SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – In Guatemala’s Western Highlands, where rolling mountains give way to majestic volcanic peaks and lush valleys, a health crisis looms.
Half of children under age 5 in Central America’s most populous country suffer from chronic malnutrition, which causes severe health problems.
“Critical!” said Peter Loach, the country director in Guatemala for Mercy Corps, an aid organization working on the issue.
Guatemala’s child malnutrition rate is the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean and fourth-highest in the world, ranking ahead of sub-Saharan African countries that have long come to symbolize hunger in the public psyche.
The problem worsens year after year, exacerbated by changing weather patterns, natural disasters and a growing population that cannot feed itself.
Now, the government, aid organizations and international institutions are fighting back.
A government program that started earlier this year, “Plan Zero Hunger,” aims to reduce the prevalence of chronic malnutrition in children under age 2 by 10%. It also wants to reduce the mortality rate from malnutrition for children under 5 during the next two years, said Julio Alexander Menchú Pérez, spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Development, one of several Guatemalan ministries involved in the program.
In launching the initiative, President Otto Pérez Molina called on involvement from across society.
“I call on parents to seek assistance in health clinics or in the schools with a goal of reducing the number of cases of malnutrition,” he said, while helping distribute food rations to needy Guatemalans earlier this month.
The program faces steep challenges in trying to reverse decades of inaction and a cycle of poverty. But organizations said the program is an important step forward.
“It is the first time in Guatemalan history that the government has a commitment to reduce by 10% the prevalence of chronic malnutrition,” said Dr. Ramiro Quezada, a health and nutrition specialist in Guatemala for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “There is [now] a nationwide recognition that chronic malnutrition is a [national] problem.”
Loach called the plan “the strongest initiative by any Guatemalan administration in the last 50 years.”
The program, launched in February, is too new to fully evaluate. But thousands of hungry families already have started to receive food rations.
What’s more, the government is focusing on young children and mothers, providing better access to health care in critical parts of their development. Health workers regularly visit rural communities, checking young children for signs of malnourishment and recommending them to nearby clinics for treatment if needed.
Pérez, however, said the goal is long-term change.
The plan calls for more investment in the rural economy, where hunger and malnutrition are concentrated, boosting food production through training and technical assistance and creating opportunities to break the poverty cycle.
“Extreme poverty and malnutrition are consequences of an undeveloped rural area,” Pérez Molina said in a prepared statement.
More than half of Guatemala’s 14.37 million residents live below the poverty line, and an estimated 13% live in extreme poverty. Poverty is worse in rural Guatemala, where access to services, like health care and education, also is limited.
The plan seeks to “expand opportunities for children and youth so that they can develop and have productive options enabling them to have a better life,” Pérez Molina said. “The purpose is to make them agents of their own development and not just rely on the state to move things forward.”
With its tropical climate and rich soil – producing some of the world’s best coffee, among other exports – Guatemala seems an unlikely place for families to go hungry.
But arable land is concentrated in the hands of the few, leaving the rural poor, especially indigenous Mayans, toiling away on small plots of land to produce one or two cash crops.
Often, a Guatemalan family’s diet will consist of a few staples, like beans and corn-based tortillas. Children who don’t get enough food or survive on a limited variety of foods often don’t receive essential nutrients.
As a result, they are shorter than they should be for their age, a condition known as stunting.
One in two Guatemalan children under age 5 is stunted and one in five is severely stunted, according to national health statistics.
“Chronic malnutrition leaves the child stunted for life, not just physically but cognitively,” said Jay Jackson, Mercy Corps’ executive director.
However, by focusing on maternal health and young children, the problem can be stopped.
A Mercy Corps food security program called PROCOMIDA in the poor department of Alta Verapaz reduced chronic malnutrition by 2.7 percentage points during its first two years, Jackson said, despite being carried out during a time of food scarcity.
Reducing malnutrition “is a key priority for the state, showing strong political commitment to achieving real and lasting results for children,” Quezada said. “It’s a real opportunity to advance in the fight against chronic malnutrition.”