A failing state in the face of deaths by malnutrition of Wayuu indigenous children in La Guajira, Colombia

Verónica Delgado, GHRD, February 2021.

La Guajira is currently the Colombian territory with the highest reports of morbidity cases associated with malnutrition, especially between zero and five years.

The figures are alarming, 46.2% is the percentage of children who die in La Guajira due to malnutrition.[1] The Wayuu indigenous population has faced an emergency for more than a decade, which affects children, causing severe health problems related to dehydration, and malnutrition processes that have resulted in death in the most serious cases.

According to the National Institute of Health epidemiological report, corresponding to week 51 of 2020, in La Guajira, 49 children under the age of 5 have died from malnutrition or causes associated with it.

On December 24, 2020, the Attorney General of the Nation, Fernando Carrillo Flórez, referred to the issue and expressed:

“There is evidence of the abysmal difference between the mortality events that occur in La Guajira compared to the other regions in Colombia. In any case, the number of deaths of children continues to be very serious”.[2]

Why is this happening in La Guajira?

In geographical terms, La Guajira is divided into three large regions: Baja, Media and Alta Guajira, the third being the largest and containing the most desert area with the majority presence of the Wayuu people, and the most affected by the lack of water availability. In Alta Guajira, there are not enough water bodies to supply a population; their primary water sources are the jagueyes,[3]whose storage conditions are not the most favourable for human consumption.

Malnutrition cases are associated with the scarcity of food and water security, the climate phenomena that have affected the region, and the state’s weak performance within the territory. Institutional weakness occurs in the low capacity to provide a public good and meet the population’s basic needs.

Remedios Fajardo, a Wayuu indigenous leader, teacher at the Universidad de la Guajira, and director of the indigenous organization Yanama expressed:

                                                “Child malnutrition has internal and external causes. The former has to do with the scarcity of rain, seeds, the lack of work tools and incentives, and the territory’s desertification. The latter are summarized in government neglect.”

A vicious circle of non-compliance

The deaths occur because children do not receive adequate food, do not have access to water, and medical assistance is almost non-existent. Thus, the lack of awareness of children’s right to food generates a domino effect in violating other human rights. Once this right is violated, inevitably, the right to health, life, self-determination and participation are violated.

Since 1924 the right to nutrition (food) has been established in various international instruments, including the Declaration of Geneva (1924),[4] the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948),[5] the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959),[6] and the Declaration on the Right to Development (1986).[7] However, all these instruments are not binding. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)[8] elevates to the category of binding instruments, the rights that ensure the child’s survival, development, and protection. Thanks to the Convention, the States must adopt measures that guarantee the highest possible health level, including medical and sanitary attention to combat malnutrition.

Colombia has ratified the international instruments that establish the right to nutrition, as well as internally. Based on the constitutional mandate of Article 7, the Wayuu population must be protected, especially against all forms of discrimination and threats to their collective survival. According to Article 44 of the Constitution, children are subject to enhanced protection; the state must protect them from abuse and arbitrariness and guarantee normal and healthy development.

Given the death of thousands of Wayuu children in 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights[9] urged the government to adopt urgent measures to overcome the crisis. Subsequently, the Constitutional Court in 2016 and 2017[10] declared a humanitarian crisis and ordered the government to take immediate steps to guarantee the Wayuu people’s right to food, water and health.

However, a practical solution that allows permanent access to food and drinking water has not yet been achieved. Although the Ministry of Health implemented policies to counteract malnutrition,[11] these have not been enough. The problem persists, and one of the main reasons is the lack of participation of the Wayuu community in the design of solutions.

 “One of the problems is the lack of agreement with the Wayuu community. The government must identify the most affected regions with the highest malnutrition records. The state must call all the indigenous organizations interested in helping their people.”

Remedios Fajardo, Wayuu indigenous leader.

Colombia has not made progress in the fight against child malnutrition; the adverse situation of the Wayuu continues to worsen, severe malnutrition and a powerful virus have left thousands of children without protection in a state of latent vulnerability; children continue to die, and the Wayuu community demands protection.

For Armando Martínez, president of the Fundación Proyecto Guajira, [12]

With the pandemic, the situation became very acute. In the last four years that I have been working in la Guajira, I have never seen such a need. Wayuu leaders constantly text me asking for help. “Armando, please do something for your people, please bring water, food. This is very serious.”

In Colombia, deaths due to malnutrition are repeated repeatedly over the years, with negative consequences for the Wayuu community, significantly affecting their quality of life. The situation became a vicious circle of non-compliance, state absence, and social indifference.

Overcoming the crisis – greater inclusion of the Wayuu people

Early identification of malnutrition is the key to fighting the crisis. The state must incorporate preventive policies into its agenda, in which frequent campaigns are included in the most critical territories. Likewise, local authorities must offer permanent support to the most vulnerable population, that is, to children, but also expectant mothers.

Local authorities should pay more attention to the protocol established by the WHO to combat malnutrition. Still, the most important aspect is to achieve a permanent dialogue with indigenous communities, in which consensual solutions are sought considering their traditions. For public policies to be efficient, the state must recognize the cultural identity of the Wayuu, their productive patterns and economic schemes. When designing public policies, the state must consider that it is essential for the Wayuu community that their traditional diet knowledge be preserved.

The state must also promote medium and long-term programs that stimulate the indigenous community’s economic, social and political autonomy. It is not enough for the government to design and implement assistance programs, as the Wayuu population often rejects these.

In this regard, on a previous occasion, the Zucaramana community expressed:

“We no longer share assistance programs that eliminate our own and cultural capacities to develop the collective and individual work of Wayuu men and women. The welfare trap means sinking into laziness and conformism when our nature is that of hardworking and creative people.”[13]

The government must consider solving the malnutrition in la Guajira with Wayuu people’s intervention; it must promote the planting tradition and incorporate technology for water production and collection. Besides, the state should promote organizational processes between state entities and members of the Wayuu community. Permanent consultation and awareness of indigenous people’s connection with their land are indispensable for successful programs and policies. Only in this way will it be possible to guarantee the survival of the Wayuu minority and the overcoming of the malnutrition crisis.

[1] It can be estimate that the total population of La Guajira in 2018 was 825.341. DANE, “Información técnica”. Available at


[2] Procuraduría General de la Nación, “Acciones adelantadas por el gobierno para superar la crisis de los Wayuu en la Guajira han sido ineficaces”. Available at:

[3] Surface water reserves exposed to the open air in which animal and natural waste accumulates.

[4] The Declaration marks the beginning of the movement for the children right and is also the first affirmation of the right to nutrition. It states that “the hungry child must be fed”.

[5] Art. 25

[6] Art. 14

[7] Art. 8

[8] Arts. 24, 27

[9] IACHR, “Precaotionary measures 51/15”. Available at:

[10] Corte Constitucional de Colombia, “Sentencia T-302 de 2017”. Available at:

[11] Ministerio de Salud, “Boletin electrónico”. Available at:

[12] Fundación Proyecto la Guajira, oficial website

[13] Intervention of  Zucaramana, in the processe that resulted with the judgment T-302 de 2017.

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