Drought Ravages Guatemala's Children
In Regional Food Crisis, Many Have Nowhere to Turn, 'Nothing Left to Share'
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
CAJON DEL RIO, Guatemala -- Central America's worst drought in more
than a decade has caused the deaths of more than 125 children in Guatemala,
hardest-hit country in a region in which thousands of lives are threatened by failing crops and spreading hunger, according to government officials and aid workers.
The drought has scorched huge swaths of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras
and Nicaragua since it began last year, killing off crops on which subsistence
rely to feed their families in isolated rural villages where life is hand-to-mouth in the best of times.
The region's problems are showing up most acutely in Guatemala, where
the government says that half of all children are chronically malnourished
and that 75 percent
of the country's 11 million people live in poverty. President Alfonso Portillo has said 80 percent of Guatemalans live "in misery."
The U.N. World Food Program will announce a $4.8 million emergency program
today to provide food for 60,000 malnourished Guatemalan children under
at least 6,000 of whom are in danger of dying. More than 125 infants and toddlers have already died from malnutrition in small communities like this one in the barren
hills near the border with Honduras, according to a count by the Guatemalan Health Ministry.
Jordan Dey, a spokesman for the World Food Program, said huge numbers
of poor people "have already exhausted their survival mechanisms" as the
lingered. "They've already eaten the few small farm animals they had; they've run out of seed; they've pulled their children from school to work; and food sharing
among families is no longer helpful, because there is nothing left to share," he said.
The Health Ministry recently conducted a study that found that more
than 80 percent of the population is malnourished in some of the worst-hit
principally in the eastern part of the country near Honduras. The health minister, Mario Rene Bolanos, said the government has established more than 60 emergency
feeding centers but that at least 100 are needed.
In another program established to combat the effects of the drought,
mothers bring their infants and toddlers to this village 100 miles east
of Guatemala City once a
month to be hoisted into a canvas sling and weighed. Nurses check weights against heights, trying to determine which of these skinny children are merely
malnourished and which are in danger of dying.
Two weeks ago, Alba Lidia Sanchez's year-old son developed diarrhea,
and three days later he died. He was one of five children in this hamlet
of 900 people who
have died in the past month. "He died so fast there was nothing I could do," Sanchez said, as her scrawny 2-year-old daughter clung to her dress.
Standing near her, Bernancia Hernandez, 44, cradled a newborn baby in
her arms. She said Ana was her 12th child; six of them died before they
were 3. Asked
how she carried on, Hernandez shrugged and smiled a sad smile that bared rotting stumps of teeth. "You just get used to it," she said.
In the sunny ward of the Bethania therapeutic feeding center, a clinic
for malnourished children in Jocotan, an hour's walk from Cajon del Rio,
17 children lay in
hospital beds. Belsy, age 2, had a belly the size of a beach ball, distended from hunger. Jose, who turned 5 in December, weighed less than 15 pounds. Norma, a
big-eyed 4-year-old, sat in a wheelchair and drew small, careful breaths. She weighed 18 pounds and had lungs damaged by tuberculosis. She needed an operation,
but her parents could not afford to feed her, let alone pay for surgery.
Gloria Calderon, a Catholic nun who oversees the center, said four children
had died in this hospital in recent months. But she said that number did
not begin to
describe the extent of the problem: "We don't see most of them," she said. "People prefer that their children die at home."
Neighboring countries are also seeing the effects of the drought, although
none reports hunger problems as severe as those in Guatemala. Costa Rica
the isthmus's southernmost countries, have largely been spared.
In Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, running water has been rationed;
people are buying water from tank trucks, according to Salvador Rodezno,
for the Honduran Embassy in Washington. Rodezno said more than a third of the country's 6 million residents have had crops or food supplies affected by the
Jorge Siman, an owner of the online newspaper El Faro in El Salvador,
said his country's harvests of corn, coffee and other crops last fall were
extremely weak. He
said impoverished farmers in the countryside, who are still reeling from two devastating earthquakes last year, are hoping that the effects of the drought will be broken
if the rainy season starts in May or June, as usual.
Since last summer, the World Food Program and other agencies have provided
emergency rations in Central America to more than 1 million families. That
them through the winter, but the midwinter corn crop failed again and there is little hope for harvests in the coming months.
Hurricane Mitch caused billions of dollars of damage to the region in
1998, killing thousands and leaving tens of thousands homeless. Since then
there have been
floods and mudslides made worse by desperate farmers clearing more land without regard to erosion. A global coffee glut has caused a crash in the crop's prices,
eliminating a chief source of jobs and income here.
The U.S. economic slowdown has also led to the loss of at least 200,000
"maquiladora" assembly plant jobs in the past year in Central America and
according to industry officials in Mexico. Factories that spin out clothes, plastic goods and electronics in Guatemala City and other Central American cities have been
a destination for some of the destitute in the countryside. Now those jobs are much harder to find.
At the same time, the Inter-American Development Bank and other groups
say the vital flow of cash sent to Central America from relatives in United
showed signs of slowing. Many Guatemalans and other Central Americans working in service and domestic jobs in the United States have lost their jobs or had their
hours cut, making it harder for them to send home money that is the chief source of income in many villages.
How wealthy countries can help poor countries out of these patterns
of poverty is the thrust of this week's U.N. Conference on Financing for
Monterrey, Mexico. All the Central American presidents are expected to attend. President Bush is also scheduled to meet with them in El Salvador after the
conference to discuss a proposed free trade agreement, immigration and development issues.
"By providing food and medicine, you aren't going to solve the problem;
you need to look at the root causes of the problem," said Dula C. James,
director of the
Guatemala office of Catholic Relief Services, which is feeding more than 3,200 families in the hills in the eastern part of the country.
At last month's weigh-in in this village, nurses told Rosario Garcia
that two of her three boys, William, 1, and Hector, 3, were both severely
malnourished. They said
both boys needed to go to the Bethania clinic for immediate care.
Garcia said that was too expensive. She said her husband earns less
than $2 a day working in fields in another village. And she said it would
cost her almost $3 to
take both of her children on the bus.
The nearest bus stop is about a 90-minute walk. She said neither of
her children could walk that far. She could not carry them both, she said,
so she decided to take
only her older boy.
At a subsequent weigh-in last week, her younger son was clearly still
suffering from severe malnutrition. The nurses tried to persuade her to
take him to the clinic right
away. She said again that it was too far and too expensive. And besides, she said, women here cannot make a decision like that without their husband's permission
and hers was not due back for six days.
The nurses pleaded. But Garcia kept shaking her head, talking about
how angry her husband would be. Finally she stood up, carrying William
in her arms and
ushering Hector along at her side. Without another word, she disappeared down the dirt path to her home, a half-hour's walk through the trees.