400,000 People Suffer the Curse of Hunger
By Néfer Muñoz*
The food crisis could take on much larger proportions in 2002 with the arrival of the 'El Niño' climatic effect, adding to the already explosive situation of drought and a dire economic situation.
SAN JOSE - Some 400,000 people are in urgent need of food assistance in Central America due to the crisis caused by an extended drought and deplorable economic conditions, warns the World Food Program (WFP).
If the number of farmers who have lost some or all of their harvests are added to the tally, the total population affected by the crisis nears 1.5 million, WFP - a United Nations agency - told Tierramérica.
The nations hardest hit are Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, where food rations are being distributed in exchange for community work, and children with urgent needs are receiving immediate attention.
''The country that worries us most is Guatemala,'' said Peruvian Francisco Roque, WFP director for Central America and the Caribbean. ''Though there are also serious situations in southern Honduras and western Nicaragua.''
Roque told Tierramérica that malnutrition - whether moderate or severe - now affects 27 percent of children under age five in some rural Guatemalan communities.
Hunger in Guatemala, which was brought into the international media spotlight in August, is most acute in Chiquimula department in the west, particularly the municipalities of Camotán, Jocotán and Olopa.
To date, the local daily 'La Prensa' has reported 123 hunger-related deaths: 94 in Olopa and 29 in Jocotán.
Roque reported that ''the Guatemalans who are most suffering from hunger are the indigenous peoples of the Mayan ethnicity known as Chortí.''
The WFP has received five to six million dollars from the international community for purchasing food aimed at attending to the emergency, but a total of 10 million dollars are needed, said the WFP official.
The food crisis in Central America is due in large part to the May through July drought. These are the months in which the first growing season's harvests are usually brought in.
Thousands of peasant farmers lost most or all of their crops and were left without the possibility of storing food for themselves or of collecting seeds to plant the second crop of the year.
Rains in recent weeks, however, have raised hopes across the isthmus for a successful second planting, which would be harvested at the end of the year.
''That would help normalize the situation somewhat in Honduras and Nicaragua,'' Roque said, adding that the problem is more complicated in Guatemala, where the effects of poverty are more widespread.
According to the United Nations Development Program's ''Human Development in Guatemala 2000'', approximately 57 percent of the country's 12 million inhabitants are poor. Civil society groups, however, say the true percentage is probably higher than 80 percent.
''The food crisis is recurrent in Central America,'' said Roque, who has exhorted the governments of the region to attack the fundamental problems that create and maintain poverty.
Greater investment in the rural sphere and more support for producers of basic foods are needed because of the vulnerability to the extremes in the climate, he said.
''We are not dreaming of having great luxuries, only that our families may live in more decent and comfortable conditions,'' Miguel Angel Figueroa, a Guatemalan peasant leader, told IPS.
Figueroa, who lives in Huehuetenango department, one of the poorest areas of Central America, said that for years political leaders have tried to hide the poverty of the peasant farmers.
''But now we have realized that we are suffering hunger like the people of Africa,'' said the community leader, who has organized his neighbors to provide what material support they can to the areas hit hardest by the drought.
Climate and nature have revealed the vulnerability of Central America, where there are two seasons: the dry season, from December to April, and the rainy season, from May to November.
Precipitation returned to its normal levels in August, but the Regional Committee for Water Resources, an institution of the Central American Integration System, maintains that the drought could recur in a more severe form in 2002.
''Next year we are expecting the arrival of the 'El Niño' phenomenon,'' and that, on top of the already accumulated problems, could lead to ''an even harsher drought,'' explained meteorologist Alvaro Brenes.
The phenomenon occurs every three to seven years as a result of warm currents shifting from the Pacific Ocean off Australia and Indonesia to the tropical latitudes of the Americas. The warm surface temperatures of the ocean alter the climate, triggering severe storms with heavy rainfall in some areas, and causing drought in others.
Hunger will reach greater proportions than they have this year if the region's governments do not take preventive action now, said Brenes.
* Néfer Muñoz is an IPS correspondent.