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In a country with food, hundreds of infants are dying of hunger

In Colombia, official statistics show that 1,562 children died across the whole nation from malnutrition in the years between 2012 and 2017. This reality is as alarming as Colombia’s acute social inequality and as scandalous as the amount of food waste.


Tania Peña


So far this year, 232 children under 5 years old have died from undernourishment in Colombia, a country where one in three tons of food produced goes directly into the bin.

According to the National Health Institute, another hundred or so children have died from acute diarrhoea, due to the unavailability of drinking water of the required quality. In total, a lack of hygienic conditions, coupled with hunger, has so far brought a cost of over 300 deaths of children in 2018.

Despite the fact that the most recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) announced that malnutrition has reduced in Colombia since 2014, one child in ten still suffers chronic malnutrition.

Chronic malnutrition, as described by Unicef, is diagnosed when a child’s height and weight do not correspond to their age. It is associated with poverty and has an enormous impact on development.

According to highly regarded paediatrician Griselda Vargas from the Universidad Autónoma de México, malnutrition affects the development of a child’s central and peripheral nervous system, the growth of brain tissue, their motor functions and psychomotor development.

All of which, she adds, can cause devastating consequences such as arrested mental development, weak bone structure and changes or weaknesses in the kidney and heart, as well as having serious ramifications for the immune system leading to repeat infections and a higher rate of mortality.

In Colombia, the area of the country where this picture is most alarming is in the north eastern department of La Guajira, in the country’s driest and most arid region, where the population is majority indigenous, and the wayuú are the predominant ethnic group.

Lack of food and water, deficiencies in health care services and problems with access to the most remote communities contribute to the terrible statistics in Colombian La Guajira, where young  wayuú girls and boys are dying every month from hunger.

For centuries, different generations of wayuú prepared their food with an essential base of maize, manioc, goat meat, fruit and vegetables, but the scarcity of water in La Guajira has provoked the loss of these traditions and the outbreak of hunger.

Living far away from medical centres, indigenous communities assure that the only alternative they have is to use alternative medicine practised by shamans to avoid more deaths on their reservations.

In Colombia, illness and deaths caused by hunger, unhealthy living conditions and malnutrition have an indigenous face, highlighted Santiago Mazo, an assessor from the FAO.

Last June, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that it is not sufficient for indigenous communities to have wells or pools at their disposal if the water obtained from them is not suitable for human consumption. Facing the critical situation in La Guajira, the Colombian president Iván Duque launched a government plan at the beginning of October to deal with the historic and serious problem of the lack of water in the department.

Duque, who headed up a Security Council in this zone of the Colombian Caribbean, admitted that only 4% have access to water in La Guajira and he promised that his government’s programme will bring this figure up to 70% over the next 4 years.

Gloria Amparo Alonso, director of the National Planning Department, added that over 50% of extreme poverty in Colombia is concentrated in the Caribbean regions and in the Chocó department, a region on the Pacific coast.

But politicians and specialists are warning that the rates of poverty and number of malnourished children are also high in César, Magdalena, Valle del Cauca, Bolívar, Vichada, Atlántico, Norte de Santander, Antioquia, Huila, Meta, Risaralda, Córdoba and Nariño.

In the opinion of Sara del Castillo, coordinator of the Observatory for Food Security and Nutrition at Colombia’s National University, poverty and malnutrition are related and the link can be seen in any historic study.

The terrible paradox of this hard reality is that it is taking place in a country where 10 million tons of food is wasted every year, according to data revealed by the National Planning Department. This government agency illustrated how for every three tons of food in the country, one goes straight in the bin.

Such information contrasts with data from the last National Survey into Nutrition, which showed that more than 54% of Colombian homes live with food insecurity. Ángel Obando, an FAO adviser, specifies that 8.3% of these families are suffering in conditions of extreme food insecurity, which means they go several days without eating.

With the persistence of the abysmal inequality that exists in Colombia, it will be difficult to improve these alarming malnutrition figures, states Mario Hernández, public health expert from the Historic Centre of Medicine at the National University.   (PL)

(Translated by Elizabeth Dann – Email: – Photos: Pixabay

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