A staggering poverty and potable water crisis is sweeping through Argentina's Wichí communities, who have lost eight children due to malnutrition in 2020 alone.
The Wichí, an indigenous people local to Bolivia and Argentina, found in their largest numbers near Salta and Jujuy, are estimated to have a population of 40,000 to 50,000. The Argentine National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INDEC) estimates there are 36,135 currently living in Argentina.
The head of the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INAI), Magdalena Odarda, recently visited Wichí communities in Salta, noting that "there are children in very vulnerable situations."
The most recent fatality, a baby of just seven months, died on Saturday, according to reports in the local press.
"The doctor could not certify that the baby died due to malnutrition, since he was dead on arrival, and the baby's parents did not want to do an autopsy, but I knew he had obvious signs of malnutrition," said Antonio César Villa, secretary of institutional relations for the municipality of Santa Victoria Este, according to local outlet Los Andes.
The previous death, the seventh in recent weeks, was recorded just the day before, on February 7, when a five-year-old Wichí girl who had been in critical condition suffering from vomiting, chronic diarrhoea and dehydration, died in the same hospital in the presence of the provincial health minister, Josefina Medrano.
The Government of Salta has declared a socio-sanitary emergency in some areas of the province.
Odarda explained in an interview with the AM750 radio station that she returned from the place "with anguish and the need to return, because we have, really, travelled to communities where there are children in very vulnerable situations."
She also acknowledged, however, that "It’s the first time that INAI approached the territory."
"The caciques [indigenous 'chiefs' of the community] asked for many things but mainly water. They have been suffering from a lack of water for a long time, as a result of deforestation and indiscriminate clearing [of land for agricultural purposes]."
She also referred to the case of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy with Down's syndrome that "looks like a baby." The child has lost weight instead of gaining, she said, and is at significant risk.
"What they get told in the hospital is that ‘You live in a suitable house and you are fit.’ [But] The house is a dirt floor, thatch and mud roof and full of vinchucas (a type of beetle, blood-sucking bug],” she concluded.
The crisis gained further attention this week when TV personality and entrepreneur Marcelo Tinelli – who was summoned weeks ago by President Alberto Fernández to be part of his administrations council to tackle hunger – spoke on the subject through a series of posts in his Twitter account.
"Please do something because children are still dying. Yesterday was the eighth due to malnutrition, mainly because of drinking water in poor condition,” he posted.
"All my support to the Governor of Salta Gustavo Sáenz, with whom I spoke recently, and, in his words, in his tears, I saw him committed to urgently solving the situation of the Wichi communities in Salta. I offered to travel now, if it is necessary, and to summon all the people," he added in another post.
At the same time, he reflected: "This situation in the Wichis communities of Salta is not new. But it is not worth distributing blame for the inheritance received, but to get ALL to help and solve the issue urgently."