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GUATEMALA: Little Headway against Rampant Malnutrition

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Oct 14 2011 (IPS) - “If we can manage it, we buy something at the butcher’s every 15 days, even if it’s only a bone, although we normally just eat maize and beans,” says Marvin Fajardo, a small-scale farmer and father of three from the southern Guatemalan province of Escuintla.

Like Fajardo and his family, thousands of Guatemalan families subsist on a barely adequate diet based on maize, rice and beans because they cannot afford meat and dairy products, which are essential for physical growth and mental development.

People all across the country are in this plight, especially the indigenous majority in rural areas, leading in many cases to a state of chronic malnutrition in children that will stunt their growth and mark them for the rest of their lives.

As World Food Day approaches, celebrated Oct. 16, the Guatemalan population of 14 million has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition among children in Latin America, at 49.3 percent of under-fives, and one of the highest in the world, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“For breakfast we have beans and the occasional little fish we manage to catch; for lunch we have rice and beans, and the same for supper,” said Fajardo, who grows plantains in the village of Trocha Ocho, in the municipality of Nueva Concepción, 194 km from Guatemala City.

But things have taken a turn for the worse. His plantain trees disappeared under water in the rainy season, in floods whipped up by tropical depression 12-E that hit the country Wednesday Oct. 12.

“I lost my plantain crop, which was our livelihood, and now we’re receiving food from the World Food Programme,” Fajardo told IPS by telephone. He and his family are waiting for the waters to subside in their flooded village so that they can go home.

But that is not all. Since cultivating two hectares of plantains is not enough to live on, Fajardo usually works on neighbouring farms in order to feed his wife and children. “But with all the flooding, there is no work to be had anywhere,” he said anxiously.

This family’s experience of food insecurity in the south of the country is shared by thousands more in Guatemala, where half the population lives in poverty and 17 percent are extremely poor.

How does the situation of food insecurity affect people’s health?

Cyntia Tabín, a nutritionist at the National Hospital in the northwestern province of Totonicapán, told IPS that chronic malnutrition stunts the growth and intellectual development of children, who later do not do well in school and drop out.

They will never grow as tall as they should. Mental development may improve depending on their later nutrition, but there is no certainty, according to the expert.

“We have a diet low in animal protein, like meat, dairy products and eggs, which are the most expensive foods for people to buy,” she said.

In Totonicapán, the province with the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the country, affecting 77 percent of the population, the typical diet consists of tamales – cornmeal dough stuffed with a filling and wrapped in banana leaves – soup lacking both meat and vegetables, barley water, and atol – a hot cornflour drink.

In time, this diet leads to chronic malnutrition, Tabín said.

“An adequate diet would provide children with about 65 percent of carbohydrates, 15 percent proteins and 20 percent fats,” she said.

“But nearly 80 percent of what they eat are carbohydrates like rice and maize, which are cheaper,” she said.

In Guatemala, a pound of maize costs the equivalent of 20 cents of a dollar, while a pound of beef costs two dollars, 10 times the price of maize, or more.

Breastfeeding mothers may also contribute to inadequate nutrition. Giving up nursing before babies are six months old is a major cause of child malnutrition, according to Tabín.

The main effects of child malnutrition are described in “Análisis situacional de la malnutrición en Guatemala: sus causas y abordaje” (Situational analysis of malnutrition in Guatemala: its causes and how to tackle it), a report presented Tuesday Oct. 11 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The statistics are alarming. Chronic malnutrition in children reduces IQ by 10 to 15 percentage points; the loss of one percent of an adult’s height due to childhood malnutrition results in a 1.4 percent loss of productivity; and vitamin A deficiency renders the immune system of under-fives 40 percent less effective, the document says.

Hernán Delgado, co-author of the study, told IPS that unfortunately, chronic malnutrition in the first 1,000 days of life causes irreversible damage in human beings.

“Ideally, mothers and children from the time of conception until they are two years old should be guaranteed the best possible nutrition,” he said.

However, the country’s progress in nutritional matters is as stunted as the growth of malnourished children.

“The reduction of chronic malnutrition in Guatemala, in percentage points per year, has been 0.5 from 1965 to 2008,” the report says.

Worse still, in children under five anaemia increased from 42 to 48 percent between 2002 and 2008, and overweight and obesity grew by 87 percent in the last 43 years, it says.

“This is a very serious problem which is largely responsible for underdevelopment in Guatemala, and requires integrated actions at a structural level,” according to Delgado, whose study regards access to means of production, like land and capital resources, as essential in efforts to improve nutrition.

The report recommends focusing attention on the at-risk population, particularly in the first 1,000 days of life; creating programmes to improve education and health; and agreeing a multisectorial agenda on food security.

Carolina Siu Bermúdez, head of the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP), told IPS that the problem of malnutrition cannot be eradicated simply by giving people better food, but by reducing poverty, improving the education and health of women and providing access to employment.

“Nicaragua has successfully reduced malnutrition and poverty, but that is related to countless government policies geared to protecting the poor population,” she said.

Meanwhile, United Nations agencies announced Monday that the prices of staple food crops are continuing to rise.

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