The rural highlands are remarkably colorful in agriculturally rich Guatemala, providing a stunning view from afar. The visible beauty of pastoral Guatemala is undeniable, but a closer look into the Mayan communities that reside in the mountainous countryside reveals the equally undeniable issue of poverty, and the visible malnourishment of its inhabitants.
Despite the abundance of surrounding vegetation, up to 80 percent of children residing in the countryside are extremely undernourished and around half of all children in Guatemala fall into this category. Many of the families effected are farmers, but find it more beneficial to sell their harvest than eat it themselves. In this agricultural paradox, the vegetables grown in rural Guatemala hardly reach the plates of the natives. Instead, they are exported to the United States, Europe and other parts of Central America for a higher sale price that still manages to provide meager wages for the produce growers. For instance, the farmers in the farming village of Pammus live on only $3.42 per day.
Lack of funds makes it difficult for villagers to provide their family with nutrient-rich foods. “The fundamental diet here is basically corn and coffee. Maybe once, twice or three times a week beans,” said Arnulfo Alvarez, a local doctor in Pammus. “There is a shortage of proteins and vitamins and a shortage of some minerals that are fundamental in the development of a child’s growth, especially in the first five years of its life.”
Many children in Guatemala will benefit from adopting a rich, diverse diet, but will not be able to undo the lifelong effects of malnourishment from an early age. New developments focus on children 1,000 days old or younger, which is a make-or-break period in childhood development. The repercussions of malnourishment in Guatemalan children have been shown to include lower IQ scores, and increased likelihood for heart disease, diabetes, kidney damage and anemia into adulthood.
The most notable symptom of prolonged malnourishment in rural Guatemala is the significantly shorter average height of the Mayans. What has been chalked up to genetics until recently is now understood, at least partially, as the result of insufficient nutrients consumed during early stages of childhood development. Stunting is a clear indicator of malnutrition in Guatemala, indicated by the fact that Mayans over the border in Mexico are taller than their southern cousins.
The problem is also saturated by a lack of education; two years ago, most rural parents did not even understand the concept of malnutrition. New educational programs enlist mothers of small children in classes that teach about food health and track the health of infant children.
Guatemala ranks the highest gross domestic product in all of Central America, but lands in sixth place among chronic malnourishment rates worldwide. While Guatemala is rich enough to tackle the issue on its own, less fortunate Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Peru and Brazil have successfully reduced child malnutrition rates with fewer resources. The government and aid donors are currently sending supplies to around 300,000 people in Guatemala but an additional 400,000 people require assistance as well.
The government has taken creative steps to humanize the issue and gain a better understanding of the lifestyles of those most in need. Efforts include community outreach and visits to rural villages. One instance even involved numerous government officials spending the night in a rural hut, an event that is still discussed today, two years later.
The Guatemalan government has adopted a zero-hunger policy but has been long criticized for its failure to provide for all of its citizens. The response has been slow, but the issue is complicated by factors stemming back to the country’s mid-century civil unrest. Democracy came to the nation over time as well as a booming economy. However, improved social conditions remained mostly limited to expanding urban scenes while citizens on the country’s fringe were left behind.
There is extreme inequality in Guatemala and the government fails to collect enough taxes from wealthy citizens to provide for the poor. Reformed policies are coming into effect, but they are slow. The government only plans to reduce malnourishment by 10 percent by the end of 2015.
– Edward Heinrich