Green Hunger: Starvation Stalks Verdant Guatemala, Children Malnourished

by Tanya Thomas on  August 10, 2011 at 9:43 PM General Health News
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They call it the "green hunger." Here in the mountains of central Guatemala, one of the world's top exporters of sugar and bananas, vegetation is everywhere and yet the people are starving.
 Green Hunger: Starvation Stalks Verdant Guatemala, Children Malnourished
Green Hunger: Starvation Stalks Verdant Guatemala, Children Malnourished

Guatemala, which has a population of 14 million, has the highest rate of child malnutrition in Latin America. Half of all children under five are malnourished.

In rural areas such as Jalapa, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) or a three-hour drive from Guatemala City, where many families scrape by on less than a dollar a day, that figure can rise shockingly to as high as 90 percent.

Luis Alexander is nine months old and suffers from acute malnutrition. He appears weak and tiny in his mother's arms in front of their mudbrick house.

Ronald Estuardo Navas, a hunger monitor at the international non-profit Action Against Hunger, measures Luis's arm with a tape that evaluates the nutritional health of a child via the size of the upper arm.

"He has a perimeter of 9.9 centimeters -- there's a high risk he could die," he said.

His mother, Herlinda Rodriguez, who has two other children to care for, is also undernourished.

"He's underweight because I don't have enough breast milk to give him. That's why he's so thin," she said.

Looking around the green and mountainous land surrounding the Rodriguez family's humble home, it's hard to understand why they are slowly starving.

Guatemala is the world's fifth largest exporter of sugar, coffee and bananas, and when subsistence crops fail thousands of families simply cannot afford to buy enough food.

Many families have had to resort to buying their basic staples of corn and beans and rice from local markets because their modest subsistence crops have been seriously reduced by droughts and floods over the last few years -- the creeping effect of climate change across this region.

But the purchasing power of the little money these communities have has been battered by both international food price fluctuations and local prices, which have been pumped up by domestic scarcity. Three quarters of the food produced here is exported to the international market.

Willem van Milink Paz, World Food Program Representative Guatemala, says: "What we are seeing in Guatemala is that the price, the local price of food, is even higher proportionally than what we've seen at international levels."

That has hit families hard.

Benjamin Lopez Ramirez, a subsistence farmer in Jalapa, says: "The truth is that there is no work here, or the chance to have a salary, the fact that (maize) is so expensive makes it very difficult for us."

More than 6,500 people died from hunger related issues last year, 2,175 of whom were under five years, according to Luis Enrique Monterroso, who oversees the right to food at the Guatemala Human Rights Office.

Although there are schemes and money to help, he says, there's a lack of political will.

"The state doesn't exist for the most vulnerable families in this country."

Malnutrition doesn't stunt just physical, but also mental, development in children, which does not bode well for Guatemala's future economic development.

Guatemala's income from taxes is one of the lowest in the region at just 10 percent, and although the private sector could play a bigger role in reducing the levels of malnutrition and poverty in the country, the key factor is state involvement.

Van Milink Paz said: "To be clear and honest about this, there is not going to be a real solution to the problem if the government of Guatemala doesn't take a major part in the solution.

"The problem is too big for anybody -- you know private companies or even a UN agency like the World Food Program or other NGOs working in this area to solve. We are only really nibbling at this problem and not really solving it."

There have long been programs purportedly aimed at targeting child hunger.

The latest, overseen by outgoing President Alvaro Colom, is called "My Family Progresses," and is a conditional cash transfer scheme that gives poor mothers a stipend provided their children go to school and get regular health checkups.

But the program has been mired in criticism, and accused of a lack of transparency. Monterroso says this scheme and others like it are more directed at winning political popularity than producing real social change.

Billy Estrada, sub secretary of food security for the Guatemala government, said the problem is not a lack of schemes, but a lack of consistency.

"What I think is lacking, and will be lacking, in this government and those that will be, are continuous policies that can extend their mandate.

"It wouldn't matter if the political parties alternated if there was a continuation of activities started by one government and worth the effort continuing."

Unless the state can find the political will to implement schemes effectively to tackle the structural causes of malnutrition, children like Luis Alexander will continue to suffer.

Source: AFP

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