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World

Wayuu Calamity Shines A Light On Colombia's Forgotten Rural Poor

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's visit Colombia's border with Venezuela. That's the border between a country that was deeply troubled some years ago and Venezuela, which is deeply troubled now. People on each side of the border are affected by events on the other, including the Wayuu Indians. Thanks in part to Venezuela's economic meltdown, there's a severe food shortage on the Colombian side in Wayuu communities. Reporter John Otis has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD CRYING)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: A Wayuu Indian girl lies in a hospital intensive care unit in the Colombian town of Riohacha. Her hair is discolored; her arms look like sticks - telltale signs of malnutrition.

JOAQUIN MARENCO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Pediatrician Joaquin Marenco says this girl is almost 3 years old and weighs just 18 pounds. She should weigh 30 pounds. Last year, 91 Wayuu children died of malnutrition in Colombia, three times more than the year before according to government statistics. Health experts and Wayuu leaders blame a perfect storm of events.

This is Eskepu, a Wayuu village of adobe huts surrounded by cactus in Colombia's Guajira desert. Venezuela lies a few miles east of here. For years, the Wayuu have crossed the border to bring back bulk quantities of low-cost food subsidized by Venezuela's socialist government.

RAMIRO URIANA: (Speaking Wayuu).

OTIS: Speaking in the Wayuu language, village elder Ramiro Uriana says, "we used to buy Venezuelan rice, coffee and sugar because it was so much cheaper. Now you can't find it."

Due to widespread food shortages in Venezuela, the Wayuu must now buy their groceries in Colombia. But the cost is far higher, so many families are purchasing and eating less.

ANASTONIA URIANA: (Speaking Wayuu).

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

OTIS: Take Anastonia Uriana, a Wayuu mother of seven. She's cooking rice and beans over an open fire and says it will be her family's only meal of the day.

The Wayuu grow a few things in the arid soil, such as beans and squash. And they raise goats, which provide meat and milk.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOATS BLEATING)

OTIS: But five years of severe drought have devastated their goat herds as well as their crops. Cultural practices also come into play.

LUZ HERRERA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Luz Herrera, a Wayuu social worker, says many parents believe their malnourished kids are possessed by evil spirits, so they rely on traditional healers.

HERRERA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "By the time they bring their kids to the hospital, it's too late," Herrera says.

All of this contradicts the sunny narrative put forth by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who won last year's Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the country's guerrilla war. Santos depicts a fast-developing nation that's leaving behind a long history of bloodshed and backwardness. But the Wayuu are among Colombia's many forgotten rural communities that are mired in poverty. The Organization of American States publicly scolded Colombia and urged the government to improve health conditions for the Wayuu.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD BABBLING)

OTIS: As for that Wayuu toddler in intensive care, she's now sitting up and eating an emergency food ration made of peanut paste. But Dr. Marenco fears that back in her village, she may not get enough to eat and could fall sick again.

MARENCO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says, "this is a vicious circle."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Riohacha, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "DUNES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.