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Food and Agriculture

The Hurricanes Didn’t Bring the Hunger

Local maize production has gone down in several parts of Mexico. Cobs in a crib in Yaluma, Chiapas. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

MEXICO CITY, Oct 15 2013 (IPS) - A month after Hurricanes Ingrid and Manuel caused the worst destruction from a natural catastrophe in Mexico in 30 years, another disaster has come to light: hunger in communities that are supposedly served by a rural food supply programme.

The stories repeat themselves in 14 municipalities in the mountains of the impoverished southwestern state of Guerrero, as indicated by the people who have come to the municipal seats to ask for assistance, like three men from the village of Los Laureles who walked three days and crossed rivers using ropes to reach the town of Coyuca.

“We need food, everything has run out, we don’t have anything to eat,” one of them, Gregorio Angulo, told IPS. He came to ask for a helicopter to fly out the elderly and pregnant women.

Guerrero was the state that was hit hardest by the combined impact of the two nearly simultaneous hurricanes: Ingrid, which swept through the Gulf of Mexico Sept. 12-17, and Manuel, which formed in the Pacific Sept. 13-20.

But “hunger was already here,” the president of the National Confederation of Community Councils of Abasto, Porfirio González Cortés, told a newspaper in the southern state of Oaxaca, the second-most damaged state.

With dozens of federal highways cut off by the hurricanes, availability of low-cost locally-grown foods is key in rural areas of this country of 118 million people. The state food distributor Diconsa – the acronym for Distribuidora Conasupo Sociedad Anónima – was created to that end in the 1970s.

Through a network of slightly over 25,000 stores that serve poor communities of fewer than 2,500 people, Diconsa has a mandate to offer 22 staple foods, including maize, beans, rice, sugar, oil and pasta, at subsidised prices.

For years, the system regulated the market in the poorest regions of the country. During the 1999 floods, for example, it guranteed supplies for isolated communities.

But in the last 15 years, it has lost operational capacity and budget.

An assessment of Diconsa’s performance, carried out this year by Conejal, an autonomous public agency, found “problems in ensuring constant, regular supplies in the stores.”

In addition, in 10 percent of the rural communities served by the programme, the Diconsa stores were the only place to buy food, but only one-third of all of the stores had all of the 22 products they were supposed to sell.

From 1998 to 1999, the federal budget for all food aid programmes was cut in half – including Diconsa, Liconsa (a milk distribution system) and Fidelist (a now-defunct programme that provided corn tortillas at subsidised prices).

In 2000, the authorities wanted to completely eliminate the subsidies for Diconsa, but a major mobilisation by the community councils kept them from doing so.

It was reported at the time that the budget assigned, 41 million dollars, barely covered the operating costs. This year, only 14 million dollars were earmarked for the programme, according to the government’s Federal Expenditures Budget 2013.

The basic basket of 22 subsidised staple products costs some 220 pesos (just under 20 dollars), while in a regular grocery store or supermarket the price goes up to between 230 and 330 pesos.

But there have been numerous complaints that the Diconsa stores sell other products, including junk food, at the same, or even higher, prices as other stores.

And the system draws very little on small-scale local agricultural production but depends instead on a costly centralised distribution system in this vast country chequered with remote, hard-to-reach places. In fact, many of the food products are imported.

Mexico is one of the world’s biggest importer of food, according to the National Association of Rural Producers’ Enterprises (ANEC).

In this country, which belongs to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), known as the “rich countries club”, there were 27.4 million people who did not have enough food in 2012, according to official figures.

Nearly 14 of every 100 preschool children are stunted – low height-for-age – a sign of chronic malnutrition. And among the country’s sizeable indigenous minority, stunting affects 33 out of every 100 children in that age group.

In Guerrero, María Natividad saved up every last cent in July and August. She had saved up enough to buy, as she does every year, enough meat, beer and Coca-Cola to fill up two refrigerators. But none of it was for herself.

With luck, sales on the long Independence Day weekend (Sept. 16) would bring her enough income to last through Christmas. Her shop, which is in her small two-story home, is on the banks of the Azul river that borders Santa Fe, a leading tourist town in the state of Guerrero.

But in the wee hours of the morning of Sept. 15, the Azul river overflowed in a question of minutes, flooding 100 metres beyond its banks. Natividad’s house was nearly completely submerged, and when the water receded, a mixture of mud and garbage completely filled the lower floor.

A month later, her only source of income is gone. And although tourism is the main source of livelihood for the entire town, the authorities have dragged their feet on the local residents’ requests, because as a town that normally draws tourists it is towards the end of the list in terms of urgency.

Natividad is one of the thousands of people in Guerrero who have not received any help, neither cash nor food. “No one has come to Santa Fe,” she told IPS.

The floods, which killed 157 people, damaged half a million hectares of crops. The devastation drove up prices of lemons, onions, beans, maize and tomatoes.

In addition, several dozen people are still missing, half a million people lost their homes and businesses, and 1.2 million homes were damaged.

With additional reporting by Ximena Natera (Coyuca y Santa Fe, Guerrero).

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