‘Abandon your people’: Guatemala’s malnutrition crisis worsens | hunger news

Coban, Guatemala – Doctor Ricardo Valdez climbs a steep, worn path to a series of makeshift wooden houses with rusting steel roofs in a small community on the outskirts of Coban, Alta Verapaz.

Located about 200 km (124 miles) north of Guatemala City, Coban is grappling with an epidemic of child malnutrition, worsened over the past two years by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent humanitarian crisis – a problem critics say the government has overlooked.

Overall, Guatemala has one of the highest child malnutrition rates in the world, with nearly half of children under five chronically malnourished, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund ( UNICEF). In some rural communities, that number would be as high as 80 percent.

Valdez soon arrives at the home of Margarita Xol, a 28-year-old unemployed single mother. Her children are malnourished, which led to multiple bouts of pneumonia in her youngest daughter, now almost two years old.

“I thought my daughter was going to die,” Xol told Al Jazeera. “I felt sad. [I didn’t know] what I was going to do.

She says she received little help from the Guatemalan public health system, so she sought help from a local NGO called Comunidad Esperanza, which Valdez works with. The group provided her with food aid, including a regular supply of goat’s milk, which she continues to receive to this day.

“We stepped in because the Ministry of Health was not going to do anything,” Valdez told Al Jazeera, noting that the problem of malnutrition in the country “is much bigger than it seems, than what which is shown in the statistics”.

Doctor Ricardo Valdez visits Margarita Xol’s home to check on her children, who have suffered from malnutrition and pneumonia [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

Structural inequalities

Guatemala’s malnutrition crisis, which experts say stems from structural inequalities across the country, has been worsened by the pandemic and the aftermath of Hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020, which destroyed homes and ravaged crops.

“When you talk about malnutrition, you’re not just talking about food,” Sofia Letona, head of a local humanitarian group Antigua al Rescate, told Al Jazeera.

“Malnutrition is not just about being hungry. Malnutrition is not having access to the basics of your human rights,” she said. “Malnutrition is having no water, no electricity, no roads, having dirt floors, having to walk for hours to get from one place to another, not earning money … [It] is how you can see how a state abandons its people.

About half of Guatemala’s population lives in poverty, and indigenous communities are particularly disadvantaged. The following governments failed to deal with this crisis, despite beautiful campaign promises.

“There’s not really any interest,” Lucrecia Hernandez Mack, a Guatemalan doctor and politician who previously served as health minister, told Al Jazeera. “Generally, [combating malnutrition] serves as a campaign slogan… [but governments] don’t engage in the problem, because it is a structural problem.

Guatemala has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world, with half of children under five suffering from chronic hunger, according to UNICEF.
Guatemala has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world, with almost half of children under five suffering from chronic hunger, according to UNICEF [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

While the Guatemalan government has allocated tens of millions of dollars in its current budget to fight child malnutrition, critics say this is not enough. As of March 1, the Guatemalan Ministry of Health had used just 2% of that budget, according to the Prensa Libre newspaper, as cases continued to rise.

The Health Ministry did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the matter.

Last year, President Alejandro Giammattei suggested that Guatemalan banks could ask account holders to donate leftover cents to help fight malnutrition. Months earlier, in November 2020, Guatemalans burned down Congress after the government approved a series of controversial budget cuts, including $25 million to fight malnutrition. As funds were subsequently restored, public anger continued to simmer.

‘How will they survive?’

In this context, the work of solving the malnutrition crisis has been largely left to NGOs. Maria Claudia Santizo, a nutritionist with UNICEF, told Al Jazeera that her organization had worked with the Guatemalan health ministry to identify cases of malnutrition.

“[We have] supported the Ministry of Health to be able to actively search for cases of acute malnutrition in the most rural and remote communities, with the aim of being able to identify them in a timely manner, treat them in a timely manner and prevent their death,” says Santizo.

But as commodity costs continue to rise, she asked, “How is this going to be for people who live in the countryside? how will they survive?

Margarita Xol's youngest child, now almost two years old, is malnourished and has suffered several bouts of pneumonia.
Margarita Xol’s youngest child, now almost two years old, is malnourished and has suffered multiple bouts of pneumonia [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

For Xol, who mainly speaks the Q’eqchi’ Mayan language, this crisis is part of his family’s daily life. Their makeshift home near the local dump has no electricity or running water, and they depend on her father’s income of around $2 a day, which he earns by selling firewood, to buy food from based.

Xol’s family once owned land, but his father was forced to sell it when his mother faced a health crisis and they needed money to buy medicine. Today, Xol wants to work to support her children, but they are both under five and she has to stay home to take care of them.

“I want to have a house and a little piece of land for myself and my children,” Xol said. “But we don’t have any money.”

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