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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 303 | Octubre 2006
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Central America

A Fifth of Our People Lives Hungry

Live hungry: no one says it like that. We say, “They’re hungry.” But in Central America, where a fifth of the people are underfed, we can truly say these people “live hungry.” It’s like starving to death in slow motion.

Carmelo Gallardo

Every year, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) celebrates October 16 as World Food Day, commemorating the date of its founding in 1945. Its 2006 motto is “Invest in Agriculture to Assure Food Security.” It’s a good argument for pointing out, yet again, the undeserved situation of seven and a half million Central American people. In our region, 21% of the population is underfed, which means insufficient calorie intake. Chronic malnutrition among children is 26% in Central America, excluding Costa Rica but including Guatemala, where it affects 49% of the country’s boys and girls. This figure places Central America above the world average, which is 17%.

You, possibly a frequent news reader, are surely braced to see the typical pursuit of numbers in these lines; more statistics on hunger. I’m very sorry to disappoint you. You’ll have to read some other time about how many children will die of starvation today.

The focus here is something else. It’s more real. Have you noticed this morning, while going to work, the big billboards on the main streets of your city? I’ve thought for some time that publicity, so present in our lives, has made us immune to our own messages. This same thing happens with numbers that quantify, more or less accurately, humanity’s great problems. The systematic bombardment of numbers hasn’t helped us comprehend the problems any better.

Nor am I trying to manipulate your feelings by putting words to those typical and sad images that invade us when we speak of world hunger, those skeletal children, almost always of color, all with a lost look, none smiling. No, I don’t want to write about those dying of hunger, so many of them, but rather reflect on those who live hungry. Do we know the other facet of hunger, the one related to structural poverty and not enough food during a whole life? This is the angle that doesn’t appear in the media: chronic malnutrition.

Looking for something to eat

Citizens of the developed world, the inhabitants of a wealthy country or even of some Central American city, never suffer from hunger. We use the expression “feeling hungry,” automatically giving it a sense of being fleeting, temporary. For us, hunger is a sensation, at times even pleasurable depending on the moment or on the appetizing expectation of satisfaction. But those who suffer from chronic malnutrition haven’t chosen it and, even worse, probably can’t even complain, for the simple reason that they don’t know they’re underfed. They often cannot perceive the cause and effect relationship between nutrition and certain health problems they suffer. Their food, lacking in energy, proteins, vitamins and minerals has been the same since the beginning of time. As a consequence, anemia in pregnant women and premature births are still common. And afterwards, chronic malnutrition at birth and while growing means limited physical and mental development for the child.

In children younger than five years old the level of chronic malnutrition is measured by the quotient of height to age. Those who live with hunger have a smaller stature than is normal for their age: retarded growth. To live permanently underfed in both quantity and quality assumes also that a large part of every day’s activities is focused on looking for something to eat: the majority of agricultural production is for self-consumption and the major part of any income goes to buy food for the family. Housing, health and education are always secondary needs. They work a lot and very hard just to eat badly.

No political will plus environmental deterioration


In Central America, chronic malnutrition has a rural face. Guatemala has the worst statistics, not only in the region but in all of Latin America. There are many interrelated causes, but it’s worth highlighting two: lack of political recognition of the problem and environmental vulnerability. Without recognition, there are no political solutions, which are the only stable ones over time.

Environmental vulnerability is both the cause and the effect of subsistence agriculture. Increased erosion and desertification make the daily efforts to get food, fuel and water—tasks generally done by women—harder every time. It’s more work to just get the same result: being badly fed.

The United Nations agencies, the NGOs and technicians from the involved ministries have at hand the criteria to identify those most vulnerable to hunger, the methodology for determining the main problems associated with food and nutritional security, and a gamut of realistic solutions adapted to each context. Even though it’s necessary to do ongoing internal and external evaluations of the activities conducted in a spirit of self-criticism to improve the implementation of the projects and programs, to resolve the problem of hunger, the main thing is to complement the work of the technical experts with the political will of the governments and the international community, which in many cases is still to be shown.

Everyone, occasional writers like myself and readers like you, should also work on the self-esteem and dignity of “the hungry” and on the sensitization and commitment of “the satiated”. I hope that talking about hunger without the numbers being the lead actors will contribute to that.


Carmelo Gallardo coordinates the FAO’s Central American Food Security Program (PESA)

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