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7,000,000 go hungry in C.A. (UN report)

United Nations World Food Program Report

Vol. VIII, No. 1 - San José, Costa Rica, January 4, 2002

Report: 7 Million Central Americans Hungry
By Néfer Múñoz
Inter-Press Service
SAN JOSE – The basic dietary needs of nearly 7 million people in Central America, a region of 36 million, go unmet, reported the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP).

The director of the WFP for Latin America and the Caribbean, Peruvian expert Francisco Roque, told IPS that around 7 million people can’t afford to eat the necessary minimum of 2,200 calories a day, equivalent to two simple meals a day of rice, beans, a corn tortilla and a cup of coffee with sugar.

Hunger is especially acute in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala.

Poverty affects at least 50 percent of the inhabitants of most of the countries of Central America. In Costa Rica, approximately 20 percent of the population fails to meet its minimum needs.

On the average, 2001 has been a worrisome year in terms of food security in Central America, which has been hit hard by drought and famine, said Roque.

"At a time when conflicts in the Middle East are concentrating the world’s attention, the international community must not abandon Central America to its own devices," he insisted. "There are already chronically hungry people in the region, and our projections indicate that 2002 will be no better for most malnourished people."

This year, drought affected thousands of campesino families, especially from June-August, leading to huge losses in the first of Central America’s two annual harvests. Having lost their first harvest, thousands of farmers were unable to afford seeds for the second planting season.

The WFP, which estimates that 1 million people were hit by the drought, provided direct food aid to 300,000 people.

The area hit hardest by drought and famine was the department of Chiquimula in eastern Guatemala, where a number of starvation deaths were reported. The worst-hit districts were Jocotán, Camotán and Olopa, three municipalities which, ironically, carry indigenous names for three local food products.

The Forum for Guatemala, a network of civil society organizations, warned that if authorities failed to act, the famine could expand and threaten as many as 100,000 Guatemalans.

Roque said the WFP had food stocks to assist another 300,000 people, but only for two weeks, if drought swept the region again next year.

Costa Rican meteorologist Alvaro Brenes told IPS that "the toughest years are generally those which present drought or heavy rainfall," and this year suffered both extremes.

Months of drought contrasted with excess rain that caused flooding in November, when Hurricane Michelle passed through the region.

"Based on what we saw this year, we estimate that the dry season will be very dry over the next five years," said Brenes, who works with the Regional Committee of Hydrologic Resources, part of the Central American Integration System.

Another major problem this year were the two earthquakes, registering 7.6 and 6.6 on the Richter Scale, that hit El Salvador on Jan 13 and Feb 13. The quakes claimed 1,259 lives, left 8,964 wounded and 1.5 million homeless, and caused an estimated $1.6 billion in material losses.

"It was as if the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had been dropped on us," Julio Gamero, the vice-president of El Salvador’s single-chamber parliament, told IPS.

Experts say it will take years for El Salvador to recover, which puts the poor at even greater risk if drought occurs again next year.

José Luis Sandino, a sociologist working on development projects in Estelí, in northern Nicaragua, told IPS that the famine plaguing the region was the result of poorly-designed government policies.

"Structural adjustment programs have left farmers at the mercy of two hands: the invisible hand of the market and the hand of some charitable (person) who wants to help them," said Sandino.



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