La Guajira: a territory of unfulfilled sentences

Research and photographs: Ricardo L. Cruz

Editorial and multimedia support: CONNECTAS team

Manuela* prepares to give breakfast to the 15 children, between 18 months and 4 years old, that she is in charge of. On each plate, serve half a steamed potato with a little grated cheese. In the glasses serve oatmeal. It is 9:00 in the morning on a Monday in June 2022. Two hours later he will offer them another glass of oatmeal with a packet of cookies and at about 1:00, lunch.

She belongs to the Wayú people and is the food handler of the Community Care Unit (UCA) of her ranch on the outskirts of Riohacha, the gateway to Alta Guajira, a dry and desert region of Colombia, where food shortages and drinking water has killed more children than in any other part of the country. In 2021, the death rate of children under five years of age due to malnutrition in this department stood at 20.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, while the national average was 5.6.

The UCAs are centers for comprehensive and nutritional care where the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) cares for children under five years of age and lactating and pregnant women from ethnic towns and peasant communities scattered throughout rural Colombia. Law 1804 of 2016 approved by the Colombian Congress, known as the "Zero to Always Policy", motivated its creation.

In La Guajira, these centers are found within the rancherías, houses made of mud, wood, and thatched roofs, scattered throughout the desert, where the Wayús live. There, from Monday to Friday, they feed the little ones. Pregnant and lactating women are sent a market with milk, a nutritional supplement called well-being, rice, beans, lentils and tuna that, in theory, should last 15 days. "But after three or four days they no longer have anything," explains Manuela as she collects the plates from the two little tables where the children eat.

Manuela reviews the menu for lunch: stewed goat, rice, tree tomato juice. “But look at the goat they send: pure bones, what am I going to give this to the children! This rotten tomato is for the juice. They always send very little market”, he laments.

Complaints about the quality and quantity of food are repeated in all the centers visited for this research in at least eight communities. All of them scattered in an arid area on the outskirts of Riohacha. Despite this, it is the only thing that many infants will be able to eat all day. Therefore, they demand to increase the quotas. At the Manuela UCA, like the 2,600 in Alta Guajira and Riohacha, there are only 20 places; in this case, 15 are for minors; the rest are for pregnant and lactating mothers. But, he says, in his community he has come to count up to five little children outside this center, despite being old enough to be there. It has also identified a couple of pregnant women without the benefit. Something similar occurs in the others: in some cases they are children, in others they are lactating or pregnant women, in others, all of the above.