By Pablo Montoya Paredes, EL ESPECTADOR, July 15, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Since the Constitutional Court issued its Decision T-302 in 2017, calling attention to the violation of the rights of the Wayuu children in the province, there has been very little progress in the area of access to water, food, and health services.
The citizen oversight committee has complained that 29 water wells had been built to serve the communities and only four of them are working.
Ever since 2017, when the Constitutional Court issued its Decision T-302, the oversight committee has been keeping watch over the situation in La Guajira where fundamental rights are being violated, directly affecting the children of the Wayuu community. The Court’s decision had its origin in a civil rights action filed with the Superior Tribunal in Bogotá on February 5, 2016, by Elson Rafael Rodrigo Rodríguez Beltrán. He claimed that the government had not complied with the request by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights (CIDH) that it take “the measures necessary to preserve the lives and physical integrity of the girls, boys, and adolescents in the communities of Uribia, Manaure, Riohacha, and Maicao of the Wayuu people, in the Province of La Guajira.”
After receiving the civil rights action, the High Court issued the decision that designed a road map with eight clear objectives to improve the conditions in the communities. It included such aspects as increasing availability, accessibility, and quality of water, improving the effectiveness of food programs, increasing the coverage of food security programs and improving health care measures. There were also ideas for improvement of mobility, information for community decision-making, and the guarantee of a genuine dialog for the legitimate authorities of this indigenous people.
For example, with regard to water, the Court ordered the local governments to stop solving the problem by sending tank cars to the communities, and to make sure that access to water is sufficient and sustainable. With respect to food, it told the national, provincial, and municipal governments to improve the effectiveness of projects like the School Food Program (PAE in Spanish), to achieve more and better coverage, and it urged the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) to take part in these changes.
To exercise control over what had been established in the decision, the Court said that civil society ought to oversee the compliance by the authorities. That’s why the Citizen Oversight and Verification Committee was created on November 23, 2018 to oversee the implementation of the decision. The Committee was made up of the Center for Investigation and Popular Education (Cinep) Program for Peace, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (Onic), the Corporation for the Support of People in Communities (Codacop), the International Defense of Girls and Boys (DNI), Omaira Orduz Rodríguez, an independent expert, and the Paths to Identity Foundation (Fucai). These groups have national and international experience in such matters.
EL ESPECTADOR talked with Ruth Chaparro, Director of the Oversight Committee, to find out how the application of the decision was proceeding, and to understand how the pandemic of Covid-19 had affected the Wayuu people with regard to their access to water, food, and health care.
How has the work of oversight been going?
We are working with five civil society organizations that have broad experience, not only in La Guajira, but also in Colombia, and some of them in Latin America. We were constituted to do proactive oversight, we are interested in resolving this, and we have no other objective than a powerful interest in protecting the children.
We are struggling, because there is at least the civil register, the water, and the food. We don’t want to supplant the agencies of control; neither do we want to supplant the indigenous organizations, because they are parties to the legal action, and they have their own voice and their own rights. But neither do we want to keep silent, and we don’t just want to complain about what’s wrong, but we also want to be of help.
Unfortunately, what we are seeing is negligent conduct. A model that we call inactive institutional culture, where they simply don’t carry out their functions. We have filed 166 of the petitions that are authorized by the Constitution to different agencies, requesting information about how they are implementing the Court’s decision, and of those 166 petitions, 91% have received no response at all. When we also reviewed the Court’s reports, the reports of Tribunals, or those of the Inspector General’s Office, they also complain that the agencies don’t respond. We have a public sector that doesn’t answer correspondence. Of the 9% that did answer our petition, 62% answered that it wasn’t their job. This has been difficult work.
What are the principal needs of the Wayuu children?
What they need most is what has been denied them systematically, and there we have had to do a tremendous amount of work in traversing the desert, measuring height and weight, reporting on children, implementing programs for recovery, producing good quality information, and demonstrating that this is possible.
They built 29 water wells to serve the communities, and when we went to see them, only four were functioning. There is a bottleneck there, as the Court pointed out, and it’s that there is a disconnect at every level. It’s like a sickness, like a curse, like an evil spell that this country is under. Where they get together for a discussion, they collect signatures, they call that coordination, and then they go, and nothing happens.
There is also severe malnutrition, and gigantic under-reporting. What the Wayuu say is that if we want to know about that, if we need to find out how many have died, we have to go to the cemeteries and talk with the mothers, because the agencies say they don’t believe those children ever existed. We know that between June of 2018 when the decision came down, and today, 287 children have died of hunger. Those deaths are preventable. They could have been avoided if they had carried out the orders in the decision. That’s why we are saying that those children aren’t dying of malnutrition; they’re dying of negligence. There has to be an information system, because the exclusion begins with the information system. To know how many are dying, it’s not enough to only come here at election time.
Death from hunger is one of the worst there is in the world. If they shoot you, it hurts, but it’s quick. When a person is condemned to die of hunger, that means a death that is slow and painful, because hunger produces pain, which produces sweat, which produces shivering and rage, but there is a moment when the pain is so intense that it exceeds what is bearable, and then it doesn’t hurt any more. Those that we condemn to die of hunger, we are sentencing them to the death penalty, but to one of the worst deaths. I have seen children that look like sacks of water, and I have seen children that no longer have tears. I thought that the right to cry was inalienable, that no one could ever take away that right, but we have taken even that away from these children.
And the PAE . . .
The PAE doesn’t have universal coverage in La Guajira; that means that there are still a lot of children that aren’t included. We have always said that in La Guajira it has to have a regional and a differential ethnic focus. It’s not an enhancement of breakfast, it’s not an enhanced snack; it’s a place where the physical hunger requires that the children receive a responsible noon meal, one that fills them up. We have said that we have to re-think and differentiate the programs. Perhaps there are regions that don’t need that, and those children can be given an enhanced breakfast, but in an area like this one, they have to do better.
Simultaneously with this PAE, there also have to be processes for food security, where the people can go back to planting, back to raising goats, and not depend on assistance.
We are evaluating the coverage because what they have told us is that they are thankful in advance; well, obviously we have to be thankful, because in the midst of misery any piece of bread is a miracle. It’s true that you have to bless that bread and be thankful for it, but that cannot keep you from admitting that it’s not enough, it’s insufficient, it’s not sustainable, and people ought to be able to have access to their rights without a relationship of subordination, to retain their dignity, and to do that, it’s not necessary for the political parties to stick their foot in. This can be done at the technical level.
How was all of this affected by the pandemic?
At the beginning of the pandemic we made a call for urgent action. That is an international concept where different national and international organizations call upon responsible agencies to take urgent protection measures. What the international community has told us is that the government did not respond. They told us that they had sent enough materials for everybody right away, but we who work in the area know that in a lot of communities nothing ever arrived, and in others one shipment came, but it was never enough for the number of people that live here.
These people live by selling backpacks, and in a lot of cases, they depend on the sale of one of them to be able to buy a pound of rice every day. Some of them were selling fish and some were working on the tourist routes, but then everything stopped. In some cases in the Wayuu villages, 97% of the people are illiterate and monolingual. La Guajira is a prosperous region, with wind energy, coal, oil, salt, and tourism. And the Wayuu aren’t poor; we have impoverished them with these racist, exclusionary, and predatory practices.