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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 181 | Agosto 1996
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Nicaragua

Badly Fed and Malnourished

Elliett Marín and Vera Amanda Solís

The united nations food and agriculture organization (fao) defines food se?curity as guaranteeing that a country's population has stable access to its basic food needs, both physically and economically. This means that the country should have sufficient food supply, stable prices and flow and assured access for all citizens.

The FAO measures a country's food security according to the Global Index of Family Food Security. Its values go from 0 to 100, with 0 corresponding to endemic hunger and 100 to complete food security. A value below 65 reflects critical levels in the food situation. In 1991?1993 Nicaragua was classified as 64©àa situation of food insecurity and hence of nutritional insecurity.

Bad and Inadequate Diet

Sufficient food supply means a quantity of food that satisfies the basic food needs of both those who can buy it©àeffective demand©àand those who, due to income problems, cannot. A recommendation has been established of necessary levels of each food, per person and per year, to satisfy basic food needs. From 1990 to 1995, according to data from the Nicaraguan Food Program, supply has been insufficient in 6 of the 11 products in the Nicaraguan basic food basket: corn, flour, beans, oil, milk and eggs. Pork supply was also below the norm except in 1991. The rice supply surpassed the norm, except in 1992, but between 20% and 30% of this rice was imported. Beef was available in sufficient quantities, but these quantities diminished year after year until becoming insufficient in 1995. Poultry, on the contrary, grew steadily beginning in 1991. Although the supply of sugar was below the norm in the first years of the five?year period, it began to increase starting in 1993 (Chart 1).

There are not enough basic foods in Nicaragua, and this insufficiency level is even more serious due to the country's food exports. It exported 14.5 times more rice, 16.6 times more corn and 3.4 times more beans in 1994 than in 1993. Although the amount of these products exported in 1995 was not as high as in 1994, more sugar, beans and beef were exported (Chart 2).

Insufficient food supply, together with the high quantities of exported food, means that Nicaraguans suffer a food shortage. To maintain a good nutritional level, 2,155 calories and 55 grams of protein are recommended. Nicaraguans receive a fluctuating amount of these necessary calories and proteins. Not once from 1990 to 1995 did daily calorie intake reach 2,155, the amount recommended for Nicaragua (Chart 3).

Worse yet, the origin of calories available in the country is not totally national. Although the percentage of foreign dependence has dropped from 37.4% in 1991 to 30.4% in 1995, this is still a very high dependence. It makes us vulnerable, since providing Nicaraguans with basic foods requires foreign aid through donations or commercial transactions.

The level of food autonomy or self?sufficiency is an indicator of the relative weight of imports over domestic consumption. A dependence under 10% is defined as low, between 20 and 30% as high, and any higher is critical. Nicaragua has low or no food dependency in corn, beans, sugar, beef, pork, poultry and eggs. It has high food dependency in rice and milk and a critical dependency in oil and flour for bread (Chart 4).

More Expensive Food

Insufficient food production and the export of foods©àespecially basic grains©àare two of the causes of unstable food supply for consumption. Another is Nicaragua's insufficient food storage capacity. The 119 installations at the national level, including basic grains silos, warehouses and threshers belonging to the Nicaraguan Basic Foods Enterprise (ENABAS), have a capacity of just under 160,000 metric tons. About 43% of these structures are concentrated in and around Managua and the rest are dispersed throughout the country.

Another element influencing food supply and price instability is trade. Until 1990 the state intervened in the basic grains market through its National Basic Foods Enterprise (ENABAS) to keep prices stable and favor low income sectors of the population. The privatization of ENABAS that began that year, designed to be completed in 1996, is leaving virtually all basic grains trade operations in private hands. For "profitability" reasons, basic products no longer reach many isolated areas and their prices have increased.

The cost of the basic foods basket has risen from 122.9 c¨®rdobas in 1991 to 187.5 c¨®rdobas in 1995. At the same time, the per?capita income of the 50% of the population with low incomes was reduced. In 1991 monthly per?capita rural income was 43.8 c¨®rdobas and urban income 77.6 c¨®rdobas (equivalent to under $9 and under $16, respectively, at the dollar exchange rate that year); by 1995 these already scanty incomes were reduced to 37.5 cordobas in rural areas and 62.6 in the city (just over $5 and under $9, respectively, at average 1995 dollar prices).

The instability in food supply, consumption and prices affected not just basic grains, but also seafood, vegetables and fruits. All of these are perishable products and Nicaragua does not have appropriate post?harvest management technology to allow fish, vegetables and fruit to reach the whole country at stable prices.


Adding to Nicaragua's nutritional insecurity due to the food insecurity, the majority of Nicaraguans choose, buy, prepare and consume food inadequately due to lack of information or rooted traditional culture.

Effects of Food Insufficiency

In the most recent anthropometric survey among school children between 6 and 14 years old, done by the Health Ministry in 1989, the prevalence of low weight for age, low height for age and low weight for height reached 10.9%, 19.7% and 2.3% respectively. Retarded growth prevalence was 24.8%. Comparing this result with the 1986 national height census among school children 6?9 years old, which showed 23.9% retarded growth, it can be seen that, according to the Height for Age indicator, the prevalence of retarded growth (moderate and severe) is constant at the national level for all ages. This indicates that one fourth of boys and girls who attended school in both periods had stopped growing at some point due to under?alimentation for a prolonged time. It is probable that this trend is continuing or has worsened, given the general deterioration in the living standard over the last five difficult years.





This discouraging reality should be complemented with information about other nutritional deficiencies. According to the 1993 National Micronutrients Survey, 2 of every 3 children between 12 and 59 months suffered anemia due to iron deficiency. In the majority of cases the deficiency is from moderate to severe. In addition, 1 of every 3 adult women suffers anemia from deficient consumption of iron?rich foods or from iron loss not compensated by a good diet.

The same study found that 67% of children and adult women presented slight, moderate or severe Vitamin A deficiencies. The situation is especially alarming among poor rural children and women. Since one of the major consequences of this vitamin deficiency is irreversible blindness, it is one of the most serious problems our country faces today.

Another manifestation of the nutritional crisis is low birth weight, considered an indirect indicator of the nutritional state of pregnant women. According to 1995 Health Ministry data, 8.8% of total live births weigh below 5.5 pounds at birth. Maternal mortality is 15 per 10,000 live births. In many cases, women die in childbirth because they are malnourished. Their weakness complicates the labor.

Infant mortality was high in 1995: 50 per thousand live births. The fundamental causes of death were preventible diseases: diarrhea and other intestinal illnesses, retarded fetal development, premature birth, malnutrition and respiratory illnesses. Malnutrition is associated with 70% of infant deaths in hospitals, although this level is probably even higher, considering that not all deaths are reported as being associated with malnutrition.

Additional Factors

Various factors aggravate the situation of a poorly fed and malnourished population: demographic growth and hyper?urbanization, environmental deterioration, poverty and unemployment.








Nicaragua has an annual demographic growth rate of 2.9%, one of the highest in Latin America. With 2.1 million Nicaraguans in 1971 and 4.2 million in 1995, the population doubled in 24 years.

Women have an average of 5.5 children: 4.6 in urban areas and 7.6 in rural areas. This makes Nicaragua a country of children; almost half of Nicaraguans (44.6%) are under 15 years old.

Every year 140,000 children are born and 45% need hospital attention. Every year 40,000 youths enter the work force and 25,000 new families need housing, food, potable water, education and health.

Between 1970 and 1990 Nicaragua experienced an accelerated hyper?urbanization with an urban growth of 50%; 33% percent of the country's population is now concentrated in Managua. An important aspect to take into account is that, since the rural population is very young, pressure on land will grow in coming years. As adults they will try to get land by destroying the tropical forest or will continue migrating to the city, joining the multitude of urban poor. This is a very serious situation, since, among other results, traditional food producers are massively turning into food consumers.

Environmental Crisis

Deforestation and poor land use have meant that 15,000 square kilometers of land in the Pacific©àNicaragua's best agricultural lands©àare affected by erosion. This has direct repercussions on the country's food production capacity. Destruction of the forests and contamination of water sources have affected the quality and quantity of superficial water. There are currently 38 rivers, 2 lakes and 6 lagoons in a process of "illness" or "death."

The inadequate use and exploitation of natural resources has led to the danger of extinction for vegetable and animal species with commercial value in the central and pacific zones. Fortunately, the sawfish and sharks from Lake Cocibolca are currently in a process of recovery after over?exploitation almost led to their extinction.

It is a grave situation that approximately 30% of national territory is in foreign hands, primarily through concessions to exploit mining resources. Will the new environmental law©àand above all, its still pending norms©àarrive in time to put a brake on the irrational exploitation of the mining resources and the destruction of the ecosystems where they are located?

An Ever Poorer Population

Fifty percent of Nicaraguans live below the poverty line. Twenty percent more live below the level of extreme poverty, which means that they do not even have the minimum daily calorie requirements to survive.

According to World Bank studies, this poverty mainly affects rural zones. Seventy?five percent of rural inhabitants live in poverty. The level is less in urban zones: 32%. Extreme poverty is also concentrated in rural areas: 78% of those in extreme poverty live in rural zones.

This means that the agricultural sector is most affected by growing impoverishment. Seventy?five percent of the poor obtain the majority of their income from agriculture. Small basic grains producers are considered to be among the poorest Nicaraguans.

One of the causes of so much poverty is lack of employment and especially underemployment, which in the last four years reached 42.3% of the economically active population. Among those most affected by unemployment and underemployment are residents of marginal neighborhoods in cities in the country's west and south and Managua, as well as those who live in rural areas.

Other 1995 data are also revealing:
* 70% of Nicaragua's population does not meet its basic food, housing, clothing, health and education needs
* 34.4% lives in overcrowded housing
* 22% does not have access to potable water
* 80% of the rural poor does not have water either in or outside the home Between 20 and 30% does not have access to electricity
* 70% does not have sewage services
* The housing deficit is 20,000 per year
* 18.8% of Nicaraguan children did not go to school between 1985 and 1990
* Secondary education today only reaches 13% of youths
* Illiteracy has increased to 24%
* 41% of the adult population has not finished primary school, which enormously reduces the ability to find work and better salaries

The construction of food and nutritional security in Nicaragua should be based on promoting domestic food production, especially in the dry season and in dry areas, without ignoring irrigated areas. Emphasis should also be put on improving gathering and storage activities, on increasing agroindustrial productivity, and on trade efficiency. There should be improved technical assistance to small and medium producers to increase production and lower post?harvest loss, and efforts should be made to assure that technology transfer takes place according to national and local needs. All actions should be aimed at improving nutritional levels among the low?income population, especially in rural and in marginal urban zones. It is an extraordinary challenge, and the future is lost if it is not confronted. "We are what we eat." If we eat very little and poorly, what will we be in the next century?

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