Central American Famine Worsens

"The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) reports that as many as 1.6 million Central Americans are suffering from famine as a result of a drought in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. The agency has said up to now it has only been able to distribute food to about half of the nearly 700,000 people in urgent need of food supplies. One Guatemalan clinic in the town of Camotan, 300 kilometers from Guatemala City, reported last week that already 41 people have starved to death, including 13 children and 22 elderly people. The clinic reported that so far this year is has treated 1,232 people suffering from severe malnutrition. Last week Camotan’s municipal government declared the city in a 'state of calamity.'

Salvadoran health authorities report that 30,000 children are currently suffering from malnutrition, 30 percent of the estimated 100,000 people affected by the famine in that nation. Children under five are in the most danger. Their parents also suffer hunger and are thus unable to work, prolonging a vicious cycle of desperation. The Salvadoran government appropriated $27 million last week for emergency employment plans. It reports that its food reserves were exhausted by earthquakes last January and February, and is appealing for international aid. The Honduran-Nicaraguan border was already suffering from high rates of poverty and unemployment before the drought. As a result of a drop in coffee prices, Honduran plantations stopped the seasonal hiring of Nicaraguan migrant workers. Furthermore, 18 maquiladora factories closed this year, laying off 13,000 workers. In Honduras the per capita income is $691 per year. In normal years, 60 percent of the population report having some trouble feeding their families. This year Honduras has been the country hardest hit by the drought. Perhaps as many as 700,000 of its peasants are suffering some form of malnutrition. Since only the worst affected areas are receiving food aid, many families have taken to the forests in search of mangos and other tropical fruits and armadillos. 'They have no more corn; they have run out of sorghum.... I don’t know how they are surviving,' reported Brian Husen, a 26-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in the Honduran town of Reitoca.

The peasants of this entire Central American region depend on methods of cultivation that have varied little since colonial days. They are forced to labor on relatively infertile and steep fields, at the mercy of the weather. Most of the villages in these highlands have no electricity to power pumps. Only the most primitive irrigation methods are used."

Gerardo Nebbia
5 September 2001

Price Of Free Trade Is Famine

"Central America is in the grip of famine, and if President Bush mentions it when he visits El Salvador on Sunday, he will likely suggest that free trade is the solution.

Yet Bush's proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement is hardly going to remedy the worsening disaster in rural Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Unregulated markets are a large part of the reason why 700,000 Central Americans face starvation and nearly 1million more suffer serious food shortages.

Hardest hit are coffee plantation workers and maize farmers. Coffee prices have spiraled downward since the 1989 collapse of the International Coffee Agreement, which assigned countries production quotas. In the past few years, prices plummeted further with a surge in exports from Vietnam and Indonesia, where the World Bank encouraged expansion of coffee acreage. With the market glutted, many coffee farmers did not bother to harvest this year. The result has been evictions from plantation housing, increased migration to teeming slums and severe hunger among unemployed coffee workers.

Maize farmers too have been feeling the free-market squeeze. Since 1992, Central America has had intra-regional free trade in grains and almost no tariff protection against low-cost imports. Forced to compete with highly subsidized U.S. farmers, many Central American farmers have abandoned food production, gone bankrupt and lost their land.

Some of Central America's most conservative figures--Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo and Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo--acknowledge that the intensity and suddenness of the food emergency make it a famine, worse than the hunger characteristic of the region.

Right now, tens of thousands of Central Americans are heading north. In contrast to the 1980s and early 1990s, most are not escaping war and repression. Many are abandoning farms that failed because of globalized trade and the dumping of U.S. grain. Others are fleeing liberalized interest rates so high that they have no hope of ever starting a small business. Still others are trying to escape life in the free trade zones, where factory owners enjoy huge public subsidies and workers face immense obstacles in organizing for a living wage.

Rural Central Americans are already reeling after a decade or more of free-market reforms. President Bush's trade proposals could be the knockout blow."

by Marc Edelman
Los Angeles Times
March 27, 2002