Development & Aid, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

GUATEMALA: Multi-Partner Alliance Wages War on Hunger

Danilo Valladares

QUICHÉ, Guatemala, Jun 21 2011 (IPS) - “Now I get supplies to feed my children, and I have a family garden where I grow carrots, onions and beets,” Marta Quinilla, a native of Uspantán, an area northwest of the Guatemalan capital that was devastated by the 36-year civil war, says cheerfully.

This Quiché Maya indigenous woman belongs to one of 10,250 families benefiting from the Maya Food Security Programme, a multisectorial initiative combating chronic malnutrition in the municipalities of Sacapulas, Cunén, Nebaj, Cotzal, Chajul and Uspantán in the department (province) of Quiché.

The 1960-1996 armed conflict between leftwing guerrillas, the armed forces and their paramilitary allies left 250,000 people dead or disappeared. Quiché, where the majority of the population is indigenous, bore the brunt of the violence, accounting for 344 of the 669 documented massacres, as well as 45 percent of all human rights violations, according to the United Nations-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission.

It is no coincidence that Quiché is one of the poorest provinces in the country, judging by its social development indicators. For instance, in the six municipalities where the Maya Food Security Programme is deployed, indices of child malnutrition were between 65 and 78 percent in 2008, according to the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP).

So programmes like this one are particularly important for these families, especially since the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned that the food situation in Central America is critical due to the high prices of agricultural products.

“I am given rice, beans, oil and goat’s milk for my 20-month old child,” whose weight is also monitored, said Quinilla, who takes care of her two children while her husband works in agriculture.

The programme delivers monthly rations of 40 pounds of soya, beans, rice and oil to participating families, and teaches parents healthy nutrition in workshops, fairs and street theatre.

It also provides goat’s milk as part of a comprehensive strategy aimed at improving the nutritional status of the 9,572 children under three living in the participating municipalities.

The initiative, carried out jointly by Save the Children, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Frito Lay Foundation and community organisations, also promotes best practices and services for livelihoods, natural resources and risk management, and for small business development.

“We are given training to produce improved seeds, and to open up markets for our products,” Manuel Ajcot, a small businessman who grows potatoes in the village of El Caracol, 15 km from Uspantán, told IPS.

In May, a group of 20 local farmers sowed 2,200 square metres of potatoes for the U.S.-based Frito Lay, a division of PepsiCo, on the understanding that if the product meets the manufacturer’s needs, they will plant 176,000 square metres (17.6 hectares) and sell their potatoes to the company.

“If we can demonstrate that the variety we sow is suitable, they will pay us 200 quetzals (26 dollars) per hundredweight, when we usually sell it at 125 quetzals (16 dollars),” Ajcot said.

Leonardo Argueta, technical assistant manager for the Maya Food Security Programme, told IPS that the second stage of the project, which has been under way since 2007, has reduced chronic child malnutrition from 78.7 percent to 74.4 percent in the programme area.

Argueta attributed the nutritional deficiency to low animal protein intake because of the high poverty rates in the municipalities.

In fact, between 86 and 95 percent of the area’s population lives below the poverty line, while 29 to 41 percent are extremely poor, making them six of the 125 most poverty-stricken municipalities in Guatemala, according to the presidency’s Secretariat of Planning and Programming.

Guatemala is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with about 80 percent of productive land in the hands of only five percent of the population, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Other institutions report that half the children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition, the highest rate in Latin America.

That’s why, Argueta says, it is essential to get people to learn and practice improvements in the way they produce and consume food. “We are looking for ways to boost capacity in the local communities, so that the knowledge and practices remain behind when the programme leaves,” he said.

In addition to the unmet needs, the experts have to strive against traditional eating habits, such as “mother and child sharing a plate of food, when they should each have their own, or making children eat when their parents do, two or three times a day, when children should eat more frequently,” he said.

The programme also focuses on risk management, promoting the creation of nurseries of forest plants and fruit trees, to be planted on slopes, river basins and other deforested ground.

In this way, the programme contributes to the quality of life in these communities and creates hope for the future.

“We hope to make progress with this support for small businesses. What I want is for my seven children to get ahead,” Andrés Reynoso Sajbin, a small scale potato farmer from the village of Macalajau, nine km from Uspantán, told IPS.

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