- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2001

GUATEMALA CITY — Two toddlers with swollen bellies cry on the dirt floor of Anacleta Oloroso's shack.
She clutches her bony baby and tells how she and her nine children have been eating only plants and unripe corn since they lost their crop.
"It never rained and the corn didn't grow, so we have nothing to eat," said the 36-year-old Chorti Indian in sweltering Chiquimula province, about 140 miles from Guatemala City. Even the pig rummaging in the dry dirt outside is starving, skin taut on its ribs.
In what officials are calling the worst disaster since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, a summer drought has left hundreds of thousands of Central American farmers buried in debt while dozens of children have already starved to death.
The rains are too late, and farmers can find little work beyond their barren fields since all-time-low international coffee prices shut down scores of plantations.
At least 50 malnutrition deaths, many of them children, have been reported in the area along Guatemala's border with Honduras. In Chiquimula province, the town of Camotan alone has reported 41 deaths in the past eight months, and doctors say malnutrition is to blame for many other deaths where the cause is listed as "headache" or something else.
According to the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), more than 1.5 million people in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador have been affected by the drought, nearly 700,000 of them farmers who lost half to all of their crops.
The governments of Honduras and Guatemala have declared emergencies, and aid groups say they are running out of food for the needy.
"After Mitch, two years of scarce rain and the coffee crisis, these people are wiped out — they don't have the resources to weather this situation," said Olga Moraga, regional WFP spokeswoman in Managua, Nicaragua.
Desperate farmers are abandoning their parched land in search of other work, but few are finding any.
"There isn't much work, and when people return from looking, they are even worse off after walking for days without food," said Abraham Lopez, a farmer in Chiquimula, Guatemala, where 80 percent of the corn crop was lost.
Miss Moraga said the WFP is distributing food to more than 360,000 people in the region, but nearly 700,000 need food assistance. The agency appealed for international donations of 16,500 tons of food but received just 4,800 — only enough for a month.
Officials say desperation in the countryside is causing many people to migrate to urban areas, where most live in shantytowns and toil as vendors or beg.
Others have fled northward into Mexico, which — in a sad irony — deported 100,000 Central Americans in the first six months of this year as President Vicente Fox tries to improve the lot of Mexican illegal immigrants in the United States.
Those who remain in their villages are falling ill. Five children died of malnutrition in the past two months at one clinic in Chiquimula.
"That's just a reflection of what's happening in the communities — we don't know how many have died outside," said Dr. Carlos Arriola, the clinic director. "The ones who stay here are helped out of the crisis, but when they go back home, they're in the same situation."
Dr. Arriola said malnutrition is not new in Chiquimula, where more than 85 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty.
The 36 children in the clinic are receiving 30-day treatments for severe malnutrition, their frail, bony bodies covered with running sores from protein deficiency.
Aid workers in Nicaragua say people there are eating a fruit normally fed to pigs that causes diarrhea and vomiting when consumed by humans.
While people across Central America are scavenging for bananas, mangos and even leaves to stay alive, politicians are using the crisis as an opportunity to press agendas and criticize enemies.
In Nicaragua, where the presidential campaign is under way for November elections, departing President Arnoldo Aleman denied there is a famine and said the drought was punishment for supporters of the opposition Sandinistas.
Guatemala is not close to holding elections, but the drought has become the center of a bitter political debate nonetheless.
After newspapers called attention to severe malnutrition in Chiquimula, the private sector organized efforts to distribute food and medical supplies there.
But Vice President Francisco Reyes Lopez criticized the relief efforts, bringing up a dispute between the government and private sector over recent tax increases.
Local newspapers reported that he called aid efforts "a show," and insisted that the business sector "should just pay its taxes instead."
The comments sparked angry responses from the public and business interests, who said Mr. Reyes should be calling for solidarity.
"The governments, civil society, international agencies and [nongovernmental organizations] need to develop joint actions to invest in works affecting the food security of those who are most vulnerable," said Francisco Roque Castro, director of the WFP in Latin America.
In the meantime, farmers across the region look at their dry fields and hope for a better harvest in November.
"I have one meal a day — sometimes just water with a little coffee," said Mr. Lopez amid his waist-high corn stalks. "Other days, only God helps us."

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