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In the Newsroom

April 16, 2009
Chronic malnutrition fatigues Guatemala’s children

Photo: Samuel Loewenberg

Samuel Loewenberg of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is currently in Guatemala producing a couple Worldfocus signature stories. He writes about his visit to the Bethania clinic, where he encountered the young victims of Guatemala’s rampant malnutrition.

The little girl does not smile. She doesn’t have the energy. Hopefully she will soon.

She is in a rehabilitation clinic in Jocotan, Chiquimula, a province in the far east of Guatemala, near Honduras. Her name is Domitila and she is nine years old. Her body is emaciated and she is fragile. Patches of her hair are missing; the veins in her legs show through her skin. Her face has a perpetual look of sorrow — the muscles are too weak to change expression. Other children in her family were in similar shape, the nurse tells me.

A boy, Israel, can not even support himself. He has been placed in a walker, where he lays sprawled. When he sees me, he tries several times to raise himself, but he cannot muster it. A pair of babies, twins, are so thin and frail I can hardly stand to look at them.

These were the lucky ones that were being taken care of in the well-staffed and clean Bethania clinic.

The cases of Israel, Domitila, and the other children here are the extreme edge of what is in fact an all-too common problem in Guatemala: Childhood malnutrition. While these children in the clinic faced the possibility of starvation, the more common problem is not a lack of food itself, but a lack of the right kind of food, with enough vitamins and micronutrients to keep children healthy. Children who suffer from chronic malnutrition are not in immediate danger of starvation, but they will face stunted growth and a diminished mental capacity. The children don’t look underweight — they just look tiny. Some have light hair, a sign of vitamin deficiency, and others are missing patches of hair, like Domitila.

Half the children in Guatemala suffer from this type of food poverty, known as chronic malnutrition. In some areas it is as high as 75 percent, which is among the highest such rates in the world.

The populations affected are largely the indigenous Mayan communities that make up most of the country’s rural poor. The hunger hot spots also track with the places the civil war was most fierce, like the province of Quiche in the highlands. This was not by mistake. “Budgets were shifted to keep some populations less developed,” said Andres Botran, who pioneered some of his country’s anti-hunger programs in the last government. “For us it is a national shame.”

It is often said that Guatemala is really two countries in one, divided between the few rich and the many poor. This is only partly true. One would not exist without the other. It is among the most unequal countries in the entire world, with 20 percent of the population receiving 60 percent of the income.

Botran himself is one of Guatemala’s ruling elite, the scion of the powerful rum dynasty that bears his name. It was Botran who took up the issue in the early part of his the decade as an adviser to the Berger government, which was more conservative than the current one although far from the hard-line military forces in some parties. Botran admits that he came across the issue almost by mistake, as a political maneuver while staying with friends in Georgetown. He says that when his assistant first presented him with data that half his country’s children were malnourished, he did not believe it and accused him of making a mistake. But the numbers were right.

Photo: Samuel Loewenberg

The reasons for chronic malnutrition in Guatemala are attributable to a number of factors: a lack of education; the increased price of beans, one of the only sources of protein for villagers; poor or in some cases non-existent infrastructure, meaning no electricity or running water, and certainly no clean water — so diarrhea is a major factor. And Guatemala remains a highly dysfunctional society, still badly damaged by the 36-year-old civil war and income inequality that is some of the worst in the world.

Underlying all of it is poverty.

The malnutrition, which is hidden from Guatemala’s wealthy urban populace, happens in places like the mountain village I visited in the Northern Highlands near to the town of Santa Cruz del Quiche. There, there are huts with dirt floors and tin roofs with little patches of land out back growing corn or lettuce or chili peppers. It is lunchtime, and inside one two-room hut a mother was feeding her five children. She worked over a wood-fired stove, rhythmically patting her hands making dozens of tortillas, to accompany a small bowl of pasta and just a spoonful of frijoles. Her youngest daughter is being treated for malnourishment, and the other children appeared to be stunted as well. They wolf down their tortillas and drink a Kool-aid like mixture to fill their stomachs.

Even the experts remain somewhat mystified about why the problem persists at such high levels. Guatemala is only four hours by air from Washington D.C., and it has some of the worst levels of chronic malnutrition in the world. Among Latin American countries, it is the only one to have failed to decrease its malnutrition over the last decade — even countries with worse income inequality, like Brazil, or ones that are poorer, like Honduras and Nicaragua, have had much bigger successes in addressing the problem. So far, in Guatemala, efforts are just going towards treating the symptoms. It is not enough.

– Samuel Loewenberg

Watch for Worldfocus’ stories from Guatemala in the coming weeks.




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disculpen, necesitaría citar la bibliografía de este artículo, y queria saber de que tipo de artículo se trata. desde ya, muchas gracias.


Yes, perhaps…
But am I alone in my archaeologically inquisitive expeditions concerning what is often found in layers of Human Sanity?
And am I still not writing quite rationally…
concerning levels of Concious and Subconcious Thinking?
Even if not to everyones’s taste and with some spirited zest in the Ways used in the Methods of my Inquiries?

One to Another?
We are Unknown and Unknowing Finite Specimens in the Realms of Universally Infinite Thought concerning any of the reciprocities of constructive criticisms suitably involving only those who are willing to question things deeply and rationally as well as philosophically… themselves…and without undue Emotional Utilizations…and who will, henceforth:
thereby proceed to find better answers on their own–if some previous thoughts manifested in Time
–are not deemed quite Sane–rather than simply and unmeaningfully criticizing another.

Otherwise? I refer the subject of the matter back to “philosophical” maya nuts.


I will ask if you can disprove (technically and/or empirically and/or philosophically) what was written here??


Today’s story on CNN highlight a local food (maya nut) that can help hunger in Central America).

An Archaeologist here as has a head full of nuts.


O the bleeding hearts of the World who think the World can ever be changed by chirping on about

By all means! keep on trying to do a “yes we can”
and a “there we go again” and see what you find
when you do an “archaelogical excavation” on fine upstanding (no wait! outstanding) Human Nature:
Bones, bones, and more bones..with some chards of broken pottery and so on and so on.
Then again? I am sure the people who are now
dug up as bones thought that they too could change the World…yes, wait! these ancients did change something…themselves! with time…into bones!

But don’t mind me…just go read “The Golden Bough” while you’re out…”changing the World.”


It has been said that if only one child dies unjustly, it is a reflection on the whole society. In this case the reflection is blinding. I know the sources of the injustice that keeps their bellies empty goes far beyond the borders of Guatemala, but Guatemala is the first culprit. The disparity between the rich and the poor in Latin America touch not only Latin America – its effect is touching us all. Some children cannot think, because of the lack of protein. Some exploiters have hearts that cannot love, due to the forces of greed and darkness of spirit that leave them compassionless and sub-human beast. World leaders must lead or leave. Tragedies such as these children’s plight must be vanquished by what ever means is necessary.

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