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Guatemala: helping rural indigenous communities tackle malnutrition

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Story by Daniele Pagani, Regional Information Officer for Latin America and the Caribbean, DG ECHO.

The town of Chiquimula lies nested in Guatemala's midland, a largely indigenous area where life mostly revolves around agriculture.

At first sight, one would assume that the abundance of greenery signals a place rich in water, with fertile soils and abundant harvests. On the contrary, the story of these lands is one of droughts, hunger and malnutrition.

“We sow our plants every year, but when the time of flowering comes, droughts dry them up and kill them,” says 59-year-old farmer Mariano. Every year, local farmers plant their seeds and see the plants grow only to die in front of their eyes when the harvest time comes.

The rare yields they manage to collect are meagre and nowhere near enough. “We are going through hard times. It's been 4 or 5 years, if not more, that it hasn’t rained,” says Mariano.

Guatemala is one of the countries of the Dry Corridor, a 1,600-kilometre arid stripe of land running along Central America’s Pacific Coast, from Southern Mexico to Costa Rica. For more than 10 million people living in these harsh lands, hunger, poverty and malnutrition are an everyday reality.

“The humanitarian needs in this region are significant: around 4.4 million persons are food insecure. Within the Dry Corridor, Guatemala has the highest index of acute malnutrition in children under 5,” says Liesbeth Schockaert, Technical Assistant for Central America and Mexico at the EU’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.

Struggling to make ends meet

Since 2015, recurrent droughts and lack of rainfall have made water resources scarce, killing livestock and destroying crops, making it almost impossible to harvest regularly. In Guatemala alone, more than 3 million people are at risk of acute malnutrition, forced to eat only once a day to survive.

The coronavirus further aggravates the situation. “There is neither corn nor beans to sell, nothing we can earn money from,” says Mariano. When the harvest is good, communities can work the fields and earn daily wages, as well as sell the vegetables they do not need.

The only way Mariano has to earn money for food is to walk 6 hours a day to cut wood he can sell in the village. A lot of hard work what amounts to little over €1 per week.

Years of below-average rainfall made the soil so poor in nutrients that hunger has become chronic and seasonal in the Dry Corridor. It peaks every year when food stocks from the previous harvest – if there were any at all – become depleted, but the new crops are not ready yet. Lack of rain in these months means the new yields will never ripe, and people will have nothing to eat.

The unforgiving cycle of hunger, the worsening climate conditions, combined with pervasive violence and reduced access to healthcare services and education, are among the reasons why Guatemalans leave their homes and families behind and go north, hoping to make it to the United States.

In the last years, hundreds of thousands have tried. They spend all their savings to pay smugglers who would supposedly help them cross the borders. Their journey is made up of violence and extortion. Many of them die or are forcibly repatriated. Sometimes, those who can make it end up in the grip of poverty, homeless on the streets of cities far away from home.

Children: the most vulnerable

The situation affects entire communities, but children are the hardest hit. “My child’s health kept getting worse. I sent him for treatment, but he struggled to get better,” says Rosa Elvira, Mariano’s daughter. When her son Axel was barely 2, he had to be urgently hospitalised for 40 days due to acute malnutrition.

“He was all swollen. His mouth was covered in blisters,” recalls Rosa Elvira. “He was not moving, like if he was paralysed.” For more than 3 months, Axel had been surviving on 1 tortilla with a pinch of salt a day, a snack with nearly the same calories of a bite of a croissant.

The World Food Program estimates that, in Guatemala, almost every second child under 5 (46.5%) suffers from malnutrition. The country has the highest prevalence of stunting among children under 5 in Latin America and the Caribbean and one of the highest in the world.

Along with stunting, there are other long-term – and mostly irreversible – consequences to children’s growth and particularly on their immunity system. Children who cannot access proper nutrition in the first years of their lives will be always more prone and exposed to chronic and severe diseases.

The additional burden of coronavirus

The situation in Guatemala is getting worse. In the first months of 2020, the country registered almost 10,000 cases of acute malnutrition, an increase of 79.4% comparing to the same period in 2019.

The coronavirus came as an additional layer of difficulty. Lockdown measures have brought the local economy to a halt. “The worst thing is that men can’t go to work. They suffer and the entire community has no work. We have nothing and there is no money,” says Rosa Elvira.

"People living in a situation of poverty are suffering disproportionately both from the impact of droughts and the coronavirus,” says Iván Aguilar, OXFAM’s humanitarian coordinator in Guatemala.

The European Union funds humanitarian interventions to fight hunger and support the most vulnerable and marginalised households living in Central America’s Dry Corridor.

In Guatemala, the EU funds its humanitarian partner OXFAM to reach the most affected communities and bring life-saving food and nutrition assistance, despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

During a week, more than 5,000 people take turns to reach an outdoor football pitch large enough to ensure that they can receive food kits while respecting physical distancing norms to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission.

People of all ages come from neighbouring villages and wear their finest dresses for the occasion. Families receive enough corn, sugar, beans, flour, and oil to ensure every member of their families can eat 2,100 calories a day for 4 months. Rosa Elvira’s family is among these beneficiaries.

“While these life-saving humanitarian interventions are crucial for the most affected individuals, the European Union is ensuring their integration in other medium – and long – term efforts which try to tackle the root causes of the problem,” says Liesbeth Schockaert, Technical Assistant for Central America and Mexico at the EU’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.

Defeating global hunger is among the European Union’s top global priorities. Whatever it takes.

Last updated 02/12/2020