Issue of June, 09, 2002
  de uso

New Outbreaks of Hunger in Latin America
By Néfer Muñoz

Fourteen percent of the region's population does not have enough income to obtain the minimum amount of food to maintain health, experts are telling the leaders gathered for the World Food Summit this week in Rome.

SAN JOSE, (Tierramérica).- Sixty-two million people, 14 percent of the 516 million Latin American and Caribbean people, live in extreme poverty and suffer the consequences of hunger, reports the World Food Program (WFP).

Undernourishment affects 54 million, in rural and urban areas alike. Haiti, in the Caribbean, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in Central America, and Argentina, Colombia and Peru, in South America, are the countries confronting acute situations today, says the WFP.

In Guatemala, where the prolonged drought of 2001 wiped out harvests, 60,000 children are severely malnourished, and 6,000 are in danger of dying of hunger, while in Colombia and Peru, one of four people suffers from hunger.

Inequalities, economic decline in some countries, failed harvests, falling prices for certain export products like coffee and sugar, and natural disasters have worsened the food crisis in recent years, Francisco Roque, WFP director for Latin America and the Caribbean, told Tierramérica.

"It is a silent emergency, because the people living in extreme poverty do not die overnight, but represent a long-term problem," stated Roque, a Peruvian national.

"We drink máte (an infusion based on the máte leaf) and we endure the hunger, but the children cry themselves to sleep and in the morning they wake up, desperate for their milk," says Gladys Silva, 28, an Argentine mother of six and resident of the Buenos Aires district of La Matanza.

Silva and her husband are unemployed. He receives a state subsidy of 45 dollars monthly, less than a third of what is needed to feed the family.

In Argentina, a country that has been considered the "breadbasket of South America", half the population of 37 million lives in poverty, and 6.5 million people are indigent, although the numbers do not reflect the true scope of the food crisis.

The threat of hunger encompasses more than 200 million poor Latin American and Caribbean people, who are vulnerable to any deepening of economic problems or new natural disasters, the WFP's Roque stated.

In the 1990s, South America reduced the portion of its hungry population from 14 to 10 percent, while in Central America the incidence of malnutrition rose from 17 to 19 percent, and in the Caribbean from 26 to 28 percent in that decade, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

But South America's achievements in this area are only relative, given the precarious economic situation.

And the Americas are not a priority for international assistance. "Right now there is a great deal of attention on Afghanistan and Southern Africa. We have to make the international community realize that they must not ignore Latin America and the Caribbean," Roque said.

In addition to those countries that are experiencing acute food crises are those that face chronic problems related to hunger.

Of Mexico's 100 million people, for example, 40 million suffer some level of undernourishment. And four out of 10 children under age five are malnourished, reports the country's National Statistics Institute.

In the southern and southeastern states - Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Yucatan - 80 percent of the inhabitants experience hunger, according to the Salvador Zubirán National Nutrition Institute (ISZ).

Mexico has begun to manufacture foods using costly imported technology, but offers only a limited variety of inexpensive foods to cover the needs of the vast majority of its population, states the ISZ.

The daily diet of 40 percent of Mexicans is based on corn tortillas, viscera, beans and eggs, and 15 percent consume only tortilla, root vegetables and chilies.

In Brazil, government and civil society institutions do not agree on the true scope of the hunger phenomenon. According to official figures, 22 million of the country's 170 million people are affected by lack of food.

But the independent Brazilian Forum on Food Security says there are 44 million Brazilians who suffer hunger. This figure is "closer to the reality," Francisco Menezes, director of the Institute of Social and Economic Analysis, said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

An indication of this reality can be found at the Institute of Malnutrition Prevention (IPREDE), in Fortaleza, capital of the northeastern state of Ceará. There, 22 children are struggling to recover from moderate to severe malnutrition, evident in their sunken eyes, protruding bellies, short stature and weights registered at half what would be considered normal.

Malnutrition causes several serious physical and intellectual problems among children, but they are not necessarily irreversible, María Luisa Ageitos, an Argentine nutrition specialist told Tierramérica. "The only irreversible consequence is size," she said.

Flaviana Nogueira Duarte is now 19 months old. The Brazilian baby has been receiving care at IPREDE since Apr 17 for moderate malnutrition, flu and lack of appetite. She weighed 7.28 kg, 25 percent below the minimum for her height of 76 cm, which is also lower than normal for her age.

Her mother, unemployed and with only four years of schooling, has no income and gets by - with Flaviana and another daughter - thanks to help from her neighbors.

In Venezuela, 90 percent of households are unable to obtain what is considered the "basic food basket" of products, because the minimum monthly salary is 150 to 170 dollars a month, according to a study conducted in April by the Social Analysis Center of the Venezuelan Teachers' Federation.

"It is impossible for a family with only that income to afford the basic food basket," the center's president, Oscar Meza, told Tierramérica.

* Néfer Muñoz is an IPS correspondent, as are Pilar Franco/Mexico, Mario Osava/Brazil, Leda Piñero/Venezuela, and Marcela Valente/Argentina, who contributed to this report.

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