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From the January 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 1)

Central America

Silent Famine


Robert Taylor
World Press Review contributing editor

Worsening food shortages after a succession of poor harvests caused by severe drought conditions over the past three years have pushed rural populations across a broad swath of Central America to the brink of starvation, regional commentators warn.

“In what officials call the worst disaster since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, a summer drought destroyed crops across Central America and left thousands of farmers awash in debt and famine,” Megan Feldman reported in the Lima-based Latinamerica Press (Nov. 6). “The rains came too late, and farmers can find little work outside their fields since low coffee prices shut down scores of plantations.”

Blanche Petrich, correspondent for Mexico City’s La Jornada (Oct. 3), observed in a series of reports from Guatemala that “what is devastating Central America technically is not a ‘famine,’ the term that the experts use for the complete absence of foods in a region....From eastern Guatemala, across Honduras and El Salvador and all the way to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, the starving wander through well-stocked markets and beg alms along the roadside,” Petrich reported. About one-quarter of all municipalities in the region currently suffer high rates of “chronic malnutrition,” she writes, 60 percent in Guatemala alone.

The United Nations’ World Food Program issued an urgent appeal in August for mobilization of emergency grain shipments to Central America to assist an estimated 700,000 people at risk of imminent starvation this winter, but Petrich wrote (Oct. 6) that shipments prior to Sept. 11 had “covered less than one-third of the grain reserves considered as the ‘minimum required’ to meet the food emergency in Central America.”

The abrupt refocusing of international assistance programs to address looming food shortages in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are bound to have “a negative impact on the flow of aid to Central America” in the near term, relief specialist Roque Castro told Petrich. But Castro expressed confidence “that if we bring evidence of this crisis to public atttention, the emergency that exists here will return to the focus of international attention.”

Emergency food assistance may come too late for thousands of campesino households in the Guatemalan interior who lost most or all of their spring plantings of corn, a critical staple in the diet of the rural population. “In most towns it will have a domino effect,” Petrich wrote in La Jornada (Oct. 3), “because the collapse in campesino savings also left nothing for seed to plant beans or for the winter (corn) cycle. In other words, this is not a short-term food crisis; rather, as virtually all the experts emphasize..., it is only the beginning.”

Following torrential rains and widespread flooding in late October that wrought further devastation, La Prensa of San Pedro Sula (Nov. 1) cautioned Hondurans that they cannot depend on an outpouring of international support similar to the relief effort mobilized in the wake of Hurricane Mitch three years ago.

“Rather than feeling weak and discouraged...and complaining as if to hide our negligence and incapacity, the situation is highly favorable to realize...our human resources that have proved on other occasions to be equal to our needs,” La Prensa affirmed.

Prensa Libre of Guatemala City (Oct. 31) observed in an editorial that a public meeting in late October of Guatemalan government ministers with international agency representatives represented a useful first step toward addressing “the pauperization that affects a steadily growing percentage of residents.”

“What is most important,” the paper said, “is to have recognized not only the existence of levels of poverty comparable to those of Bangladesh and Mozambique, but the fact that it is impossible for the country and the government to attack the problem without help.”


 
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