- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Central America's worst drought in 20 years is baking the countryside, multiplying cases of malnutrition and causing campesinos to leave the land and migrate to surrounding countries and in some cases to the United States in search of relief.

With humanitarian aid evaporating like a puddle in the Nicaraguan heat, many are starving.

"The drought showed the country just how grave problems of malnutrition were. When the funding is gone and the aid from the drought stops, the people will go back to dying, with few outsiders noticing," said Kevin Mendez, head of a Guatemalan food-distribution center.

A month ago, Nicaraguan officials reported that 25 deaths 11 of them children were attributed to malnutrition. The deaths occurred in Matagalpa province, some 80 miles north of the capital, Managua, during the first nine months of this year.

In Guatemala, the World Food Program (WFP) estimated that 125 infants died last year because of malnutrition; unofficial numbers put the death toll twice as high. Ingenio de Guaraquiche, a village of 900 people, experienced 40 malnutrition deaths last year, villagers said.

Neither El Salvador nor Honduras has issued official numbers or estimates of drought or malnutrition-related deaths last year.

In addition to the drought, the collapse of the international coffee market pushed many peasants into unemployment and hunger and drove them off the land in search of other work.

"Although the most acute case is Guatemala, all four Central American nations are suffering from the combined complications of severe economic recession and malnutrition, which are preventing substantial recovery," said Manuel Orozco, an Inter-American Dialogue analyst who returned from that country in October.

A September WFP report says 8.6 million people in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador face unemployment, poverty and hunger. Children and indigenous groups have been hit the hardest.

"The food-security situation of families in the drought corridor is precarious, and each consecutive shock affects the consumption and nutrition patterns of affected families," said the WFP.

Its statistics indicate that chronic malnutrition affects about half of Guatemala's children younger than 5. In Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, 38 percent, 33 percent and 23 percent, respectively, of children younger than 5 are malnourished.

El Nino, which has brought drought, and 1998's Hurricane Mitch, with its accompanying floods and landslides, also are responsible for the malnutrition. El Nino is characterized by a large-scale weakening of the trade winds and warming of the surface layers in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean.

International institutions such as the United Nations, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, the Inter-American Development Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have provided large amounts of aid to the region.

Between September 2001 and August 2002, USAID gave $22 million in short-term emergency drought relief, which focused on food shortfalls, malnutrition and low coffee prices.

Vicky Gass of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) cited three main causes for the crisis: "The overdependence on cash crops, erroneous structural adjustment policies of international loan agencies, and the loss of jobs have all increased malnutrition."

A WFP report in September analyzed the impact of natural disasters on Central America and outlined the consequences for the millions of people suffering. Also addressed was how the governments' limited resources were one of the main reasons why this drought had such a large impact.

El Nino generally is blamed for the recent increase of severe drought. The average extent of drought in the four countries affected was slightly less than 5 percent of farm acreage in 1998, but this number rose to about 25 percent last year.

The coffee-market collapse destroyed the main source of income for most farmers. Bananas and coffee are the main cash crops in the region.

In Nicaragua's Matagalpa province, low coffee prices are blamed for the loss of about 30,000 jobs this year.

"The flood of Vietnam coffee has had a crippling effect on the international market, which in turn has forced many of our farmers to unemployment, poverty and starvation," said Lionel Maza, charge d'affaires at the Guatemalan Embassy.

The drought has depleted the region's crops, employment and income, livestock and land. An estimated $189 million was lost in coffee, corn, rice, beans and sorghum. Rural families have switched to crops that bring in less money or have turned to other occupations.

Families have abandoned their land in search of opportunities in neighboring countries or the United States. The migration has depopulated communities, further damaging the chances of recovery.

However, if they find jobs in the United States, migrants are able to send money back to their families, which now accounts for a significant part of gross national product (GNP) in the region. Last year, for example, remittances from workers in the United States accounted for 13 percent of El Salvador's GNP.

The Honduran Ministry of Natural Resources estimated that 144,409 metric tons of food was lost to the drought last year.

As poverty rises, so does the crime rate. Kidnappings, armed robberies and drug trafficking have increased significantly in the region, national statistics show.

At the peak of last year's drought, Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo declared a disaster in Chiquimula, El Progreso, Izabal and Zacapa the hardest-hit regions.

"This problem of severe drought has been around for decades in this region. But the recent effects of [weather shifts] and sinking coffee prices have further complicated the issue," said Mr. Maza of the Guatemalan Embassy.

While Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, agreed with reports that recent malnutrition and poverty were a result of shifting weather patterns, he said restrictions imposed by international donors on poor countries had increased the hardship.

"Once the IMF and the World Bank loosen their grip on these governments, we will begin to see more effective solutions come further in the fight to eliminate poverty and malnutrition," said Mr. Birns.

As droughts persist and international donations dwindle, many Central Americans and their governmental officials are wondering, what, if anything, can be done.

Like Mr. Birns, Miss Gass of WOLA agrees that few options remain unless aid programs are restructured. "These aid institutions are shortsighted and don't look for long-term solutions. As long as their programs focus only on economic growth through neo-liberal reforms, these countries will remain indebted and vulnerable," she said.

"Once the aid programs are implemented, they have to ensure that the communities are active and have a voice, and are not just manipulated by aid money supplied to them. This would increase the chances of recovery," added Miss Gass.

In response to this criticism, a USAID official said: "Our basic intention is to involve the community and create self-sufficiency for the future from the bottom up, but nothing is perfect."

The WFP report said in general that the region has to increase irrigation, reforestation, income-generating initiatives, development and skills training to be able to withstand the drought and continue the recovery.

A lack of resources and the uncertainties of aid have led Central American governments to try to help themselves. Each country has undertaken social and economic programs to lessen the impact of the drought and malnutrition.

Speaking about Guatemala's programs, Mr. Maza said: "Our government has implemented several successful programs, which aim to make the rural communities more self-sustainable as future droughts are certain. And now more than 5 percent of Guatemala's GNP is being channeled to the health and social sectors to help."

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