Drought heightens seasonal food scarcity in Guatemala

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A prolonged drought has worsened the hunger problem among Guatemala's heavily indigenous population. In a country where about 60 percent of the people live on less than $3.50 per day, hunger is always a concern. But now, it has hit especially hard in areas like Chiquimula, one of the provinces where meager rainfalls limit farmers to one crop per year.

The victims are like 2-year-old Narcisa, who is being treated for severe malnutrition at a Chiquimula clinic. Her father, Samuel de Jesus, doesn't leave her bedside, but he couldn't feed her either. A farmer, Samuel de Jesus hasn't been able to get the work he needs to tide him over between harvests for four months. With a wife and two other children, there was no way to make ends meet.

It is part of what experts call "seasonal hunger," the period between June and September when the previous harvest runs out and the Guatemalan government has to provide food assistance for about one million people before the crops come in.

The farmers, many of them Chorti Indians, live off corn, beans and coffee, but don't grow enough to make it through the year.

Jovita Vasquez says she needs a 110-pound (50-kilogram) sack of corn each week to feed her 11 children. They live in a shack with no running water or electricity in the mountains near the border with Honduras.

"Last year we planted corn, but it didn't rain and we lost everything," Vasquez says. "There is no work here, and my husband has to really hustle to get even tortillas for the kids."

The Jupilingo river is one of the few sources of fresh water in the area, but its level has dropped and the surrounding hillsides have been largely deforested.

"We walk three hours a day to get water, and after that we go out to look for firewood," said local resident Elda Perez Recinos.

Farmer Enario Martinez said it has been four years since there was enough rain to bring in a decent crop of corn and beans.

Martinez said he had been able to get some day labor jobs, but they weren't enough to even keep his family fed.