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GUATEMALA: Multi-Pronged Effort to Boost Food Security Still Falling Short

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Aug 13 2010 (IPS) - “I used to work on the south coast, cutting sugar cane, and I would go all the way to Belize to pick oranges during the harvest. I went through a lot so we could get by,” Héctor Pan, a Q’eqchi Indian in Guatemala who has now abandoned farming to become a river rafting guide, told IPS.

The lives of Pan, his wife and their five children began to change four years ago when they and nearly two dozen other people from their native village of Saquijá, in the northern Guatemalan province of Alta Verapaz, decided to launch a whitewater river rafting service to take advantage of the rapids in the Cahabón river that runs through the area.

The Guaterafting whitewater rafting business has helped the one-time farmer and 23 other local residents boost their incomes in order to put nutritional meals on their tables every day, which many people in this impoverished Central American country plagued by an ongoing food crisis are still unable to do.

Pan belongs to the Asociación de Desarrollo de Turismo Ecológico Saquijá, the ecological tourism association in his village, which receives support from the Rural Development Programme for Las Verapaces (PRODEVER).

PRODEVER is financed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Guatemalan government’s National Peace Fund (FONDAPAZ).

On top of being one of the most vulnerable countries in Latin America, with over 50 percent of the population living in poverty and 17 percent in extreme poverty, according to United Nations figures, Guatemala is still feeling the effects of tropical storms Agatha and Alex, which left more than 100,000 people homeless and devastated the country’s crops of basic grains in May and June.

According to the Agriculture Ministry, Agatha alone — the more powerful of the two storms –destroyed some 296,000 quintals (one quintal = 46 kg) of 69 different agricultural products. Of that total, 87,000 quintals were corn, the most widely consumed staple food in Guatemala.

The efforts of public agencies, non-governmental organisations, private entities and international agencies have become indispensable in addressing the food crisis.

Enrique Murguía, IFAD coordinator for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, told IPS that his specialised United Nations agency is committed to achieving food security, with a focus on “boosting production and generating income, connected with increased access to markets.”

One example of the agency’s work is PRODEVER, which since 2001 has invested 16.3 million dollars in the northern provinces of Alta and Baja Verapaz to bolster agricultural production and food security.

In a six-year period, IFAD has invested 700 million dollars in Central America, which has been nearly matched by government funds, for a total of 1.3 billion dollars, Murguía said.

Numerous other organisations are also involved in the effort to improve food security in Guatemala, such as Acción Contra el Hambre, a local NGO.

“The first aid we received were payments for fixing gutters in the streets,” Francisco Pérez, a farmer from the town of San Pedro Pinula in the southeastern province of Jalapa, told IPS. “After that they gave us seed corn, and thank God we will be harvesting soon.”

Jalapa, located in the so-called “dry corridor” of Guatemala, an arid region stretching from the north to the east of the country, accounted for most of the 54 malnutrition-related deaths of children that made headlines in 2009, according to the government’s office of epidemiology.

“We are happy because with this support we have been able to help each other a bit,” Pérez added. “They (the NGO) also helped us with food for underweight children, and now we are waiting for them to distribute beans to plant.”

According to José Luis Vivero, Acción Contra el Hambre’s regional coordinator for Central America, the NGO’s work is carried out along four lines: treatment and monitoring of acute malnutrition; the “Mano de Obra Intensiva” (labour-intensive) programme, which provides an income to the poorest families; distribution of drought-resistant seeds; and monitoring and early warnings on food security.

Although the support of NGOs and international agencies is seen as essential, Guatemalan activists believe a greater public effort is necessary.

Nadia Sandoval of the International Centre for Human Rights Research, a private local non-profit organisation, told IPS that although Guatemala has advanced legislation on food security, “the laws do not guarantee that the institutions perform properly.”

“The Food Security Council created by the National Law on Food and Nutritional Security, which was passed in 2005, showed during the drought that hit the country in 2009 that it has failed to fulfill its role as a coordinating and decision-making body,” she said.

Sandoval also called for oversight of compliance with the minimum monthly salary of 241 dollars — “which, we should point out, is lower than the cost of the basic food basket,” estimated at 250 dollars a month.

Facilitating access to land, preventing forced evictions, and approval of a law on integral rural development, which is bogged down in the legislature, are other aspects of the pending agenda in the fight against hunger, she said.

Lisandro Guevara, technical secretary of the Mesa Nacional Alimentaria, a multi-sectoral body that was behind the drafting of the 2005 law, told IPS that the Food Security Council should play a more active role and that the budget for fighting hunger in the country should be expanded.

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