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NICARAGUA: Sandinistas Wage a New War – Against Hunger

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Mar 29 2007 (IPS) - With the support of international cooperation, the Nicaraguan government is preparing to launch an all-out offensive against hunger, as part of an ambitious plan to help the rural poor achieve food sufficiency.

Of the country’s 5.4 million people, 46 percent – or 2.4 million – were living below the official poverty line in 2005. Of that 2.5 million, 1.7 million lived in rural areas, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Orlando Núñez, director of the Zero Hunger Programme to be launched in May by the government of Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, said the initial cost would be 50 million dollars.

The money will partly come from public funds that would have gone towards servicing the foreign debt but were freed up by the recent Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) decision to cancel Nicaragua’s debt.

The programme will also be financed by money from donor countries, United Nations agencies like the World Food Programme (WFP), and the World Bank.

The Zero Hunger Programme will be added to other efforts by this impoverished Central American country to meet the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the international community in 2000, and especially the first goal: to halve the proportion of people suffering from extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, from 1990 levels.

The UNDP estimates that 15 percent of the population of Nicaragua is living in extreme poverty.

The programme will first be put into operation in rural communities along the Pacific coast in western Nicaragua and in the most isolated Caribbean coastal regions in the east, where the highest rates of poverty and malnutrition are found, Nuñez told IPS.

The Zero Hunger Programme was inspired by the Fome Zero flagship programme of the leftist government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil.

More than 500 non-governmental organisations working in rural areas will participate, in coordination with the governmental Council on Food Security and Sovereignty, which will implement the programme.

Nuñez said the aim is to gradually reduce the poverty that affects an estimated 68 percent of the rural population, while promoting family food sufficiency by providing assistance in production, education and health to 15,000 families in the first year.

The number of families will be increased over the next five years, until reaching a total of 100,000 beneficiaries.

The programme will get underway in May with the distribution of assistance packages to poor rural families in the form of seeds, grains and farm animals like pigs, cows, chickens and ducks, which will provide them with a source of food and of surplus production for sale in the markets.

“The idea is to give the families a foundation on which to start, by supplying large and small livestock, seeds and biodigesters that produce fuel from organic waste, and also to provide them with technical assistance and training,” said Núñez.

He said the Zero Hunger Programme will also take aim at malnutrition through special maternal-infant health measures to be put into effect by the Health Ministry.

But Nuñez underscored that the new initiative is just one component of a more ambitious social strategy espoused by the government of the leftwing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which took office in January.

The authorities also have the support of the WFP, that has been providing assistance to Nicaragua for several years, with funds from donor countries like Japan, which announced a donation of one million dollars to fight hunger in Nicaragua.

The WFP will continue carrying out its nutritional support plan for 400,000 school children and pregnant and nursing women.

In February, World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean Pamela Cox promised Ortega 50 million dollars a year in soft credit for the fight against poverty in Nicaragua.

The government’s new food security programme will include the creation of agricultural cooperatives and a network for the sale of low-cost basic products.

The network will also incorporate small shops in the country’s towns and cities as well as the 70 centres that have been established in rural areas to sell fertiliser from Venezuela.

“This is a strategy that has worked well in Venezuela, and that we are going to begin to implement here through production cooperatives,” said Núñez. He explained that through the supply network, the government plans to distribute one million butane gas cylinders for cooking, acquired at preferential prices from Venezuela, to curb the deforestation caused by the cutting of trees for cooking fuel.

“The project is designed to be comprehensive and integral,” because it does not consist solely of helping poor communities achieve food sufficiency, but also of providing them with training and input so they can support themselves and generate income, while protecting the environment at the same time, said Núñez.

A 2004 Health Ministry report stated that half of the Nicaraguan population consumed less than the 2,200 calories a day that the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates is necessary for adults to lead productive lives.

The report prompted the resident coordinator of the U.N. system in Nicaragua, Alfredo Missair, to urge the authorities to give urgent attention to the problem of malnutrition. He also announced a project to reduce hunger in 50 municipalities.

Víctor León, a project officer with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), told IPS that 27 percent of the population of Nicaragua is undernourished.

That figure, revealed in a FAO study published in October, represents the highest proportion in Central America. In Guatemala, 24 percent of the population is undernourished; in Honduras 22 percent; in Panama 26 percent; in El Salvador 11 percent, and in Costa Rica four percent.

The Health Ministry’s national height census for 2004 found that 30 percent of Nicaraguan children under nine already suffer from irreversible delays in growth, said León.

He added that this means that one-third of the country’s children have already lost certain physical and mental capacities, which will put them at a disadvantage when it comes to entering the labour market.

Nevertheless, the FAO official pointed to a slight improvement, because the proportion of the population that is undernourished dropped from 30 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2006.

But he considered it unlikely that Nicaragua will achieve the first MDG, because to do so, it would have to reduce the proportion of people in extreme poverty to 9.7 percent by 2015.

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