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EL SALVADOR: Increase in Poverty Driven by Soaring Food Prices

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Oct 6 2008 (IPS) - In the village of Talchiga in northeastern El Salvador, 20 families live in wooden shacks with earth floors, have no piped water, electricity or sewer services, and suffer from high levels of malnutrition.

The village is in the remote mountainous department (province) of Morazán, on the border with Honduras and 200 km from San Salvador, one of the areas that was most affected by the 1980-1992 civil war.

But while the armed conflict is long over, conditions have not improved in this village located 900 metres above sea level, where the dire poverty contrasts with the fresh mountain air and the natural beauty of the small rivers and streams that run over the rough terrain around the community.

The villagers also complain that large landowners are trying to seize control over the land where their grandparents "were born and died."

Nearly all of the village’s 100 people, 60 of whom are women and children, complain that they do not have enough land to farm, and that the land they do have is poor. And since they cannot afford fertilisers, their harvests of corn are scanty.

In El Salvador, where around 42 percent of the population lives in poverty, the people of Talchiga are among those hardest hit by the rise in food prices over the last year and a half.

Lucila López, a 27-year-old mother whose five children are between the ages of seven months and 12 years, said the soaring prices mean that she is frequently unable to offer her family anything other than "tortillas with salt," and complained that beans have become a luxury item, at a cost of a dollar per pound (just under half a kilo).

Sometimes "we only eat twice a day," said López, whose gap-toothed smile clearly reflects a lack of calcium after nursing each one of her children up to the age of two.

Corn tortillas and beans form the basis of the Salvadoran rural diet.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, the corn harvest totalled 17 million hundredweights (100 pounds/46 kilos) in 2007, while nearly four million hundredweights were imported. In the case of beans, output stood at just over two million hundredweights, and imports at 300,000.

During the 1980-1992 civil war, villagers in this area were victims of bombings and massacres by the army, which accused them of being sympathisers of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) insurgency.

The FMLN is now the country’s second-largest political party, after the rightwing ARENA, which has governed since 1989.

According to a World Food Programme (WFP) study, "Alza de precios, mercados e inseguridad alimentaria y nutricional en Centroamérica" (Price Rises, Markets and Food and Nutritional Security in Central America), more than 100,000 people in this country of 6.5 million slipped below the poverty line between September 2007 and June 2008.

The study, carried out among 850 people in 25 rural communities in 10 of the country’s 14 departments, reports that more than one million people in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua fell into poverty in that period.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) warned in August that more than 26 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean could fall into extreme poverty if food prices remain high.

The IDB report also projects that persistent high prices would drive up poverty rates, from 51.4 percent before the increase in food prices to 59.4 percent after the price increase, in Guatemala, for example.

It also predicts a rise in the poverty rate from 35.1 to 41.7 percent in El Salvador; 69.5 to 73.4 percent in Honduras; and 41.5 to 46.8 percent in Nicaragua.

Central America has been identified as "a particularly vulnerable region," because of its dependence on "food and fuel imports" – two variables that produce inflation, WFP country director for El Salvador, Carlo Scaramella, told IPS.

According to Scaramella, the cost of the basic needs basket has risen 33 percent in El Salvador in the last two years, but wages have not kept up with the increase, which means a large part of the population has gotten poorer, a phenomenon that has been aggravated by practices like hoarding and speculation.

This in turn has led to "an increase in malnutrition among women and children," he said.

"People are eating less and buying cheaper and less nutritional foods," said the WFP representative, who also pointed out that the agency’s funding is "proportionately much lower than before," at a time when needs have increased.

Since 2004, the WFP has spent 16 million dollars in El Salvador, at least 70 percent of which has gone into food aid and the rest to technical training programmes directed by the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, with a focus on assistance to poor families.

"It is a worrisome phenomenon. Government efforts to combat poverty are sliding backwards," said Scaramella.

In October 2005, the government of Antonio Saca launched the Family Solidarity Network programme, which provides a monthly payment of between 15 and 20 dollars – depending on the number and ages of the family’s children – per child to each family living in extreme poverty, while extending basic services to impoverished areas.

In exchange for the conditional cash transfers, parents must ensure that their children attend primary school, and the mother and children must make regular visits to the doctor.

From October 2005 to February 2008, the government spent 49 million dollars on cash transfers and the provision of basic infrastructure, benefiting 50,000 families, according to official figures.

The families of Talchiga, however, say that since late 2007, the assistance they receive from the programme is no longer enough to buy food for their children.

"With today’s high prices, the money just doesn't stretch far enough. We can’t feed our children," said village head Antonio Hernández, whose quarter hectare of corn lasts his family just two months.

Things are especially tough for 33-year-old María Catalina Hernández, who lives in a one-room 20 square metre shack with her four children.

When she doesn't have enough to feed her children, "I borrow food from my neighbours," she said, as her five-year-old daughter Elia stands nearby munching a tortilla for lunch. Like the rest of the children in the village, the little girl shows clear signs of malnutrition.

The night before, a coyote ate the last nine chickens that Hernández was raising in a little pen out back.

"It sounds great on TV" when the government says they are bringing the poverty rate down, said Antonio Hernández. "But if they would come here and see what we eat, they would see that our conditions have gotten worse."

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