Another Colombian infant has died in the little-known but grave crisis of child malnutrition and poverty rocking the Wayuu Indigenous community in the northeastern department of La Guajira, where Indigenous leaders have faced an escalation of repression in recent days for defending their land rights in the face of unwanted corporate projects.
The most recent victim of the dire public health situation was a 14-month-old Wayuu infant, who died Sunday days after being admitted to a hospital for malnutrition, according to health authorities.
The infant’s death brings the toll of Wayuu children who have been killed by malnutrition since the beginning of 2017 alone to a total of six. Last year, more than 80 children died of hunger in La Guajira, exposing a harsh reality of extreme poverty in Colombia rarely seen in the media.
Meanwhile, traditional Wayuu authorities have continued an ongoing fight to protect their land and resources, accusing the Colombian government of steamrolling their rights in favor of promoting corporate interests.
Last week, community leaders launched a railway blockade to pressure the government to respect the Wayuu’s right to free, prior and informed consent for projects on their traditional territories and to provide urgently-needed food and health programs for Indigenous children in La Guajira. The action blocked a line of the train network surrounding the Cerrejon open pit coal mine, owned by multinational mining giants BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Xstrata.
Just before midnight on Saturday, riot police cracked down on the mobilization, arresting between seven and 15 people, according to varying accounts, including one minor. Wayuu leaders reported that police beat them, fired teargas and cut down hammocks while elder community members were sleeping in them.
The National Indigenous Organization, also known as Onic, condemned the police repression as excessive, calling for national and international solidarity to pressure Colombian authorities to respect Wayuu rights and respond to the community’s demands.
“They mistreated women, which for the Wayuu is one of the strongest attacks,” said Onic in a statement. “Women and (Indigenous) authorities have been resisting since Jan. 31 in defense of their ancestral territories amid famine and death of their children from malnutrition.”
In a video released by NotiWayuu, Indigenous women participating in the blockade explained that their action is to defend water, land, Wayuu food sovereignty and the health and wellbeing of their children.
“We are asking for autonomy and respect for our families and our children in La Guajira,” said one of the women in the video, which was posted on Youtube.
The representatives also accused the government of neglecting the needs of the impoverished and marginalized community, saying state institutions and corporations are interested only in exploiting resource in the area and leaving local residence to deal with the contamination. Leaders have called for dialogue with the government to address the situation.
The latest clashes come after the Wayuu have be clamoring for months to pressure the government of President Juan Manuel Santos to respond to their demands for support in improving public health and children’s rights in La Guajira.
As a result of a lawsuit Indigenous leaders filed against the Colombian government in 2015 for neglect of their communities, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered Colombia to implement special measures to address the crisis. But over one year later, the child mortality rate is still soaring and Indigenous leaders say the government has not fulfilled its promises.
According to a report published last year, 4,770 Indigenous children have died of hunger in La Guajira in the past decade, while another report found that up to 15,000 children in La Guajira continue suffering chronic malnutrition today in the face of a lack of basic necessities.
Human rights groups and Indigenous leader in the area have warned that the crisis could threaten the survival of the Wayuu people.WATCH: Wayuu Indigenous Community Demands Basic Rights