Colombia: Indigenous Kids at Risk of Malnutrition, Death

(New York, August 13, 2020) – The Covid-19 pandemic and related lockdown are making it even harder for the Wayuu, an indigenous group in Colombia and Venezuela, to survive, Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health said in a joint report and accompanying multimedia piece released today.



La Guajira state, Colombia


María Clara / Javier

She weighed 6.9 kilograms, I think it was. They measured her head, her little hand. They said she had severe malnutrition.// My daughter was one year and three months when she died.


María Clara and Javier are members of the Wayuu, the largest indigenous group in the La Guajira state of Colombia. Like many Wayuu children, their daughter died before reaching the age of five.


María Clara

I couldn’t provide for my children. Sometimes they didn’t eat and I’d get desperate. I’d hug them and cry because I couldn’t give them food.


Many of the families here are food insecure and their children are only able to eat once a day. Those meals typically consist of chicha, a fermented corn drink or arepa, a cornmeal bread, which often fails to meet their nutritional needs.


Alia Sunderji, MPH, Johns Hopkins University

One in three kids in this region suffers from chronic malnutrition. And the effects of chronic malnutrition follow children long after they enter adulthood. It impairs their physical and intellectual abilities and increases their risk of chronic diseases that follow them for the rest of their lives.


La Guajira is one of the hottest, driest regions in Colombia and water is scarce. Climate change will make these problems worse.


The Wayuu, who are traditionally nomadic people,  have long crossed freely between  Venezuela and Colombia but with the ongoing humanitarian and human rights crisis in Venezuela, many more Wayuu stay in Colombia in search of already scarce resources which means soup kitchens like this one are stretched.


96% of families in rural areas here do not have access to safe drinking water ---a concern that is more critical than ever in times of Covid-19-- and people often travel long distances to poorly maintained wells or natural aquifers where the water may be contaminated.


In 2017, the national government took over some state agencies given their failure to address these problems.


Dr. Julio Saenz, Health Administrator of La Guajira

It’s indisputable that La Guajira has a huge gap with the national average. It’s not a secret that mortality due to malnutrition in children is more than five times greater than the national averages. And precisely because of this the national Ministry of Health is here, in La Guajira, carrying out tasks that belong to local authorities, in order to improve these indicators.


Dr. David Francisco Cotes Mengual

One of the barriers to accessing health care in the whole Guajira department is we have communities that are very spread out.  Another barrier to access is that being hospitalized is expensive and stressful for the Wayuu.


Ana Urrariyu

Dr. Cayetano Romero, Pediatrician:

Hi Juan. How are you? Hello. You are looking friendly today. Well, this is Juan.

He’s a one-year old child with severe malnutrition. He’s been brought in multiple times.

He is brought here, he leaves  feeling better and being able to eat, but if he doesn’t receive adequate follow-ups and he returns to the same environment  that he came from, an environment without food, without drinkable water, without services…that child will surely get sick again.


There are government programs to provide food, water, and health services to the Wayuu. But some are underfunded. Others have been plagued with government corruption for years.


Dr. Claudia Patricia Henríquez Iguarán,

Department of Indigenous Affairs of La Guajira

We do know that many of the children with malnutrition don’t have access to a food security program. So we must, we must, review this issue with the offices that manage coverage, that manage these social programs, that manage the food security programs to see how we can expand it.


Loana Pinto, National Water and Sanitation Authority

The greatest challenge at this moment is reaching the goal that we set for coverage in the rural areas. For this, we have implemented the system of provisional water points. It’s not enough. We need more allies. We need more economic support.


Colombia’s government has an obligation to ensure that all people have access to adequate, safe, and affordable food, water, and health services. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, these are more  important than ever.  The government should prioritize measures to guarantee these rights for the Wayuu, mitigate the effects of climate change and prosecute corruption.  



María Clara

I pampered my daughter a lot and she would hug me…After she died, when I would go to sleep I would close my eyes and think of her.

We need a lot of help here in La Guajira because this is not the first case like this. There are many malnourished kids. Help all of us so we can provide for and feed our children.

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