Page last updated at 16:30 GMT, Thursday, 17 September 2009 17:30 UK

Diary: Guatemala food crisis

A mother holds her daughter, who suffers from malnutrition, at a hospital in Jalapa, Guatemala, 10 September 2009
Children in eastern areas of the country are suffering from malnutrition

Guatemala has been hit by severe food shortages, with some 54,000 families living in the east of the country facing a critical situation.

President Alvaro Colom last week declared a "state of public calamity" to try to mobilise funding to tackle severe food shortages in the country.

Lida Escobar is a field monitor for the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) in Guatemala. She has been sending her experiences on the situation there to

Yimi Mandredo Roman Cruz
Yimi was admitted to hospital for acute malnutrition

Yimi Manfredo Roman Cruz is 16 months old. He comes from Santa Maria Shalapan in Jalapa. He was admitted to the Jalapa hospital for acute malnutrition and bronchial pneumonia. He couldn't even keep his head straight.

His mother Delia is 26 years old. She has another child and is now a widow. She has to abandon him at the hospital to go back home. She collects firewood and then sells it to buy food for her children.

Yimi has now recovered from the bronchial pneumonia, and his psychomotor movements have improved. Unfortunately, he will have to leave the hospital and go back home. This hospital has no resources to maintain and feed the children, and the recuperation could take two or three months.

Children like Yimi have to return to their communities and we often wonder what will happen to them, as they have no food at home. I am sure they will have to go back to hospital.

The hospital will refer these children to the "Front against hunger", a programme which is run by the government and civil organisations with the support of the World Food Programme. They give families corn, beans, flour, oil and sugar. But the aid only covers 50% of the needs.

When doctors tell the children it's time to go home, some of them reply "but what are we going to eat at home?". The conditions to get food have deteriorated, whole crops have been lost and there are no jobs.

No jobs

Lida Escobar (R) talking to Delia, who is holding her son Yimi
Delia collects firewood to buy food for her children

I am an agronomic engineer and my personal opinion is that the causes of the current crisis are not limited to the drought and the food scarcity. In some cases, corn and beans are available but there is no money to buy food. Some of the women couldn't afford to buy food to store for the future. And even if they did, sometimes they had to sell it because they didn't have any money.

There aren't enough jobs around. In the past, people could work in agriculture. But the prices of fertilisers and agricultural supplies have gone up and people can't buy them. Some farmers are now working in the big coffee growing fields in neighbouring Honduras.

The largest harvest happens around October and November. In the maize fields, the stalks are broken in a process called "doblada". This is done so that the corn dries before the harvest. The problem with this is that the corncob is smaller and will have less weight.

Some families have a piece of land to cultivate subsistence crops, and some have to rent the land. They have to pay around US$50 per hectare (2.5 acres).

Farmers need more support in the medium and long term so that they can improve their income and their families can have a better life.

I often wonder what is happening to the mothers and fathers. We find mothers who have 14 children, and teenage mothers who are 12 and 14 years old. Some times they say to us "each child comes with a loaf of bread under their arm".

It's an education problem. Doctors and nurses talk about family planning, but couples don't practice it because of their beliefs.


In the eastern city of Jalapa I was astonished by what I saw.

There were many many children with severe malnutrition problems.

We found 22 children with marasmus and kwashiorkor [two nutrient deficiency diseases] in the hospital.

Lida Escobar (L) handing out food to a mother and child (Pic: WFP)
Lida Escobar has visited some of the areas worst affected by the crisis
Kwashiorkor is a type of malnutrition in which the children swell because they retain liquids because of protein deficiency.

Their hair can also become discoloured and they develop some skin lesions.

Marasmus is another form of malnutrition in which the skin barely covers the bones because of a protein and calories deficiency.

The children become very thin, lose hair and can become very irritable.

In Jalapa, the children are not only suffering from malnutrition but they also have to fight other diseases like bronchial pneumonia, gastrointestinal problems and diarrhoea.

They lose their appetites and their bodies don't absorb the nutrients when they eat. As their body defences are low, they get sick very easily.

I also went to Chiquimula, in the town of Jocotan.

I visited two nutritional treatment centres which have been treating children from the indigenous area known as Chorti.

We found eight children recuperating there, most of them with Marasmus and Kwashiorkor.

The crisis has very complex causes.

Some children have developed these conditions because of the lack of food, but some because they have related diseases and are weak.

The mothers say the children have fever and nausea and that, since they are not hungry, they don't give them anything to eat.

The Chorti community have access to medical services through non-governmental organisations contracted to the ministry of health.

To reach them, you have to drive and the walk for two hours through a mountainous area.

In some cases there is help available, but there are problems with education.

We found one girl that was very cold and about to die.

We asked the mother why she hadn't taken her to the centre and she replied that they only take their children to the centre when the local shaman cannot do anything else to help.

In the most vulnerable areas, the WFP helps with a project in which we exchange food for work.

This gives the community an opportunity to work in projects like soil conservation, reforestation, growing vegetable, fertilising and training.

We also provide young children, lactating mothers and pregnant women with Vitaceral, which is a mixture of corn with fortified soy, micronutrients and fortified biscuits.

It's very sad to see the children with marasmus and kwashiorkor.

They just stare into space and it makes you wonder what they are looking at. What is their future? What are they thinking about?

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