Tall green mountains, healthy crops, rain right after noonday, wholesome soils. This used to be what people pictured when they thought of Guatemala.
But not anymore. The food crisis in Guatemala has become so severe that the president has declared a state of calamity, and the rate of undernutrition in children under 5 has reached 49 percent.
Many remember the famines in China in the 1950s and 60s. Or in Ethiopia in the 1980s. But famine is just not a problem of the past. It still happens in countries that have economies prosperous enough so that no child should have to suffer chronic or severe malnutrition. This is the case in Guatemala.
In Guatemala, the face of poverty and hunger is young, indigenous and rural. Guatemala, with the fourth-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world and the highest in Central America and the Caribbean, faces a serious challenge in reducing the rate of chronic undernutrition.
One of the causes fueling the current food crisis is the state of education in Guatemala.
Based on a 2002 census, nearly 24 percent of Guatemala’s population is illiterate because, for example, children desert education in order to help their parents work. This is especially common in rural indigenous areas.
Another reason is a lack of knowledge of the Spanish language, as many of the rural indigenous population speak Mayan languages. Guatemala has 22 officially recognized Mayan languages.
Besides education, culture also fuels malnutrition. Nutritionist Jacobo Jiménez works for a government institution in Zapaca, and has seen the damage some cultural traditions can do:
“We daily fight the taboos that screw up sound ways of having a healthy intake and make things utterly hazardous for the inhabitants in this area.
“A young mother with a baby … she refused to eat eggs because of the town’s belief that [eating eggs] will make the milk she gives to her baby rotten.
“The lack of education of many Guatemalan mothers prevents them from having the right habits and nutritional knowledge in their first months of pregnancy and the baby’s first months.”
Another cultural problem adding to the crisis is sexism.
“Women decide to feed their husbands instead of the children, and I think this is not fair. Girls are forced to stay at home and do chores or take care of their youngest siblings while boys are encouraged to attend school.”
The girls are fed less at home, furthering their undernutrition, and they also do not have the opportunity to learn about health and how to care for themselves and their family as they are denied access to education.
Government decisions have contributed to the crisis as well.
Guatemala has lost the capacity of producing what it consumes (nutritional sovereignty) as a result of economic policies that slant towards a particular market, oriented to reduce the costs of the most dynamic industries, which obtain the majority of their raw material from foreign countries.
Between 2007 and 2008, the area dedicated to corn and beans, the base of the country’s economy, was reduced 40 percent. This lower production drove an increase of importation, which is now happening with five main products coffee, sugar, cardamom, bananas and African palms.
The climate has led to the food crisis, too.
Guatemala, as well as other countries, has been battered by the weather phenomenon called “El Niño.” Effects on weather vary with each event, but ENSO (El Niño) is associated with floods, droughts and other weather disturbances in many regions of the world.
In the Atlantic Ocean, effects lag behind those in the Pacific by 12 to 18 months. Developing countries dependent upon agriculture and fishing, particularly bordering the Pacific Ocean, are especially affected.
Throughout the duration of this devastating weather phenomenon, and just when the crops in Guatemalan soil needed rain the most, there was no rain at all.
Attacking the Global Food Crisis
Living in the small town of San Cristobal Verapaz, Freddy attends the Rayitos De Esperanza Student Center. Surrounded by beautiful green mountains, Freddy and his family have gained hope.
“During the last medical checkup, Freddy [had] gained 10 pounds, thanks to the Complementary Intervention activity we have been hosting,” states Lucía Jom, general coordinator of the student center.
This Complementary Intervention activity was made possible with the funds that were raised in the Global Food Crisis Day held March 11, 2009. Forty student centers have been assisted by this activity, benefiting 2,500 children diagnosed with malnutrition [slight or chronic].
“When a disease is detected, we give assistance” states Erick Castillo, Compassion Guatemala’s Health Specialist.
“The children are diagnosed with the standards that the World Health Organization gives related to weight, size and malnutrition.
“Our health intervention consists in giving the children diagnosed with malnutrition balanced meals. This can be breakfast, lunch or dinner that has been cooked by persons who have been previously trained.
“This training consists in giving knowledge to the cooks of each student center on how to prepare nutritious meals. Mothers of sponsored children are trained as well on how to take advantage of local crops in order to give them the most nutritious meals they can with the family budget they have.
“What we want to do next is strive to find funds to keep educating and training on how to harvest hydroponic crops, such as celery, cucumber, beans, spinach, tomato, turnip amongst many. These crops are rich in minerals and vitamins that can complement the meals prepared at home.”
“The community approves this way of helping children” states Lucía, ”and they are interested in sending their children to have this kind of assistance.”
One of the expected outcomes we wish to reach with the children is that they may choose good health practices and are physically healthy.
Compassion Guatemala has made an intentional effort for all children registered in our sponsorship program to experience reduced nutritional deficiencies and know how to prevent nutritional deficiencies.
The curriculum includes such topics as:
- “What is a lunch?” — with an objective of describing and defining the ingredients of a nutritiouslunch
- “Making a group of healthy food” — with an objective of identifying the five basic groups of food and their value to keep the body healthy
- “Breakfasts are very important” — with the objective of describing and identifying the ingredients for a nutritious breakfast and its importance for good health
- “Make a healthy meal” — with an objective of dramatizing potential scenarios related with different food options
- “Favorite recipes” — with the objective of making a book that contains recipes of food used in their communities
In the midst of the worst of the famine to befall Guatemala in the last 30 years, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs from the United Nations as well as other institutions have predicted that this famine can turn even worse if the second harvest at the end 2009 is destroyed by the lack of rains and low temperatures. This is especially possible in the northwestern part of Guatemala.
The government is already trying to take some actions to assist the families that may be affected by this famine, but this won’t be enough.
We have proven our leadership by currently encouraging people to become involved and donate for the sake of this noble cause. It is thanks to the money raised on our last Global Food Crisis Day more than 4,000 children in different student centers nationwide are being assisted to reach a better physical state.
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” – Matthew 25:40, NIV