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GUATEMALA: (Barely) Surviving on Beans and Tortillas

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Nov 4 2009 (IPS) - Juan Manuel Ardón’s bones jut out and his hair is dull and thin: signs of severe malnutrition. He is so weak that he can hardly walk or talk, and the doctors say his weight and stature are those of a six-year-old, rather than 15-year-old, boy.

Indigenous women in Chiquimula making rope out of maguey (Agave americana) fiber.  Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

Indigenous women in Chiquimula making rope out of maguey (Agave americana) fiber. Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

Juan Manuel is being cared for at the Nutritional Centre in the town of Jocotán, in the eastern Guatemalan province of Chiquimula, where he drags himself down the corridor like an old man in a little boy’s shriveled body.

But other little ones in this impoverished Central American country haven’t even made it to Juan Manuel’s age. At least 54 children have died of malnutrition so far this year in Guatemala, according to the General Directorate of Epidemiology, while 2.5 million people out of a total population of 13 million are facing a food crisis, according to United Nations figures.

The people going hungry blame the food shortages on the worst drought in 30 years, which has destroyed their subsistence crops.

But the climate difficulties have once again revealed the deep structural problems and vulnerability of one of the poorest countries of Latin America, where half of the population is poor and 17 percent lives in extreme poverty, according to official figures.

Chiquimula, on the border with El Salvador and Honduras, is one of the provinces hit hardest by the crisis, along with the other eastern provinces of Zacapa, Jalapa, Jutiapa and El Progreso, Baja Verapaz in central Guatemala, and the west-central Quiché, which make up the so-called “dry corridor”, a semi-arid area frequently plagued by drought in the winter, with low farm yields and harsh living conditions.

“We’ve been eating beans, (corn) tortillas and salt because we didn’t have enough money to buy anything else,” Héctor Ardón, Juan Manuel’s 22-year-old brother, tells IPS.

Héctor, who is now in charge of his brother, says they have eight other brothers and sisters, none of whom go to school. Like many Guatemalan families, theirs depends on subsistence farming for a living.

Apparently, neither the mother nor the father was willing to take care of the acutely malnourished boy. “I felt sorry for him, seeing my brother like that,” says Héctor, who admits that his parents “don’t love him very much because he’s sick and can’t walk.”

So Héctor decided to take his brother to the Nutritional Centre, where he is now caring for him round the clock. “I wash him, change his clothes and take him to the bathroom, because he can hardly walk,” he says.

The doctors have told him that in a month, Juan Manuel will be better, and will be able to go home. What Héctor probably doesn’t know is that the acute malnutrition will have irreversible effects on his brother’s health.

The story of this family is not an isolated one in this region where sunken-eyed children with bloated stomachs and their hair falling out are an all too common sight.

Jairo and Melania García, who are both one year old, share not only a last name but also the same symptoms of malnutrition. They come from the village of Toma de Agua in the province of Chiquimula, where the drought ruined the local crops of corn and beans.

“Now we have to look for something else to survive on,” Marta Julia García, who has three other children besides her daughter Melania, tells IPS. She says she does not know how to read or write. She is also unaware that her daughter is chronically malnourished.

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).

In the country’s rural villages, many women are left on their own to raise their children and tend their subsistence crops while their husbands try to find work abroad in order to send some money back home to feed the children.

Amílcar Vásquez, a peasant farmer from the village of La Libertad de Camotán, travelled to Copán, in Honduras, to work in the tomato and chili pepper crops to earn some money to support his five children. “Adults are paid 40 quetzals (five dollars) and children up to 12 earn 25 quetzals (three dollars) a day,” he says.

But the harvests have plunged. José María Gutiérrez, who has a farm in the community of La Esperanza de Camotán, tells IPS that his corn crop shrank from 55 quintals (5,500 kilos) to just 15 quintals (1,500 kilos) between 2008 and 2009.

“I have a loan, but I am definitely going to fall into debt with this situation, because it’s not easy to support 10 kids,” he says.

On the occasion of World Food Day, Oct. 16, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) reported that more than one billion people, or one sixth of the world’s population, are going hungry, including 265 million in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In the face of the food crisis, the social democratic government of President Álvaro Colom declared a state of public calamity, enabling the administration to mobilise funds and purchase emergency food supplies without the normal requisites laid out by the law on public tenders, while Mexico, Chile, Venezuela and other countries have sent food aid.

The international community is also helping. FAO is providing emergency food supplies to some 5,000 families in the dry corridor, through the Special Programme for Food Security (SPFS).

The SPFS has undertaken activities aimed at improving the soil’s water retention capacity, making use of integrated agroforestry systems, guaranteeing access to seeds, and promoting backyard gardening, the programme’s regional coordinator Leonel Muralles explains to IPS.

These activities are designed to help around 90,000 poor rural families in the dry corridor adapt to climate change over the next four years, at a cost of 18 million dollars.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food also provides food aid through a programme launched in mid-2008 called the “bolsa solidaria”, which provides staples like beans, rice, corn flour and cooking oil, as well as a highly nutritious low-cost multi-grain protein mix, to poor families in urban and rural areas around the country.

The government is also helping support productive projects like family farms and the raising of egg-laying chickens.

In addition, the Colom administration created 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.

But the Ministry of Agriculture and Food budget currently under consideration for 2010 will be 16 million dollars smaller than this year’s, Alejandro Aguirre, director of Congcoop, a network of Guatemalan NGOs and cooperatives, complains.

“One of the underlying problems is the unequal distribution of wealth. The fiscal policy is also unfair, because those who should pay taxes don’t,” he tells IPS, complaining about the control exercised by the “oligarchy” in Guatemala.

Luis Enrique Monterroso, head of the Food Security Observatory, tells IPS that the country has good legislation in that area, and that “we are asking the government to enforce these laws and put a greater emphasis on this.”

In 2005, Congress passed a law on food security and nutrition to govern anti-hunger policies and actions. However, it has brought few results up to now.

Meanwhile, the outlook for next year is uncertain because there is no guarantee that next year’s rainy season (May through October) will be any better.

But what is certain is that desperate measures against hunger are needed, to keep children like Juan Manuel, Jairo and Melania from dying of hunger.

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