News of the death of at least eight extremely malnourished children in the province of Salta, in northwestern Argentina, has exposed a crisis of hunger of immense proportions in this country, an important exporter of food to the rest of the world. A seventh victim was an adult woman, who died giving birth.
Six children died in January. Thirty-seven other starving children are now hospitalized in Tartagal Hospital, some 300 kilometers away from the region. The children belong to the indigenous Wichi tribe, which is concentrated near the Bolivian border. The Peronist government has declared a health emergency in response to the deaths.
The sixth victim was 21 months old. He died on January 26 while being transported from one health clinic to another. Diagnosed with “chronic malnutrition,” he had suffered 10 days of vomiting and diarrhea, was feverish and severely dehydrated. The first three children who died, all below the age of three, shared the same symptoms.
While the Salta government declared a health emergency in response to these deaths, starvation is not new to this region, which borders Bolivia and Paraguay. Neither are the empty yearly declarations of health emergencies. No preventive measures have been taken by government authorities, provincial or federal, under growing conditions of near famine.
Given the distance to Tartagal Hospital, and conditions in the area, in the past health workers were assigned to visit villagers, going from home to home on bicycles, resolving health issues, providing vaccinations and measuring heights and weights. That is no longer the case.
Compounding the conditions of hunger, there is a shortage of drinking water. Much of the water in the region is contaminated with toxic chemicals from agribusiness and oil production.
Spokespersons for the indigenous tribes that inhabit this region in the northwest corner of the country blame the “extreme poverty” of the region on the same “political process” that is affecting the rest of the country, as well as the privatization of the national oil company YPF in 1992, and its increasing exploitation with no regard to its environmental impact.
Deforestation has also benefited agricultural monopolies, including soybeans and cattle, in complete disregard for tribal property rights. Tribal access to their traditional homelands and rivers has been restricted over the years, preventing the Wichi population from engaging in hunting, agriculture and food gathering.
Hospitals and clinics lack sufficient ambulances, equipment and medications to address this crisis. In addition, the government’s austerity policies have resulted in the layoff of travelling personnel, capable of raising the alarm and of attending immediate health needs in the towns and villages of the region.
Tribal leaders recently contacted Doctors Without Borders, asking for a humanitarian mission of health professionals. Their request was seconded by a group of Argentine doctors, lawyers and anthropologists, one of whom, Rodolfo Franco, is the only doctor in the region. Franco pointed out that no one should ever die of hunger in Salta, a province which is a net exporter of food. Argentina has become one of the world’s main exporters of soybeans and soybean products, generating super profits for the agricultural and financial oligarchies.