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Hunger Troubles Central America After Decade of Natural Disasters - 2002-09-28

The World Food Program warns millions of people in Central America are short of food, after years of drought and other natural disasters. The WFP, in collaboration with other U.N. and international aid agencies, has issued an in-depth study of the situation in four countries in the region.

The study says 8.6 million people in rural areas of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala live in a so-called drought corridor. This corridor, which runs along the Pacific coast, is subject to more than six months of dry weather a year.

In addition, the study says, people in all four countries have been victims of hurricanes, flooding, landslides and earthquakes over the last 10 years. To add to these woes, their income also has been greatly affected by a dramatic drop in coffee prices.

A spokeswoman for the World Food Program, Christiane Berthiaume, says this is an extremely fragile population.

"They do not have a lot. What they have, they are selling it all the time," she said. "And, when there is a crisis, because there is another one coming, they do not have the time to recuperate. Some of them told us that, since Hurricane Mitch four years ago, they have not recuperated from that disaster. Like this year, a combination of drought and floods, this corridor has made 2.6 million people particularly vulnerable."

The study says that every time a disaster strikes, inhabitants in these Central American countries lose their harvest and no longer have sufficient means to start again.

It says livelihoods are continuously under stress and families lose the ability to withstand the next shock. They are unable to recover lost assets.

The study also says almost half the population in Honduras suffers from chronic malnutrition and that high levels of malnutrition exist in the other three countries. Ms. Berthiaume says more than 80 percent of those interviewed for the study say they have reduced their food consumption, and 71 percent have cut out one meal a day.

"People have had one shock after another and they have exhausted their coping mechanisms. They do not have anything else to sell," she said. "They cannot work their land, because they are too poor, because they have become impoverished because of all these catastrophes. So, we are looking at people that are more and more living on the edge, and for whom a natural catastrophe would be dramatic."

The World Food Program currently assists 1.5 million of the most vulnerable people in the four countries. Ms. Berthiaume says the results of the study probably will lead to an increase in the number of beneficiaries.