For the UN International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on the 9th August, 2020 the UN is celebrating the innovative ways that indigenous populations demonstrate resilience and strength in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many indigenous groups may not have access to tools or infrastructure to reduce transmission and properly treat cases of COVID-19, but their traditional lifestyles and remote isolation are certainly a source of resilience to keep the pandemic away from them. Indigenous populations are usually self-sufficient, where the land and environment provide their basic livelihood sustainability, but that unfortunately is not necessarily the case for the Wayuu indigenous population of the La Guajira department of Colombia.
As of the beginning of August, the Colombian government and the WHO have reported over 2,500 cases of COVID-19 in La Guajira, and nearly 200 deaths. That is an 8% mortality rate compared to a 3% mortality rate in the whole of Colombia from over 376,000 COVID-19 confirmed cases. Uribia, where over 60% of the entire Wayuu population lives, has 91 cases confirmed. Most unfortunately, the immediate neighboring municipality of Maicao, where Mama Tierra has its coordination office, has reported over 1,200 cases. The political and COVID-19 situation in Venezuela is another factor, as La Guajira is one of the easiest crossing points for refugees into Colombia. Thus, people living in La Guajira currently have a 2.5 times higher chance of dying of COVID-19 in comparison other populations in Colombia.
The Wayuu indigenous group live under very challenging environmental conditions. The La Guajira department is prone to yearly droughts, and it’s going through a process called desertification. It basically means rains are scarce and there isn’t much natural water available to the region, as many rivers have dried because of the drought and desertification process. The Wayuu do not have the infrastructure available to provide a source of water to their land, so it’s very difficult for them to maintain a sustainable agricultural practice. Therefore, the Wayuu depend on local markets and trade among neighboring villagers. Furthermore, people usually need to walk anywhere between 30 minutes to 3 hours to reach the nearest water source, which is usually an open source well or man-made lake and are prone to microbial contamination. Without an easy access to water, food and basic sanitation, the Wayuu suffer from high rates of disease and malnutrition.
Uribia is a large municipality located in the northernmost point of La Guajira. It’s approximately 8,000 km2, which is equivalent to the size of the Canton Graubünden and Schwyz together. Uribia has only 2 hospitals and 6 small clinics located in distant corners the municipality, which is not enough to attend to the needs of its predominant population of about 200,000 Wayuu individuals. There are no paved roads and no reliable transport for families to reach these health centers and some people may need to walk 6 to 8 hours to reach one of these health centers in the usual 35oC daytime heat of La Guajira.
If we add this all up together: food, water and health care are limited, and malnutrition and disease especially in children are high. Such factors are the main drivers of the reported high rates of childhood mortality in the region. To make matters worse, COVID-19 has already reached this remote location.
The Colombian government has mobilized the military forces to restrain the population and contain the virus, causing a general panic within the population due to the lack of transparent information and education. Reports from large cities in La Guajira, such as Riohacha and Maicao, have shown revolts and breakouts from prisons, violence on the streets and mobs of people blatantly stealing from markets and supply trucks. Because of this general disorderly state, markets in remote Wayuu villages are not being restocked, and the price for transport and available goods has nearly tripled in price, making it impossible for the Wayuu to buy and/or transport food from within Colombia and neighboring Venezuela. Such unruly price increases definitely affects the capacity of the Wayuu population to properly feed their families, where the usual household income ranges between 50-80 Swiss Francs per month. Therefore, over-inflated prices for food supplies, high dependence on food markets in far-away cities and school closures, where kids have daily meals, have worsen the livelihood situation of nearly all Wayuu indigenous communities.
The Mama Tierra Association works with over 100 Wayuu families living in Uribia and 20 more living in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Thanks to well-connected members of the Mama Tierra’s board of trustees, we were able to find solutions to ship crafts and payments to both Colombia and Venezuela’s artisans, as well as food and water supplies. This has helped 833 Wayuu individuals in Colombia and another 175 in Venezuela to earn their livelihood and cope with COVID-19. Furthermore, we’re providing education and training to address the COVID-19 pandemic by coaching a group of influential community members to deliver general health information, education on transmission prevention and to provide direct assistance to neighboring communities.
As a Swiss association working hand in hand with indigenous Wayuu communities of Colombia and Venezuela, we are in daily contact with our partners from these communities, sharing their worries and challenges as one family. Mama Tierra leads social programs such as food programs, environmental education and providing access to water and solar energy to indigenous communities. One of the main programs is empowering indigenous women by helping with the distribution of women’s fashion accessories. Mama Tierra’s work has allowed over 1,000 people to gain access to fair paid work, so they can thrive even under the most challenging living conditions.
You can be part of the Mama Tierra mission by purchasing products online or through any of our credited distribution points around the world. Wear sustainable designer accessories that fuse fashion and social justice to empower those who make them and those who wear them. Find out how you can participate, donate and support our Wayuu indigenous partners at https://mama-tierra.org/en/content/42-covid-19-emergency
Douglas Fernandes DaSilva, sustainable development chief at Mama Tierra