The Heat Is Online

Drought Leaves Guatemalan Children Acutely Malnourished

Malnourished to Get Help in Guatemala

The New York Times, March 20, 2002

GUATEMALA CITY, March 19 — With 126 children already dead from severe malnutrition since September and 6,000 more at risk of dying, the World Food Program today announced an emergency feeding project in dozens of rural Guatemalan villages battered by drought, unemployment and illness.

Parched soil last summer left thousands of subsistence farmers without crops to harvest or food reserves to carry them through the planting season. Their chances to supplement their income with day labor on coffee plantations also vanished as plummeting coffee prices on the international market forced planters to lay off 250,000 workers.

Guatemala already had the highest level of chronic malnutrition in Central America. The recent calamities have pushed it to the brink, aid officials said, with acute malnutrition quintupling since 1998 alone. Nearly 60,000 children under age 5 now suffer from acute malnutrition, and a tenth of them could perish any day from infections, parasites and dehydration, officials said.

"We have to address this now," said Francisco Roque, the Latin America director of the United Nations World Food Program. "The problem of children facing death you do not see in any other country of Latin America. It is an untenable situation."

The emergency project will help the government establish 41 feeding centers around the country, where critically ill children will be treated for months while their families receive food and education on health and sanitation. It will also provide for follow-up health examinations once the children are discharged.

Hunger has long haunted villages like San Cristóbal, a dusty, hilly hamlet in the eastern part of the country that has seen its harvests dwindle as the land became as exhausted as the people. Families living in adobe shacks have little to feed children but beans and sometimes a thin drink brewed from charred tortillas and sugar water. It takes a full day for people to trek to a spring to carry back jugs of water.

A government program to provide villages with fertilizer never helped Andrés Márquez, a teenage farmer who now relies on what little savings he has to buy potatoes and chicken for his family. Without fertilizers, he has little hope of coaxing anything from the unforgiving soil.

"Before I went with my father into the fields and we could harvest," he said. "The land is tired now, and the harvests are not the same."

Many of the children here are shorter and thinner than they should be for their age. Often, their parents are no better off.

"Three of my children died from malnutrition," Luisa Vásquez García said. "I couldn't produce enough milk for them. We have suffered a lot."

Like many of the worst off of San Cristóbal, she sent one of her daughters to a feeding center run by a religious order in the village of Sanixtán, one of the organizations that will be helped by the emergency program. Children come to the center with faces covered with sores and ribs visible under thin, raglike skin.

Getting children admitted can be as daunting as treating them, because of cultural barriers. Some parents fear that their children are only being fattened in preparation to be snatched away for adoption. Others worry that they will be considered failures for not being able to take care of their children.

"They think it is only a passing thing," said Sister María Revolorio, who often has the job of persuading parents. "They think it is a bad spirit that can be taken away with some water from a healer. It is only when we tell them their child will die in a month that they agree to send him here."

The emergency in Guatemala surprised aid officials. The country enjoys a higher per capita income than Honduras or Nicaragua, which also have been hurt by drought and low coffee prices. But Guatemala's history of greater income disparities, between the upper classes and the rural indigenous population, made the effects of negative economic factors much more devastating.

Mr. Roque of the World Food Program said his organization was preparing a study for the hardest-hit Central American nations, hoping to persuade governments to go beyond seeking one-time emergency aid and to begin providing rural irrigation systems and land to the poor.

"How can you talk about development when you have to put out fires like this?" he said. "You have to invest in people. Investing in education and health is not throwing away money. It will pay off. But that is not understood yet."

The need for more permanent solutions is apparent to the workers at the Sanixtán feeding center. Too often, the progress they make in treating children is undone when the children return to the village, where families do not have enough to eat. Some children have been readmitted to the clinic two or three times.

"The frustrating thing is when we give them back," said Dr. Aura Reyes, the center's medical director. "I see children totally abandoned, malnourished and with all sorts of parasites."

The center is now awaiting donated food and medicine to send doctors out to canvass villages. Dr. Reyes wonders if the donations will come in time to find a child she saw in a past visit who was named after someone famed for his appetite.

"He is called Bill Clinton Vásquez," she said. "And he was malnourished, too."