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Colombia: Thousands of indigenous Wayúu children dead from malnutrition

April 4 2015

Looking for water in the La Guajira territory, Costa Caribe, Columbia. Photo: Colectivo de Prensa Alternativa del Caribe.
More than 37,000 indigenous Wayúu children in northern Colombia are malnourished, and at least five thousand have died of starvation.

The largest indigenous population in Colombia, the Wayúu, are starving and thirsty because the sole water source in the region, the Ranchería River, has been privatised and dammed. Instead of sustaining the Wayuú, it now serves the agricultural industry and one of the world’s largest coalmines.

The situation of the Wayuú was reported worldwide thanks to the documentary, El rio que nos robaron (The stolen river), made by Colombian journalist Gonzalo Guillén. The film illustrates the harrowing living conditions that currently plague the Wayúu, and will be used as evidence when their situation is discussed in the Organization of American States (OAS).

Thousands of indigenous children have died

37,000 indigenous children are malnourished in La Guajira, in the Northern tip of Colombia, and at least 5,000 have died of starvation. However, according to Armando Valbuena, Wayúu traditional authority, the actual number of deaths is closer to 14,000, with no end in sight. The difference is likely due to the fact that many Wayúu children do not have birth certificates, and their deaths are therefore not officially registered.

To add to the already dire situation, the limited support provided by the Colombian government does not reach the Wayúu. For example, the more than 15 million dollars invested in the Food and Nutrition Programme have yet to reach the community.

According to Valbuena and Wayúu Spokesman Javier Rojas Uriana, much of that money is engulfed by corruption and ends up being used in political campaigns.

The case of the Wayúu reaches the OAS

In February this year, five indigenous authorities requested the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to instate urgent precautionary measures to enable them to regain use of the river and to halt deaths due to starvation and malnutrition.

The action is intended to result in the Commission ordering the immediate opening of the gates that currently restrict the flow of water from the Ranchería River, which is accumulated in the El Cercado dam.

According to Sáchica Moreno, a lawyer from the School of Law at the University of Bogotá, water from the Ranchería river is meant for the public good, and privatisation has led to a process of extermination, leaving the indigenous Wayúu destitute and abandoned.

Most of the river is completely dry

The stark reality for the indigenous population normally sustained by the river, is that most of the river is already completely dry. Its flow is now exclusively for large estates in the south of La Guajira and the Cerrejón coal mines.

Yet, the application filed with the Commission makes a strong legal case for the Wayúu. It states that international and national legislation, as well as studies of the Ombudsman and the Comptroller General of the Republic of Colombia, require the first recipients of water to be the people. Only after they are sustained can the resulting surplus be used for agricultural, industrial, or other purposes.

Watch the video below for more information or read the full story on Servindi’s website  (in Spanish only).

Sources (in Spanish): Juan Andrés Pérez Rodríguez, El PoliticónServindi y teleSUR.