Food crisis in Guatemala

By Chris Hufstader
An indigenous family's meager corn supply will probably not last until the next harvest.

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It is harvest time on the steep hills above the Chixoy river, but many families in the surrounding communities may not have enough food to last the winter.“We haven’t thought what we will do next month when we are out of food,” says Francisca Morente, 36. The family planted corn and beans twice, and both plantings largely failed, leaving her and her extended family with just a small amount of corn for the winter.

In a survey of the area in mid-October, Oxfam staff reported that many families had lost 80 to 100 percent of their harvest this year.

“There’s no food in this community,” Francisca’s aunt Margarita Rosales, 54, says.

Chronic food shortage

Lack of rain in Guatemala has reduced harvests this year, pushing up food prices in stores and creating a crisis in poor communities. The government declared a food emergency in September.

Malnutrition and chronic food shortages are not unusual in Guatemala. Lack of investment in small-scale agriculture has reduced food production over the years, and the country now has the highest rate of malnutrition among children under five in Latin America: nearly 50 percent, according to the World Food Programme. The malnutrition rate for indigenous children is higher; close to 70 percent. The Famine Early Warning System warns that 350,000 families in Guatemala are at risk this year, especially in the south, east, and central regions of Guatemala’s “dry corridor."

Many men will finish their harvest and migrate to coffee- or sugar-cane producing parts of the country to work on large plantations to earn extra money. This year such income will be more crucial than ever, for farmers in Baja Verpaz, in central Guatemala.

“We would like people to have more options than just migration,” says Gloria Gonzalez, who works with the Association of Community Health Services, known by its Spanish initials ASECSA. Oxfam is working with ASECSA and the Training Institute for Sustainable Development (IEPADES) to help farmers in Baja Verapaz survive the coming winter. Oxfam is helping these organizations in the following areas.

  • Family gardens: seeds and tools to help families grow winter vegetables to improve their nutrition.
  • Veterinary medicine and feed to raise chickens, pigs, and ducks.
  • Traditional agriculture: help farmers produce their own organic fertilizer and insecticides and select native seeds, to help reduce costs and increase production of corn, beans, peanuts, and other food crops.
  • Training health promoters to provide nutritional counseling for families with young children, to improve diets and reduce child mortality.
  • Community service: cash for work on local infrastructure like irrigation systems, production of organic fertilizer, and other ways to improve the community and increase the sustainability of local agriculture.

Oxfam is committing $269,000 to the project, which will assist nearly one thousand families in Baja Verapaz.