CAR

Central African Republic: Malnutrition blamed on diamonds

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Daniel Dickinson

Boda, Central African Republic, December 2009 - The one hundred or so people gathered for treatment at a feeding centre in the small town of Boda in the south-west of the Central African Republic have probably never seen a diamond, but their current fate is linked closely to this high value stone which is mined outside the town and sold on international markets.

All around the centre are the signs of acute malnutrition; young children with bloated bellies and reddened hair, mothers who are so emaciated they can barely walk. They are here to be treated with nutritional supplements in the hope that they will fully recover their health.

Mother of four, Marcelline Komia is twenty-three years old, but her body is so wasted that she could be mistaken for someone four times that age. She has been at this therapeutic feeding centre for the last two weeks with her two sick children, who are both under three years old.

'I knew something was wrong with my children as they were crying a lot, they weren't sleeping and they were ill.' Marcelline has travelled around 145 kilometres from her village to be treated, an indication of the lack of services available for people with malnutrition.

It is hard to imagine how malnutrition could become a problem in this part of Central African Republic. It has been caused neither by a natural disaster or conflict. The land is extremely fertile it receives plentiful rainfall and there are extensive virgin forests providing many different sources of food. There is also no regional conflict which frequently leads to displacement and communities no longer having access to food which inevitably causes malnutrition.

Dr Michel Yangakola who runs a local health centre, says acute malnutrition was first discovered in the area in 2007. 'We realised there was a problem when we carried out a vaccination programme and it came as a big surprise, but we then understood it was because many people had poor diets.'

The majority of people, like Marcelline Komia living in the south-west of CAR eat cassava as their staple food, which has little nutritional value. 'We have never grown or eaten anything else,' said Marcelline, 'and I don't know how to cultivate other crops.'

In the region's small markets, there are a broad variety of fruits and vegetables on sale; mangoes, sweet potatoes, avocados, spinach, which are all nutritionally beneficial. But these are not bought by people like Marcelline because they are either too expensive or because they are not used to eating them.

And then there is the diamond issue. For over 20 years the south-west of CAR has been a source of diamonds which are exported to markets across the world. A 33% drop in the price of the gemstone on international markets, following a fall in demand due to the harsher economic climate has coincided with a restructuring of the industry in CAR.

This, according to Dr Michel Yangakola has been driving malnutrition in the region. 'For two generations, the people here have lived off mining. Many farmers gave up working the land because it was more profitable to pan for diamonds. As a result,' he added, 'there is less food and a smaller range of crops being produced. When there is less food, people go hungry and get malnourished. Now, there is also less money in the community so even if food is available in the market, many people cannot afford it.'

There are a number of feeding centres in the region which are being financed by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department. The head of the CAR office Muriel Cornelis Said: 'We can make a direct link between the diamond buying habits of people in the richest cities in the developed world and malnutrition in small villages in one of the world's impoverished countries. We can do our best to treat malnutrition and save lives in the short-term, but ultimately what is needed is the broader-based development of this region.'

Marcelline and her children will stay in the feeding centre for perhaps another four weeks. She says she will return home to farm cassava. It is feared she might be back at the centre before long.