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GUATEMALA: Malnutrition Killing Children Again

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Sep 11 2009 (IPS) - The deaths of 25 children from severe malnutrition this year in Guatemala, mainly in the eastern province of Jalapa, shows that the specter of hunger is still haunting the country, aggravated by the global economic crisis and drought.

On Friday, Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), described the situation in Guatemala as “desperate.”

An estimated 54,000 families are suffering from food shortages in the area known as the “dry corridor” – the eastern provinces of Zacapa, Jalapa, Jutiapa, El Progreso and Chiquimula – as well as Baja Verapaz in central Guatemala and the west-central Quiché, and another 400,000 people are at risk, according to the Secretariat of Food Security and Nutrition (SESAN).

The crisis prompted social democratic President Álvaro Colom to declare a “state of public calamity” on Sept. 8, which will enable the government to mobilise funds and purchase emergency food supplies without the normal requisites laid out by the law on public tenders.

The WFP has also begun to distribute 20 tons of high-energy biscuits in the hardest-hit areas.

“I had been seeing a significant increase in the number of children with severe malnutrition and infections,” said Dr. Juan Carlos Rodríguez, head of pediatrics at the National Hospital of Jalapa, who sounded the alert in August. “In one week we went from 10 to 25 undernourished children, and eight died in the space of two months,” he told IPS.

“I have been working in the hospital for 10 years and had never seen anything like this,” the doctor said by telephone from Jalapa, where 18 children have died of malnutrition since January.

Rodríguez said poor families in the area “eat mainly corn tortillas, beans and some vegetables, and get very little protein because they can’t afford to buy beef, chicken or eggs.”

Guatemala has the highest rate of chronic child malnutrition in Latin America – around half of all children under five are malnourished – and the fourth highest rate in the world, according to the United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF).

Jalapa is just the tip of the iceberg, and hundreds of cases of acute malnutrition have been reported in other provinces since the deaths in that area made the headlines.

A study by the Health Ministry office of epidemiology reports that 462 people, including 54 children, died of malnutrition-related causes between January and June. However, SESAN acknowledged that complete statistics on the number of malnutrition-related deaths are not available, because of shortcomings in the health system’s data collection methods.

“Since January, we have attended 144 children, 90 percent for chronic malnutrition and the rest for severe malnutrition,” Karin Morales, a nutritionist at the national hospital of Santa Cruz del Quiché, in the northwest, told IPS.

One of the most recent victims of malnutrition died in the hospital there. “Last week, we attended a little girl, but her parents insisted on taking her home from the hospital. She got worse at home, and when they brought her in again, it was too late,” said Morales.

Morales pointed out that malnutrition is a multi-causal problem, in which lack of education, poverty and drought all play a role.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, visited Guatemala because of the gravity of the situation. In a press conference at the end of his visit on Sept. 5, he urged the international community to support the efforts that Guatemala is making to achieve food security.

De Schutter said that inequality in Guatemala, a country rich in natural resources, generates poverty and hunger that mainly affect peasant farmers.

According to the World Bank, in Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, around 75 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, defined as an income that is insufficient to purchase a basic basket of goods and services, while nearly 58 percent have incomes below the extreme poverty line, defined as the amount needed to purchase a basic basket of food.

Indigenous people are the poorest of the poor. While officially, 40 percent of the population is indigenous, international organisations and researchers put the proportion at around 60 percent.

El Niño

The WFP also attributed the situation to the El Niño climate effect, which has caused a lack of rain for many months, especially in the dry corridor, leaving peasant farmers without their basic subsistence crops, like beans and corn.

Furthermore, the U.N. agency stated that “the global economic crisis has reduced remittances, exports, foreign investment, tourism revenues and access to credit, and increased unemployment.

“The combination of these factors is pushing the working poor into the ranks of the hungry poor, where thousands of households lack purchasing power to access food,” it added.

In addition, earlier crop losses in grain-surplus provinces “have reduced staple foods in the market and increased prices in local food markets,” and household food stocks that usually tide families over the “lean season” have been depleted.

Andrés Botrán, a former presidential commissioner on hunger and former secretary of food security and nutrition, told IPS that malnutrition peaks every year, “especially in the dry corridor.”

He said peasant farmers need more training, and that better water harvesting techniques are needed, such as rainwater collection and storage and drip irrigation. He also said the use of greenhouses and silos should be promoted.

To fight poverty, the Colom administration launched the “Mi familia progresa” anti-poverty programme, which provides poor families with a monthly cash transfer of 37.50 dollars, conditional on school attendance and regular health checkups for their children.

Botrán said “It is essential for such anti-poverty measures to be constantly monitored and for the results to be evaluated, because of the need for cohesion in multi-disciplinary actions, in order to know who is doing what, where and for whom.”

Malnutrition is a longstanding problem in Guatemala. In 2001, 48 children died in the province of Chiquimula, on the border with El Salvador and Honduras.

This year, government officials and society have been working together to keep the number of deaths from climbing, in the Front Against Hunger, led by the ombudsman’s office, representatives of the Catholic Church and evangelical denominations, and the medical association.

Maximiliano Aquino, head of the Catholic Church social pastoral office in Jalapa, told IPS that food is being distributed and clinics are being opened to help the malnourished.

The international community is also helping to deal with the crisis. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Programme Officer in Guatemala Mynor Estrada told IPS that with funds from the Spanish government, the U.N. agency is working with the Agriculture Ministry and SESAN on several food security projects targeting some 2,000 families in the dry corridor.

Estrada said that “While the current situation justifies emergency action by the government, such as food distribution and special life-saving nutritional support, medium and long-term actions must also be undertaken, in order to guarantee that there are no repeats of this phenomenon.”

FAO has recommended climate change adaptation measures among 90,000 poor rural families in the dry corridor. The proposed measures, which would cost around 18 million dollars over the next four years, would improve the soil’s water retention capacity, make use of integrated agroforestry systems, guarantee access to seeds, and promote backyard gardening.

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