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LATIN AMERICA: Historic Chance to Get Rid of Hunger

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 15 2007 (IPS) - High economic growth rates, political will and laws aimed at ensuring the right to food will not be enough to eradicate hunger in Latin America by 2025, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which calls for ongoing investment, improved coordination of programmes and support for family farming.

Hunger and malnutrition affect close to 52.4 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean, equivalent to 10 percent of the region’s population, according to figures from the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP).

Haiti has the highest rate of undernutrition, with 46 percent of its population going hungry. It is followed by the Dominican Republic with 29 percent, and Nicaragua with 27 percent. In South America, Bolivia heads the list with 23 percent of its people undernourished.

There are nearly nine million children under five suffering from chronic malnutrition in the region, reflected in low height for age. Guatemala has the highest prevalence of this problem with 49 percent of under-fives affected by stunted growth, followed by Honduras with 29 percent, and Bolivia and Ecuador each with 26 percent.

“We believe that this region could be the first to be free from hunger,” José Graziano da Silva, the FAO representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, said Friday at a press conference to mark the forthcoming celebration of World Food Day on Tuesday, October 16.

Three factors could contribute to achieving this goal: the region’s food supply is in excess of the population’s needs, on average, by one-third; gross domestic product has grown on average by more than four percent a year in recent years; and in some countries there has been a slight improvement in the distribution of wealth.

“What remains is for the countries of the region to commit a stable budget to the eradication of hunger,” da Silva, who was formerly minister of food security and hunger relief under the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva administration in Brazil, told IPS.

“In every country of the region, food programmes are highly dispersed. There are many small programmes run by the government, a ministry, a local government or a church, but these efforts are not coordinated,” he said.

In his view, national and local governments should invest resources in order to coordinate the various existing plans, and to ensure that the benefits reach everyone in need.

At present, four countries in the region have passed laws recognising people’s right to food: Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Guatemala. In El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru, similar laws are on their way to being approved, and draft laws are being debated in Mexico and Paraguay.

Although da Silva welcomed these legal advances, he insisted they must be followed by concrete action.

“FAO has taken as its model a programme combining income transfers with support for family agriculture. At the macroeconomic level, I think this is the most successful programme. It is being implemented in Chile, Brazil, Mexico and other Latin American countries,” he said.

“But there’s an even more successful programme that we are evaluating and recommending to every country, which combines school lunch programmes with school vegetable gardens and local purchasing from small farmers,” da Silva told IPS.

Local governments could introduce school lunches and vegetable gardens so that children can consume more fruit and vegetables, he said, adding that “Eating healthier food rather than ‘junk’ food is a cultural problem, too.”

“Connecting school lunch programmes and vegetable gardens with local purchasing from small farmers would generate cash circulation at the local level, in a virtuous cycle that would boost income and employment for local people,” da Silva said. FAO is aiming for eradication of hunger on the continent by 2025, a decade later than the year targeted for the fulfilment of the first U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG), which is to halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty and hunger in the world, from 1990 levels.

Other MDGs, which were adopted in 2000 by the U.N. member countries to be met by 2015, are to achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empowerment of women, reduce child mortality and improve maternal health.

The other goals are to combat HIV/AIDS and other serious diseases, ensure sustainable use of natural resources, and develop a global partnership for development.

“Within this region, the countries that are closest to meeting the first MDG are those in the Southern Cone of South America,” da Silva said at the press conference.

“Specifically, we could say that Chile has already achieved the millennium goals, except for some thousands of people who are still undernourished, according to FAO. But Chile is tackling the problem with programmes and resources, and in our view it can eradicate hunger and extreme poverty,” he said.

Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay are also doing well. In Central America, only Costa Rica stands out. Caribbean countries, except for the Dominican Republic and Haiti, are showing good progress overall.

Cuba received a special mention because “it has long held food to be a basic human right that is guaranteed by state policies,” da Silva said.

“Other countries are lagging behind, some because of child malnutrition, others because of the lack of comprehensive programmes to ensure food security,” he said. “And some countries have been affected by hurricanes,” as in Central America.

“Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Belize are unable to increase spending in this area,” he added.

According to estimates by the WFP and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), child malnutrition in Central America and the Dominican Republic represents costs of about 6.7 billion dollars, equivalent to 6.4 percent of the combined gross domestic product of those countries.

In South America, the situation of Paraguay and Bolivia is cause for concern, although da Silva praised the current Bolivian government for its political commitment.

Between 1990 and 2004 the number of undernourished people in South America, equivalent to five percent of the population, fell by 9.5 million, while in Central America the number of undernourished people increased by 2.5 million.

In parallel to the MDGs, FAO and other U.N. agencies are working on “an intermediate goal, which is to eradicate child malnutrition by 2015,” da Silva said.

“We believe this to be possible with international aid and coordination between countries and the U.N. agencies,” da Silva said. He added that he regretted that the region, especially the middle and higher income countries within it, was receiving a smaller share of official development aid from rich governments and multilateral aid institutions.

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