Guatemalan Red Cross programme aims to boost first 2002 harvests in vulnerable areas

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Cecilio Martínez in Guatemala City
The food distribution programme led by the Guatemalan Red Cross (GRC) - in a joint effort with the Federation, the Spanish and American Red Cross, the Guatemalan agriculture ministry, the World Food Programme and UNICEF - continues providing support to the most needy people in the country. The Central American food crisis that started last June is still a problem in many areas. There are an estimated 1.5 million people affected by drought in the Central American region, according to the WFP, while 10% of the nearly 700,000 people facing "critical food security problems" live in Guatemala.

Several factors combined to create this level of malnutrition in a region not normally associated with acute food shortages: a sharp fall in the price of coffee; an equally abrupt rise in unemployment and poverty; the deadly partnership between drought and flash foods that led to entire harvests in many areas being written off; and the undermining of many of Central America's poppy farms by debt and low international prices.

To make matters worse still two Atlantic season hurricanes, Iris and Michelle, last year swept across the already vulnerable region, particularly affecting coastal areas of Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. Iris was the worst storm to hit the Central American isthmus since Mitch in 1998. About 5000 people living on Guatemala's short Caribbean coastline had to be evacuated.

Now a joint assessment by WFP, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization in Guatemala has confirmed "serious food deficits" in the western Guatemalan departments of Chiquimula, El Progreso, Baja Verapaz and Jalapa. Five months after the Guatemalan government declared a 30-day state of emergency over mounting food shortages, the condition of people living with malnutrition still gives rise to concern. In early September, 41 children died of malnutrition in two municipalities of Chiquimula department north-east of the capital. At that time there had been little or no rain since May. Recent nutritional assessments identified 865 children as suffering from "moderate malnutrition" in one of those municipalities, Jocotán, and nearly 260 others as "severely malnourished."

Since last August the Guatemalan Red Cross has been maintaining a food pipeline to the areas worst affected by shortages, led in the early months by the GRC's damas voluntarias (female volunteers). In the special volunteer campaign known as the Chain of Solidarity basic foodstuffs such as maize, beans, sugar, salt and oil have been distributed in Chiquimula.

This agricultural programme is aimed at the most vulnerable communities of Jocotán and includes more than 10 tons of high-quality bean seed and more than 90 tons of fertilizer. The goal is to reinvigorate agriculture and boost harvests in the first quarter of this year.

An estimated total of 17,000 people will benefit from current distributions.

In the first phase of the programme which finished at the end of last year, each family got 132 pounds of maize, 13 pounds of green beans and 5 litre of oil. But it is not just a handout: Red Cross volunteers engage in training activities for women and community leaders about various relevant topics like the best use of local nutrients,soil management, health measures and disaster preparedness.

All this work is supported by the International Federation and by the American and Spanish Red Cross Societies, both of which are especially active in the region.