Study about the Wayuu people in Colombia

Excerpt of the Master thesis «Impact of Desertification on the Livelihood and Health of the Wayuu People of the La Guajira Department, Colombia» by Douglas Fernandes Gomes DaSilva – University of Zurich:

Scientific studies show that indigenous groups suffer from high poverty rates due to isolation and marginalization, low levels of education and high rates of malnutrition and infectious diseases. The origins of these problems vary between regions, and addressing these shortcomings is part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 2015) of the United Nations.

The research in this master’s thesis focuses on the Wayuu people who live within the municipalities of Manaure and Uribia, located in the La Guajira Department of Colombia, where reports show high levels of infant mortality, lack of food, water and health services due to economic isolation, drought and desertification in the region. We use a mixed methods approach for this research, which consists of a set of questionnaires with objective and perception questions to evaluate the life and opinions of Wayuu people who live in areas experiencing different levels of desertification in Manaure and Uribia: low, medium and high desertification areas, as defined by the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) of Colombia.

We conducted an extensive interview with 131 households (63 in Manaure and 68 in Uribia) that included 230 adults and 293 children. As results, we found socioeconomic and health disparities among the Wayuu that live in regions with different levels of desertification. People living in regions with the highest rates of desertification have the lowest accessibility to income, the lowest levels of education, in fact nearly 80% never went to a school and cannot read or write, the highest levels of food insecurity and shortage of water, as well as a higher incidence of malnutrition and infant mortality compared to Wayuu individuals living in regions facing lower levels of desertification.

The evaluation of 293 children from various regions of two municipalities of Alta Guajira shows that 45% of these children have clear signs of malnutrition, and most of these malnourished children live in areas with high desertification. These areas also present the highest percentages of water-borne diseases (such as diarrhea and vomiting), a high incidence of infections that cause fever (as in the case of bacterial infections), and 85% of the adults interviewed suffer from daily headaches. The problems related to low availability and poor accessibility to health centers further worsen their situation.

These results show that the Wayuu people of Alta Guajira who live in areas with the highest levels of desertification have the poorest socioeconomic and health conditions compared to people living in areas with lesser levels of desertification. However, there is a certain ambiguity in such a statement, since the socioeconomic and environmental factors that affect the Wayuu population can be closely related to each other. Are the areas with the highest desertification also the poorest and most isolated areas? Do the poorest and most disadvantaged people tend to be pushed into areas with greater desertification? Based on such enigma, we infer that the main follow-up question would be what are the main causes of poverty and health problems among the Wayuu?” Do these problems come from anthropogenic and/or socioeconomic factors or the climate (nature) itself? That being the case, we would say that it is a combination of both.

In general, the Wayuu people of Alta Guajira face great problems such as the lack of food and water, infrastructure, medical services and education to face the droughts and desertification of the peninsula. However, populations living in areas with the highest levels of desertification seem to be suffering much more compared to other areas, due to lack of rainfall and, consequently, to low soil productivity, which aggravates their agricultural practices and increases their food and water insecurities, and further worsens their socioeconomic status. Due to such problems, the most affected segments of Wayuu society are children. In detailed examinations of Wayuu children, signs of protein deficiency such as water retention in the extremities and distended abdomen (Kwashiorkor disease), and various signs of vitamin deficiency such as rashes and bumps on the skin, sunken nails and brittle, and mouth ulcers. The diet of Wayuu children is high in processed fats and in sugars, and is low in protein, nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Children are not necessarily suffering from famine, but they are suffering with the consequences of socioeconomic disparities influenced by the desertification process, which reduces the quantity, availability, variety and accessibility of fresh foods. In areas with high desertification they are impeded from growing crops, so the most economical and widely available food that can be obtained are fats, white flour, dried corn and Panela (caramelized sugar cane bar). Shortages in the variety of food, water pollution and lack of healthcare services makes them vulnerable to high risks of malnutrition, diseases and infant mortality.

Based on the results of this master’s thesis, the best places to start any type of development initiatives are in the areas that present the highest levels of desertification. The inhabitants of these areas need access to drinking water for personal consumption and also for agricultural irrigation, adequate roads and public transport to link them to the markets (so that they can market their crafts), increase the capacity of medical attention near their communities and, most importantly, they must be educated about their rights, health, economics and innovative practices to provide them with long-term sustainable development opportunities. Once those basic needs can be put into practice, the Wayuu people can have the opportunity to thrive and continue to develop within their own cultural ways.

Douglas Fernandes DaSilva is part of the Mama Tierra Team. He was born in Brazil and has lived in the USA, UK, Nepal, Uganda as well as Switzerland. His passion for traveling has taken him to other 46 countries. Douglas obtained his Biochemistry bachelor’s degree at University of Wisconsin and an Environmental Sciences Masters at University of Zurich. He has worked most of his life within scientific research and development, health capacity building and health education in developing countries. His master thesis involved studying the link between the ongoing desertification of La Guajira in Colombia affects the livelihood and health of the Wayuu people.