the spread of Covid-19 in both countries.

The La Guajira government has pledged to deliver a hundred tanks of water suitable for drinking and hand washing and 30,000 hygiene kits in the state to help combat the spread of Covid-19. It has identified hotels to convert into temporary hospitals and solicited support from the national government for additional food and supplies and private actors for additional water. The Ministry of Health has administered 1,426 tests for the disease in La Guajira as of May 31.

Despite these measures, La Guajira’s rudimentary medical infrastructure, poor supply of clean water, and high levels of food insecurity and poverty leave it ill-prepared to address a pandemic. Even if the government sends water and supplies, it will be difficult to transport them to many rural Wayuu communities; indeed, humanitarian actors told Human Rights Watch that the delivery of food baskets has helped some, but many Wayuu people throughout the state have not yet received any food or water.

Testing for the virus in remote indigenous communities is also challenging, and La Guajira does not have a testing laboratory. Transmission of the virus in the highly communal rancherías could be fast and mortality high if the Wayuu are unable to seek hospital treatment. And while public health authorities say that washing hands with soap greatly reduces the possibility of contagion, that advice is immensely challenging to implement for a rural population in which only four percent of people have access to potable water.

For a region already suffering from lack of access to nutritious food, Colombia’s mandatory lockdown, which is enacted until at least August 1, will make a dire situation even worse. Even if Covid-19 itself does not devastate Wayuu communities, the further limits on access to food could, since thousands of children rely on meals that were provided in schools, which are now shut down. Although the government, private sector actors, and humanitarian groups are delivering thousands of food baskets, the inaccessibility of many Wayuu communities means some of the most vulnerable have no food.

Meanwhile, as the pandemic shuts down tourism and the Venezuelan market, many Wayuu families are losing their only source of income. Nine out of 10 people in La Guajira work in the informal sector, and, in a region where only about 10 percent have internet access, teleworking or remote studying are unrealistic options.

Access to Education

Before returning to Torres de Majayura, María Clara and I visited a primary school in the town of Paraguachón, La Guajira, on the border with Venezuela. We met a group of schoolteachers and visited the school grounds, flanked on either end by two massive water tanks donated by a non-governmental organization.

This school is an anomaly: in La Guajira, schools often lack potable water, electricity, and even classrooms. Throughout La Guajira, Wayuu children may walk an hour or more to get to school, and they commonly do so on empty stomachs. Georgina, the director of schools for the area that includes Paraguachón, told us of students fainting from hunger in class.

In some cases, students don’t feel well enough to go to school. Some children do not attend classes because they need to watch younger siblings while their parents work, or they leave school to work themselves. Others simply cannot afford school supplies, transport, or school clothes.

Throughout much of La Guajira, children can only manage to go to school if they will be provided a meal there. Despite increased government efforts, school meal programs – implemented with the support of the World Food Program and UNICEF – are not meeting the need, in part due to the increase in numbers driven by children fleeing Venezuela. Georgina told us, for example, of schools in her area in which the number of children attending has soared up to 200, including Venezuelans, but the school meal program delivers only 35 meals.

Despite these challenges, “the teachers here are true heroes,” Georgina exclaimed. “They visit homes to learn why students aren’t attending and how the school can help, she said. “We’ll do everything we can to encourage them to come.”

As María Clara and I were leaving the school grounds, she paused and stared wistfully at a mural on a classroom wall, a painting of five children of various skin tones and dress. “Look,” she said, pointing to a painted girl with blonde hair, “that one’s you.” She pointed at the next figure, a darker-skinned girl holding the paler figure’s hand. “And that one’s me.” For a few fleeting moments, we smiled together at the painting. “I wish my children could go to a school like this,” María Clara murmured beside me. “They really care here.”

People of Resilience

It would be easy to imagine the Wayuu have lost hope in their struggle for survival. But, despite the hardships they face, everyone I met in La Guajira demonstrated the opposite: a determination to stop at nothing to provide better opportunities for their children, a unity, and bravery, and a resilience, like a plant sprouting in a barren land.

This fight, in María Clara’s eyes, is how she is honoring the memory of Yamilet. We hugged good-bye that evening, unceremoniously by the side of the road, but María Clara’s parting words have lingered with me every day since: “It has not been easy, but I have to fight. I have to see to it that my children will thrive.”