Violence and poverty have pushed tens of thousands of Central Americans to join the caravans heading for the US and Mexico. Hunger has been the main reason for Guatemalans to flee their homes.
Over 3 million people are food insecure in Guatemala and almost 47% of under fives are chronically malnourished. It's one of the highest rates in the world.
Guatemala’s Dry Corridor is suffering from one of the worst droughts of the past decade. Spring storms this year turned the otherwise dusty brown landscapes of Filincas, green.
Nevertheless, indigenous populations living in the highlands have already lost their livelihoods. Chronic malnutrition can skyrocket to 80% in rural areas.
"We treat 160 children,” says nurse Freddy Martinez. “Half of them suffer from chronic malnutrition. This year we have identified between 50 and 75 stunted children per month."
Two-year-old Dariela Esperanza is among them. She is half the height of a child of her age. She usually eats two tortillas a day.
Aid agencies say official figures under-estimate extent of problem
The EU has financed a consortium of NGOs to tackle the food crisis for the past four years. Action Against Hunger applies the National procedures to identify malnourished children based on height and weight but also promotes the use of MUAC, Mid-Upper Arm Circumference, not yet recognised by the Government. Some severely malnourished children are excluded from the National health system because of that.
"Following weight / height measurements here in Filincas we found that around 2.1% of the children suffer from acute malnutrition,” says Glenda Rodas of Action Against Hunger. “Nevertheless, when we measure them by MUAC, this number often doubles".
We travelled from the mountains of Filincas to the town of Jocotán, both in the Department of Chiquimula. Here the EU has improved food access via cash transfers for 90 families.
The EU helps a total of 14,000 people in four departments
The local organisation ASEDECHI has selected the most vulnerable families in the rural community of Matasano. The EU helps a total of 14,000 people in four departments.
"Households are receiving bank transfers based on the number of family members,” says Victor Hugo Sosa of ASEDECHI. “They receive around €14 monthly per person for three months."
Doña Emma González received the equivalent of €140. With it, she buys corn, sugar, beans, vegetables and meat: food that will feed Emma's family of 11, including one child with acute malnutrition, for one month.
"I'm buying for the kids so that they can eat something at home. Because we don't have money, we have no jobs," says Emma.
"We sow the seeds but there is no harvest”
When she returns to the mountains of Matasano, ten kilometres away from town, for Emma’s family, it’s a day of celebration. They usually eat tortillas, a chicken is a treat, even when it's split by 11. They used to farm the land, but 8 years of no rain left their fields barren.
"We sow the seeds but there is no harvest,” she explains. “The plants grow a little bit, be it vegetables, corn, beans, and then the stem withers because it doesn't rain. There is no food for our children, corn is more and more expensive, there is no work, so you just have to cope with the hunger."
The Consortium of NGOs financed by the European Union responds to the emergency with a standardised approach in the whole country.
"Malnutrition is a multi-sector problem,” says Urko Dubois of EU Humanitarian Aid. “We have to tackle it from the angle of food security, from the angle of health and through water sanitation. We need to guarantee the child won't get ill again. This is why NGOs work on these three sectors."
The challenge in Guatemala is to break the seasonal cycle of food insecurity. This is why the EU is also connecting families like Emma's with development projects to build more sustainable livelihoods.