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Greetings from Guatemala: Central America begins another deadly season of drought. (margin notes).

THE SMALL CHILD REGARDS HER VISITORS WITH shining eyes and a happy, if slightly perplexed, smile. Her thin body held rigidly against the back of a baby's chair, she is no bigger than a toddler herself, though a staffer from our hosts on this poverty tour of Guatemala, Catholic Relief Services, assures the visiting journalists the child is 6 years old. Another little girl pushes herself up unsteadily from a blanket lying across the floor of this "therapeutic feeding center" in Jocotan, in southeastern Guatemala.

This child is no bigger than a 15-month-old infant. We're informed that she is, in fact, 3 years old. "These kids are all completely off [the normal] growth charts," says Lydia Ayers, the CRS senior program manager in Guatemala.

A few steps away, an indigenous woman is feeding her 2-year-old daughter. Her child is as tiny as a newborn and has been brought into the feeding center last-ditch effort to keep her alive. The CRS team happened upon the emaciated child and her mother at a mountainside food distribution this same morning near El Chucte mountain, in Guatemala's department of Chiquimula.

This little girl is lucky; she at least has a chance. In the surrounding hills are an untold number of other starving children who are not as fortunate and may not survive the coming months. Ayers says there is no way of knowing how many children are actually dying as a result of the ongoing drought in Guatemala and other Central American nations.

"They don't tell us about a lot of the children [who die]," she says, explaining that many families in these Mayan communities simply bury these smallest victims of hunger in their villages, too embarrassed or afraid to tell authorities or relief workers. Official tallies of the dead and hungry as a result are likely to represent an undercount of the true misery being experienced in the countryside, but the United Nation's World Food Program estimates that in Guatemala alone as many as 60,000 children under 5 are malnourished while 6,000 are in immediate peril of death by starvation.

This is a nation well used to calamity. The country is in many ways still recovering from the mayhem wrought by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Just emerging from almost 40 years of civil war that claimed the lives of 200,000 and displaced many times that figure, this nation of 12 million is far from coming to terms with its violent past.

The coffee market that many indigenous communities rely on to generate even a paltry income has collapsed. Any of this year's crop that survives the unrelenting sun will remain on the coffee bushes that dot this tropic landscape, literally not worth picking. Hunger is already a constant reality for most Guatemalans; almost percent of them subsist on less than $2 a day. Now the region's deadly capricious climate is adding to their misery.

Last year's crop was a total failure for most of Guatemala's subsistence farmers. The seed they would normally have saved for this year's planting season was sold off desperation or used for food. Now these indigenous farmers survive on monthly rations from CRS and other nongovernmental agencies while scanning the horizons for any sign of relief.

A visit with a group of farmers at a mountainside chapel doubling as an emergency ration station near a village called Las Palmas begins with most of the indigenous families morosely regarding the handful of journalists and CRS and U.S. Agency for International Development staff who have come to observe the food distribution. After a few introductions, however, the shyness evaporates and the farmers eagerly run through a litany of their woes and a detailed listing of the seed and implements they could use to make a fresh start.

It can only be hoped that by the time this article is published, the rains will have returned to Guatemala and the rest of Central America and that a vibrant growing season has begun. But until the next good harvest these vulnerable people will have no choice but to rely on the continuing kindness of strangers. Current long-term weather forecasts call for the dry conditions to persist. The great hunger in Central America is likely to continue.

You can find out more about this crisis at the WFP (www.wfp.org) and CRS (www.catholicrelief.org) Web sites. In the meantime, we can all join the farmers of Guatemala in a small prayer for life-giving rain.

By KEVIN CLARKE, managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:2GUAT
Date:Jul 1, 2002
Words:759
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