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GUATEMALA: Zero Hunger Plan Must Focus on Production, Experts Say

GUATEMALA CITY, Feb 21 2012 (IPS) - “We don’t want a repeat of welfare-oriented programmes, because they are unsustainable,” said Rony Palacios of the National Network for the Defence of Food Sovereignty in Guatemala, criticising President Otto Pérez Molina’s Zero Hunger plan.

The new right-wing president said the aim of the programme is to beat the chronic malnutrition suffered by one out of two Guatemalan children under five.

Palacios’s criticism echoes that of other activists and experts, who call for support for productive activities.

“We need to strengthen production systems with a programme of credit and technological support targeting small farmers, to boost their crop yields so that they produce a surplus and not only enough to feed their families,” Palacios told IPS.

Pérez Molina, a retired army general, launched the plan on Feb. 16 in the city of San Juan Atitán in the northwestern province of Huehuetenango, which has the country’s highest chronic child malnutrition rate: 91 percent.

The new president announced that the programme was to reach more than one million malnourished children in this country of 14 million people, with a goal of reducing the malnutrition rate to 10 percent by the end of his term in 2016.

The initiative, which takes elements from the original Zero Hunger programme, launched by Brazil, and from a similar strategy implemented in Nicaragua, also includes novel aspects like the “1000-Day Window” which consists of providing support to mothers throughout pregnancy and until the child’s second birthday.

This aspect of the programme includes the promotion of breast-feeding and improved hygiene, and the provision of basic vitamins, minerals and micronutrients, aimed at boosting child health and nutrition from pregnancy, a key stage of development.

The government will also promote business networks for small farmers and the production of tortillas with fortified flour, while continuing the conditional cash transfer programme introduced by the administration of social democratic President Álvaro Colom (2008-2012).

The cash transfer programme consists of granting stipends of around 37 dollars a month to low-income families, conditional on regular school attendance and medical checkups for their children.

The authorities estimate that some 260 million dollars will be needed to finance the plan.

The funds are to come from the “savings” of several government institutions, and the fiscal adjustment plan approved by Congress on Feb. 16.

By means of the new tax package, the government projects that it will bring in 154 million dollars in revenue in 2012, 552 million in 2013 and 579 million in 2014.

Jonathan Menkos with the non-governmental Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEF) told IPS that the fight against hunger “should focus on economic and productive aspects,” given the losses that malnutrition represents for the country.

According to the study “The cost of eradicating hunger in Guatemala”, produced by ICEF and UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, “the state spends some 51 cents of a dollar per child to guarantee the development of his or her potential, 10 times less than other Latin American countries.

“This is equivalent to 66 million quetzals (about 8.4 million dollars) in daily losses, when, furthermore, access to food is a human right,” the researcher said.

The report called for increased spending to combat malnutrition this year, greater transparency in the use of such funds, and an efficient follow-up and monitoring system, to get better results.

But any approach to fighting poverty and malnutrition must address the underlying causes, social activists say.

Indigenous and peasant leaders have unsuccessfully pressed for approval of a law on rural development to regulate land use and create agricultural courts and a code that would recognise the ancestral land rights of native communities.

“The offensive against malnutrition should focus on the causes, like the lack of land among campesinos (peasants), or the imposition of an export-oriented model that relegates and discourages production of food for national consumption,” said Palacios.

Andrés José, who lives in San Miguel Acatán, Huehuetenango, another town plagued by high levels of malnutrition, told IPS that the government should take into account the need for diversifying agricultural production and increasing the incorporation of farm technology, and that it should also focus on developing other productive activities, like tourism.

“There are waterfalls and lakes here but they haven’t been exploited yet to generate resources through tourism,” he said.

José also expressed concern over the direction that the Zero Hunger programme could take. “We have to see what kind of approach they take, or if the politicians just want to gain the support of people, as has happened in the past.”

Measures to fight malnutrition are urgently needed in this impoverished Central American country, which has the highest chronic child malnutrition rate in Latin America and one of the highest in the world: just under 50 percent, according to UNICEF.

In addition, more than half of the population lives in poverty, and 17 percent in extreme poverty, according to international statistics.

But the fight against malnutrition in Guatemala did not begin until 2005, when a law was passed to create a National Food Security and Nutritional System, including a national board and secretariat, during the government of right-wing President Oscar Berger (2004-2008).

Colom expanded the fight against hunger, launching “Social Cohesion”, which grouped a number of different programmes: Mi Familia Progresa (My Family Is Making Progress), involving conditional cash transfers; Bolsa Solidaria (food aid); Comedores Solidarios (subsidised cafeterias); Escuelas Abiertas (schools open on the weekends); Becas Solidarias (solidarity scholarships); Mi Comunidad Produce (My Community Produces), including loans and support for small farmers; and Todos Listos Ya (a youth music programme).

Continuing, improving and expanding these programmes was a key pledge of all 10 candidates who ran for president in the September 2011 elections, regardless of where they stood on the political spectrum.

But the activists and experts who spoke to IPS want Zero Hunger and other social programmes to keep in mind the old adage “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

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