Colombian Navy Battles Childhood Malnutrition in La Guajira

Colombian Navy Battles Childhood Malnutrition in La Guajira

By Geraldine Cook
April 05, 2016

The Navy has provided aid such as potable water, which is very scarce in the region, along with food, medical treatment, and raw materials for establishing sustainable production projects in at-risk communities that suffer from alarming levels of malnutrition.

The Colombian Navy has activated a humanitarian aid plan to help communities in Alta Guajira in the department of La Guajira, where childhood malnutrition has climbed to alarming levels. In 2015, 30 of every 100,000 children under the age of 5 died from causes related to the condition.

The Navy has provided aid such as potable water, which is very scarce in the region, along with food, medical treatment, and raw materials for establishing sustainable production projects in those communities as part of government-issued Development Support Outreach events. Rear Admiral Evelio Ramírez, commanding officer of the Naval Force in the Caribbean, told Diálogo
that the Armed Forces’ duties include a social assistance component. The Military provides aid to the most vulnerable populations, especially during high-risk situations like the current crisis.

“Since September 2015, the Navy has concentrated its efforts in Alta Guajira, whose communities are among those most difficult to reach and where water transportation is the best option,” Rear Adm. Ramírez said. “This region does not have a permanent government presence, there are adverse geographical conditions, the zone is a desert, the municipalities are remote, there are limited means of access, and the emergency has become more severe because of this. Additionally, the population is mostly indigenous.”

The Navy has performed a total of five Development Support Outreach events to date that have benefited approximately 6,000 persons, providing comprehensive medical treatment, 400,000 liters of water, 66 tons of food and school materials, and a ton of clothes and shoes. The number of residents receiving assistance is especially high because of the difficulties in accessing the region’s remote towns.

A year in Alta Guajira

Every 40 or 45 days, the Navy holds a Development Support Outreach event in La Guajira as an Armed Forces initiative to bring together the efforts of government and private institutions to promote the health and welfare of Colombians in places farthest from urban centers. The outreach events have been held since the 1970s, and continue to be held nationwide. However, the Navy’s efforts have focused on Alta Guajira during the last year.

On September 16th, the Navy held the first Development Support Outreach event in the Alta Guajira sectors of Castillete and Puerto López. It provided 1,425 persons with 200 kilograms of Bienestarina, a nutritional supplement produced by the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) that contains nutrients from cow’s milk and flours from numerous grains. The Navy also transported 37,000 liters of water to a town where it has not rained for over two years.

“To help the residents of La Guajira effectively, we gather food, donations, tanker trucks of water, medical personnel, and everything else in Cartagena,” Rear Adm. Ramírez said. ”We departed with the 200-ton cargo-capacity ship fully loaded and headed to Puerto López-Guajira, where we conducted the outreach event all along the peninsula’s coastline. Though there are adverse conditions on these waters with winds over 30 knots and two-meter high waves during 98 percent of the time, it is all worth it, because ground access to these communities is even more difficult due to no or very deteriorated roadways.”

The Development Support Outreach events last three or four days. In each event, authorities provide medical treatments, dentistry, pediatrics, psychology, and ophthalmology, among other health services provided by volunteers. Furthermore, the outreach programs include masonry and carpentry work, as well as work by other professionals who can quickly build or repair basic structures like wells, parks, and schools.

El Niño impact

Alta Guajira’s geography has become more arid due to the absence of rainfall for more than a year. The area’s water reservoirs and food production have also been impacted by the El Niño phenomenon.

La Guajira’s predominant culture is the Wayúu indigenous community, which speaks Wayuunaiki – one of the department’s official languages since 1992. According to the 2005 demographic census, La Guajira was home to 619,135 residents, 45 percent of whom are indigenous, representing 20 percent of the indigenous population nationwide.

In 2010, the infant mortality rate for La Guajira’s indigenous communities was approximately 42 deaths for every 1,000 live births, according to a study on the sociodemographic profile of La Guajira published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL). “A comparison of the nationwide totals [of infant mortality] reveals that this department’s rates are systematically higher, and the differences are greater compared to childhood mortality. This means that there is a greater probability of early death among the children of La Guajira,” the study reported.

Acute malnutrition has played a role in La Guajira’s infant mortality rate, according to the Ministry of Health. In 2015, preliminary figures indicated acute malnutrition led to 30 deaths per 100,000 children under the age of 5, two fewer than in 2013, and 10 more than in 2011. So far in 2016, there have been 10 deaths in this age demographic, with the majority of cases occurring within the Wayúu community.

Colombia guarantees the right to healthcare and has special provisions for providing services to indigenous communities, according to CEPAL. The Development Support Outreach events are part of the services the government provides to indigenous communities.

Navy supports region’s production projects

The San Andrés Navy Social Action group, made up of volunteers who are spouses of active-duty and retired officers from the Navy, started an organization called DreamWeavers to help alleviate poverty in the area by creating entrepreneurial
opportunities. “Traditionally, the Wayúu communities have made artisanal products, such as backpacks and hammocks woven from woolen thread,” said Clarena Hernández, president of the Navy Social Action group. “Through DreamWeavers, we want to incentivize this valuable tradition […] and establish it as a production project.”

The Navy manages fair trade channels in favor of the artisans, who are primarily women, to ensure DreamWeavers’ sustainability. Rear Admiral Andrés Vásquez, stated that DreamWeavers will create a logistical cycle of economic prosperity because the families will organize into artisanal cooperatives, which will facilitate the filling of orders efficiently.

“The idea is to help communities continue their traditional artisanal process with clients who will purchase a final product at a fair price. This will reinvigorate the trade cycle, since they should not be dependent on donations for sustenance.”