Program targets student hunger in the Peruvian Amazon

Hunger haunts the jungle home of the Ashaninka.

Incursions and assaults by loggers, miners, colonists and Shining Path rebels have reduced the lands of the Ashaninka people in the Peruvian Amazon, leaving many of the 97,000 members of the group malnourished.

The problem may be worst among children.

The Ashaninka Ene River Association, known by its Spanish initials CARE, says some 80 percent of children under age 5 suffer chronic malnutrition. That's reflected in abysmal education levels. Last year only 5 percent of students in the region passed an evaluation exam administered by the association and the government.

One government program aims at school children, bringing food to about 3,200 students in 54 communities along the Ene River basin.

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For the students sharing battered wooden desks in dirt-floor schoolhouses, the program supplies food such as milk, fishmeal and the nutritious Andean grain quinoa.

That ended, though, when the year's classes wound up in November.

Until classes resume in March, it's back to the staples of manioc, a starchy tuber, and "masato," a fermented drink made from the plant.

In the Ashaninka village of Potsoteni, there also are tropical fruits such as bananas and mangos, sometimes a little chicken or fish caught from the river, which also provides drinking water and a place to bathe.

Nestor Alvarado, who's in the 5th year of secondary school, said that when classes are out, he also traps birds, worms and insects. But "every day there's less in the countryside."

Government officials are trying to encourage good nutrition, distributing books that villagers read by flashlight for lack of electric power.

"We're teaching mothers the nutritional value of the foods," said Luis Contreras of the food program "Qali Warma," which means "vigorous child" in the Quechua language.

Caleb Cabello, a teacher in Potsoteni, said he says goodbye to students at his boarding school at the end of November, watching them leave by boat to their distant settlements.

"Their odyssey begins in these months of vacation," he said. "They go home a little fat and they return very thin."

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