Central Americans in need
1.6 million face hunger after crops fail amid drought
The Boston Globe, Oct. 3, 2001
JOCOTAN, Guatemala - Hundreds of Maya Indians begged for food in eastern Guatemala yesterday as nurses tended emaciated children suffering from malnutrition caused by a drought that has hit parts of Central America At a crossroads near the Guatemalan town of Jocotan, one of the areas hardest hit by the famine, some 200 impoverished Chorti Indians - including dozens of children - swarmed reporters, pleading for help.
Massive crop failures caused by three months without enough rain have meant that an estimated 1.6 million peasants in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are going hungry. The rains finally came, but too late to save this year's crops.
The United Nations World Food Program, or WFP, has distributed 1,160 metric tons of food in Guatemala alone.
But program representatives fear donations to Central America may ebb as a refugee crisis unfolds in Afghanistan.
''Without help from the international community the situation is going to get far worse very soon,'' Guatemala's WFP representative Dorte Ellehammer said.
The WFP says nine of Guatemala's 22 departments need food aid as a result of the drought.
The hardest-hit areas in Guatemala are Jocotan, Camotan, and Olopa, on the border with Honduras, where more than 50 people have died so far this year.
According to WFP officials, many of the Mayan Chorti Indians starving in hills around Jocotan suffer from ''chronic malnutrition'' - they were born malnourished.
In the single-story Bethania hospital in Jocotan, hunger-related illnesses have claimed the lives of nine children since January, four in the past month alone.
Nurses fed a breakfast of donated beans and corn to 51 children yesterday. All had emaciated legs and arms, bleeding sores, and bloated stomachs - signs of severe malnutrition. Few had enough energy to feed themselves.
Little more than a tiny bundle of skin, bones, and swollen joints, 2-month-old Carmen Perez could barely open her eyes as she lay on her back in a cot.
The baby, whose malnourished mother died giving birth, screwed up her emaciated face as if to cry but managed only a faint squeak.
Nurses said a 1-year-old girl who had arrived in a similar state died last Friday after her limbs began to swell - an often fatal sign of severe protein deficiency.
Crop failures and low international prices for coffee, Guatemala's main export, mean that most of the hospital's patients will return home simply to more grinding poverty.
The WFP's Ellehammer said emergency aid would do little more than scratch the surface, adding it was up to the Guatemalan government to attack the roots of the crisis through long-term agricultural assistance.
The medium-term fortunes of farmers around Jocotan meanwhile depend on whether they can take advantage of rains now falling and plant donated seed for a new harvest.
One farmer taking up the challenge, Chorti Indian Umberto Lorenzo, 65, scattered corn seeds among withered, atrophied cobs on a near vertical roadside plot yesterday.
''We're planting again and crossing our fingers,'' he said.
This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on