The United Nations World Food Program will extend its emergency operation for Guatemala until February of 2003. The program is aimed at saving the lives of thousands of children suffering acute malnutrition in Guatemala's impoverished and drought stricken countryside.
Babies cry in a sunny hospital room with Disney characters painted on the walls in arid, eastern Guatemala. Some of the babies in the metal cribs here are emaciated, their wrinkly skin hanging off their tiny bones. Others have extremely swollen bellies and limbs and their skin is dark and peeling off in large patches. These two extremes are both expressions of the most severe form of acute malnutrition.
Flavia Godoy Lopez is here with her son Ever. She says because she is poor, she doesn't have enough money for food and medicine for her five children. "Not all food you give children," she says, "nourishes them the same." All she has to give them is rice and beans and that doesn't keep the kids in the shape they should be.
Young Ever is one of the some 7,000 children suffering severe or moderate forms of acute malnutrition in Guatemala, who has received treatment as part of the World Food Program's emergency operation, since it was launched last May.
Dorte Ellehammer is the Guatemala country representative for the World Food Program.
"Cases keep coming and we are in the critical month of the year where people have low food reserves, so that is why we see another increase in the cases reaching the hospitals and centers," she explains.
Even in the best of times, nearly half of the children under five years of age in this poverty stricken nation suffer from chronic malnutrition. This is the highest rate in Central America. But last year, a severe drought hit eastern Guatemala, causing near total crop loss for peasant farmers here, making already precarious situations for poor Guatemalan children ever more critical.
Edin Barrientos is Guatemala's agriculture minister. He says that last year there was an 80 percent loss of crops in eastern Guatemala and that during the current harvest, farmers are expected to suffer a 60 percent loss.
Despite more rains and a slightly improved harvest this year, the cumulative effects of two dry years are taking their toll in this part of the country. In addition to drought, record lows in world coffee prices, which have resulted in the closing of many coffee farms in Guatemala, is a factor that the World Food Programs Lola Castro says is making things even worse.
"People used to supplement the deficit of food stocks by going for casual labor to coffee farms, " she explains, "but this casual labor is not available these days so that's causing another problem because families have no access to food through purchase."
Children sing the national anthem in a school house in Minas Arriba, a small town in the Chiquimula province of eastern Guatemala. Guatemalan women have, on average, five children, which is more than any other country in Latin America. That number jumps even higher in rural, indigenous areas like this one.
Outside the schoolhouse, pregnant women and women nursing young babies line up to receive a ration of corn and beans and to weigh their children. This part of the World Food Program's emergency operation distributes food donations to families of children suffering less advanced stages of acute malnutrition.
World Food Program officials say this is the first time in many years they have had to implement this kind of an emergency program anywhere in Latin America. This has been a challenge for the organization, says the regional spokesperson, Jordan Dey.
"There is a perception among media, among donors, among the general public that hunger is not as bad in Latin America as it is Asia or Africa," he says. " But in fact in some parts it is. What we know from working here is that there are pockets of extreme hunger throughout Latin America and particularly in Guatemala."
The emergency operation is scheduled to end in February of 2003.