Colombia needs to act on the indigenous hunger crisis
by Juan Pappier
Amelia sat on a bench outside her one-room straw-roofed hut knitting a handbag while her toddler grandsons played nearby in the dirt. They were skinny, and itchy-looking red rashes spread up their arms. “They spend days without eating,” said Amelia.
She told me she sold the colorful bags she knits for the equivalent of five US dollars each—though they are sold for as much as $50 online. But such handicrafts don’t go far to alleviate the dire malnutrition suffered by the Wayuu, Colombia’s largest indigenous group.
A gathering of officials this week in Paris could help bring them relief. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) an agency of mostly high-income countries is examining Colombia’s application to join.
Membership is one of President Juan Manuel Santos’s longstanding ambitions and few hurdles remain. But on March 22, the OECD’s Employment, Labour and Social Affairs Committee will scrutinize whether Colombia is doing enough to “assist people without work, and other vulnerable groups, to combat poverty.” In the case of the Wayuu, it is not.
The hunger crisis is rooted in government’s serious failures of governance; including extremely poor access to basic services, limited government efforts to root out local corruption, and an insufficient response to the crisis. Among the causes is limited access to food and water–made worse by the humanitarian crisis in neighboring Venezuela, just across the border.
Three of Amelia’s seven children died before reaching adulthood, she told me, and that devastating rate of loss is not so unusual among the Wayuu. Limited access to water and food has fueled the needless deaths of scores of Wayuu during the past two years, and it is eroding the health of thousands.
The crisis is well-known in Colombia for its devastating effect on children. An average of almost one indigenous child under five has died of causes linked to malnutrition every week throughout the past two years, the government reports.
But the suffering of Wayuu women and children often goes unnoticed. On my recent visits, many stoic women like Amelia gave me a glimpse of their suffering and sacrifices. I found Marcela, for example, a pregnant woman, sweaty and dusty, on the road to Luace, her tiny rural community. For prenatal checkups, Marcela has to ride a motor scooter for an hour over bumpy dirt roads to reach a clinic in the town of Paraiso. She had arrived for her latest appointment at 7 a.m. the previous day and waited seven hours to see a doctor; which was typical, she said.
But poor access to medical care is only part of the problem for pregnant women like Marcela. “Sometimes we eat twice a day; sometimes once and that’s it,” she told me.
On the Guajira Peninsula, some pregnant or breastfeeding women have reportedly died of causes linked to malnutrition. Shipia Wayuu, an indigeous rights group, documented four cases in 2017. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has asked the Colombian government to take immediate action to address the Wayuu women’s crisis.
The government has promised to act, but its efforts have fallen short, speaking volumes about Colombia’s commitment to the Wayuu. Government food programs for children in the villages I visited often ran short. Many doctors and nurses lacked medicine to treat children. And several wells dug by the government were not operating or provided only salty water.
In one community at the southern end of the peninsula, a woman and girl filled buckets from a mossy receptacle exposed to the elements at a newly-dug public well. They bathed, sluicing themselves with fetid, reeking water speckled with insects.
While Wayuu women suffer the lack of services and the ravages of hunger, they also serve in leadership roles in the fight for a decent life. Despite rigid traditional gender roles in Wayuu communities, it was often women; as teachers, community leaders, or nurses who were doing the most, in the villages I visited, to help their neighbours. Dolores, a cook for a government program that provides hot meals to poor children in a community at the eastern tip of the penninsula, was typical of these quiet heroes.
She struggles to feed her own family, but at times asks her daughter not to eat at the meal program. The rice, vegetables, and meat the private company that operates the program provides is often insufficient, she said, so she spends a chunk of her own $300 monthly salary to buy more. Many cooks and teachers on the peninsula told me that, like Dolores, they use their salaries to help feed the children of their villages.
I met Maria, 19, in the town of Manaure, and when I told her I couldn’t visit her home village of Camasia to do research, she decided to do her own reporting there. Through her cellphone recordings of relatives, I learned that Maria’s people generally eat only once a day and sometimes, day after day, drink only chicha–a corn gruel. The village goes weeks without access to water, and Maria’s relatives walk for more than an hour-and-a-half to fill their buckets.
Now is the time for the Employment, Labour and Social Affairs Committee of the OECD to shine a spotlight on the Wayuu crisis, and to examine the inadequate steps Colombian authorities have taken to address it.
The committee should ask the Colombian goverment for a serious action plan to address the crisis, with concrete benchmarks and a vigorous verification system. Right now, the OECD has the leverage to press Colombia to alleviate the suffering of selfless women like Dolores and Maria and help them save many more lives.
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National Geographic apology: ''We were anticipated to be a dying race''
by Frances Mao
BBC News, Sydney
17 March 2018
Last Tuesday, US magazine National Geographic apologised for what it called decades of past racist coverage.
Among some examples, editor Susan Goldberg cited a photo caption from 1916 that left her "speechless".
Beneath photos of Aboriginal Australians, it read: "South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings."
Such a statement reflected entrenched views of the era, indigenous Australian leaders told the BBC this week.
"This was a time when our people were denied access to lands, denied culture, language and were anticipated to be a dying race," said Romlie Mokak, head of the national Lowitja Institute for indigenous health research.
"So the language is not surprising at all - it is completely within the context of that period, as wrong as it is."
Rampant discrimination and denial of rights existed: Aboriginal Australians could not vote until 1962, and they were not counted in the national Census until after 1967. An infamous assimilation policy of removing children from their families persisted until 1970, creating what is now known as the Stolen Generations.
"For us as a nation, 1916 was not very long ago," said Rod Little, co-chair of National Congress of Australia''s First Peoples.
"It''s just unbelievable that people could treat other human beings like that - this indoctrinated belief of one race being superior to another."
The National Geographic example reflected a prevailing ideology, according to Karen Mundine, director of Reconciliation Australia.
"We were seen as somehow less than human, or at least less than European people," she said.
She welcomed the magazine''s acknowledgement of its past wrongdoing, and the role it had had in reinforcing prejudice.
"It''s positive that National Geographic has recognised there are problems with their previous depictions, and they are starting to address how they''ve spoken about people of colour," she said.
While emphasising a clear distinction between the language of past and present eras, the leaders agreed that forms of racism persisted in contemporary media reporting and political discourse.
"It has been so wrong for such a long time that there are still elements of that [racism] which are very strong in our society," Mr Little said.
He cited recent attempts by conservative legislators to water down racial discrimination laws as an example. According to Mr Little, mainstream media can also paint a simplistic picture of Australia - one that sometimes ignores the hardships of minorities, or sensationalises their difference.
The government''s annual Closing the Gap report has found that indigenous Australians continue to experience greater inequality than non-indigenous Australians.
A 2016 survey by Reconciliation Australia found that more than a third of Australians said their main source of information about indigenous peoples came from the media.
However, according to Ms Mundine, public discussion about disadvantage often lacks sufficient complexity and context.
"There is still a particular tone within reporting, particularly news reporting, that is constantly gauged in the language of disadvantage," Ms Mundine said.
Mr Mokak said Aboriginal Australians continue to be "framed, judged and defined by others" with a main media narrative that revolves around "''the five Ds'': disparity, deprivation, disadvantage, dysfunction and difference".
"We''re always seen as over-represented on some things like the incarceration rate, or being behind in others like life expectancy and education," he said.
Ms Mundine says the blanket negative coverage can have a disempowering effect.
"If someone constantly tells you that you''re to die of diabetes and health problems, or that you''re ugly, then at some point it''s on your own psyche," she said. "And then you might think, why try? What''s the point of coming up against barrier after barrier?"
She added: "If we think back to what was happening in 1916, opinions have definitely changed, perceptions and attitudes have changed, but we definitely can do more and better."
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