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| 9/27/2011 10:00:00 AM

Starvation!

This is the chilling drama of indigenous children in Puerto Gaitán, located in the department of Meta in Colombia. Despite being the municipality that receives more royalties for oil in the country, 13 infants died of starvation in the first half of this year.

The Puerto Gaitán health staff is outraged. No one can conceive that in the municipality that more royalties receives in the country and where lucrative contracts have been executed for child nutrition, indigenous children die on account of hunger every month in the hospital.

"Their parents bring them when there is virtually no much to do" says one doctor. "When the kids arrive here their hair is falling, their skin is rough and scaling, they are weighing from eleven to seventeen pounds and they can't hold their heads" says another official of a medical mission. The most recent case occurred on September 11. It was an eleven-month baby that died shortly after arriving with a inadmissible diagnosis in the XXI century: severe anemia. He was completely pale because didn’t have even a drop of blood in his organs.

Puerto Gaitán’s hospital has a basic level so that’s why most of the children are urgently referred to the one in Villavicencio, the capital of the department, a journey of three hours in which some of them have died. This happened last July to a one year old baby who came from of an indigenous reserve, an hour of Puerto Gaitán, who had diarrhea, pneumonia and dehydration.

Several circumstances make up this gloomy picture of avoidable infant mortality. Most of the children belong to the indigenous ethnic of the Sikuani and live in one of the nine shelters scattered throughout the 17,000 square kilometers of the municipality (80 percent rural). The children usually arrive at the hospital in the arms of their parents, who walk under the sun in the same roads used by the tractor-trailers loaded with crude. But they almost always seek help at last minute, after trying to heal them with their ancestral medicine.

Santiago Ramírez, president of an indigenous community of 90 sikuanis families who live badly settled in the urban center of Puerto Gaitán, explains that in the past his ethnicity was nomadic and after the arrival of oil and agricultural companies, they lost their freedom and the environment was contaminated. Now they are sedentary and do not have suitable land for farming. "The children are the ones who suffer the most because there is no food. In all the indigenous reservation there is starvation," says Ramírez. Something similar explains the Indian board, composed by the leaders of the reservation and that is the voice of nearly eleven thousand natives of this municipality, which is almost half of the population. In a document presented to the Vice-President Angelino Garzón, they explained that the contamination of water sources and land, makes hunting, fishing and food cultivation a hard and complicated work. "That’s why we face serious problems of malnutrition, especially in the child population". The director of the Social Pastoral of the place, who knows the area from years ago, also reaffirmed that reasoning.

Severe malnutrition makes children extremely vulnerable, under this circumstances any condition can cause them death. That’s why is difficult to stipulate in figures how many of them die of hunger. However, the Colombia statistics department, Dane, certify that Puerto Gaitán records an infant mortality rate of 61 children per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest in the department of Meta, that is 32, which is higher than the national average, that is 20 (2009).

Where does the money have gone?

There is no doubt that the size of the municipality (the fifth largest in Colombia) and the complexity of the indigenous culture affects the problem, but no one understands why this situation occurs if the municipality has a series of contracts executed specifically to address child malnutrition. This concern transcends the people of the place. In a document from the Ministry of Health Department of Meta, in June 8, an inspection is requested to "clarify the responsibilities" due that only in the first half of year, there have been 13 indigenous cases of infant death in Puerto Gaitán. Six were children under 5 years old and seven prenatal deaths (shortly before or immediately after birth).

The same letter draws attention to several contracts that the city hall implemented in 2010 to address child malnutrition. The first, by 657 thousand dollars was signed in July to "the recovery and diagnosis of malnutrition." The second, by 630 thousand dollars, dated 16 September and is for "the improvement of the nutritional conditions of children under five years in the nine indigenous reservations."

SEMANA investigated and found another contract for 2,000 million pesos signed on June 9, 2011, for "the provision of services and nutritional recovery of children in Puerto Gaitán." In reviewing the contracts questions arise. There are costs whose value is surprising. For example, in one of them the cost of consulting a general practitioner per child is 4,900 dollars, while visits for each child with a nutritionist is 6,500 dollars.


With this investment, aimed specifically at tackling the problem, it is difficult to understand why starving children keep coming to the hospital. Oscar Bolaño, it should be noted, has been mayor twice (2001-2003 and 2008-2011) and from 2004 to 2007 governed his brother-in-law. This magazine sought the mayor in his office for several days, but was unable to contact him to hear his explanations.

Something certainly is not working well in this municipality that has gained royalties for 34 thousand dollars so far this year. And in 2010 received a total of 50 thousand dollars on this account. The dramatic death of these children is just one expression. The municipality has only 27 policemen, has water two hours a day, every day the power goes out, and 44 percent of its population lives in poverty. However, when visitors arrive they see a huge concrete arch that cost one million dollars, or have the opportunity to attend a summer festival that cost 640 thousand dollars with popular artists such as Willie Colon and Daddy Yankee.

Indigenous children "are in conditions so deplorable that you might not find their veins in order to inject serum " says one doctor, whose responsibility is to deal with the ravages of hunger in an area where the soil is saturated with pure wealth.
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