PBS aired a special on malnutrition in Guatemala. Here’s what they got wrong.

“Widespread childhood malnutrition is a paradox in agriculturally rich Guatemala”

Last week, PBS News Hour aired a ten-minute special report on the problem of malnutrition in Guatemala. The program can be watched in its entirety on the PBS website, or on youtube:

PBS’s Paradox

As someone who recently spent 8 months living in the Western Highlands working on the Zero Hunger Pact (Pacto Hambre Cero, which the PBS special translates as the Zero Hunger Campaign), I felt moderately qualified to comment on the report. The program was first brought to my attention by other people who had seen it and knew that I had been involved in this.

It was actually interesting and telling to get a second-hand report, because it helped me understand how people not familiar with the situation took in the PBS report, and what the main takeaways were for viewers at home. I’ll briefly list what the program touched on, and then give a breakdown on my thoughts (including exciting statistics and maps) below. Some of the main takeaways that I agree with were:

  • Even as child mortality rates are reduced worldwide, chronic malnutrition remains a problem and can permanently and irreversibly affect people who are malnourished as a child.
  • Guatemala is the country in Central America with the highest rates of chronic child malnutrition; over half of Guatemalan children are stunted, with the rate being as high as 80% of children in some rural areas.
  • The problem went relatively unnoticed for some time, leading to a kind of normalization of the problem. As a result of 50-80% of children having stunted growth, communities and parents become blind to the problem, because the definition of what is normal changes.
  • The new consolidated government effort initiated by President Perez, called the Zero Hunger Pact, has brought the problem to the forefront, raising consciousness to the problem nationally.
  • The emphasis of NGO and Government health services has focused on the first 1000 days of a child’s life from conception through their second birthday (in Spanish, la ventana de los mil dias).

The main takeaway which I take issue with was:

“…the agricultural paradox. The Guatemalan countryside is overflowing with fresh vegetables, but very little of those vegetables make it into local homes.”

There were other takeaways that were more implied rather than explicitly stated- for example, they make it seem like the organization Save the Children is spearheading the entire work of caring for malnourished children in rural areas while, in reality, it is only one player in a broad and well-funded ecosystem of NGOs and governmental aid organizations both national and international, but that’s another story.

“Agriculturally Rich” Guatemala

No soy agronomo. I am not an agronomist. This was a phrase I employed frequently when I attended meetings and workshops in Guatemala where the problem of food security was discussed among people whose education and background varied among the fields of nursing, agriculture, nutrition, information sciences, economics, even the military and those who have simply lived their whole lives in the rural highlands. And this is true. I am not an agronomist and I don’t pretend to know much about agriculture, except for what I’ve picked up as a Peace Corps volunteer on the ground and being around people who do know a lot about many different kinds of agriculture, both traditional and novel, in varied climates.

However, it is painfully obvious that the PBS journalists are not either. It’s easy for a non-farmer to get the impression that the highlands of Guatemala are vast and burgeoning with endless quantities of broccoli and spinach. They visually appear to be just that. But that visual belies the true numbers of how much farmland a family actually needs, or how much food one needs, to actively sustain themselves and their family.

The report glosses over one very important relationship and determinant of child malnutrition, which is a very sensitive topic of conversation which is easily tiptoed around for political and pragmatic reasons: land distribution. Guatemala is a country in which the vast majority of arable farmland is in the hands of a very small handful of wealthy landowners. This has been the case since colonial times, when the acquisition of land by force by European colonists pushed the indigenous population into the forested highlands region, where land is not suited for agriculture.

“Land ownership has a markedly skewed distribution [in Guatemala]: 2.5% of the country’s farms control 65%  of agricultural land, while 88% of all farms, with an average size of 1.5 ha, occupy 16% of the land.  Approximately 40% of the economically active rural population does not own land.” (source pdf)

My boss in Guatemala, a man in his 60’s who actually is an agronomist and has been working with Guatemalan government agencies and NGOs in the highlands for at least three decades, told me time and time again that the average amount of land a family has in the region is not near what it would need to be in order to sustain a family, especially since family sizes continue to be unsustainably large for reasons of culture and gender inequality.

A map is worth a thousand words.

Apart from the above statistic, let me show you a couple maps that visually tell this story very well. The following is an image showing the prevalence of child malnutrition as it is distributed throughout Guatemala’s 22 departments and 332 municipalities:

Distributrion of Chronic Malnutrition in Children

Distributrion of Chronic Malnutrition in Children by municipality. (Ministry of Education, 2009)

The part of the map which is noticeably red, showing a very high rate of malnutrition (prevalence of more than 60%) is the region of the country known as the Western Highlands. This is the region which is the focus of attention of the Zero Hunger Pact as well as the international development community. Now, there are myriad issues at work here, and some of them are indeed related to gender inequality, education gaps, and cultural and behavioral norms. However, as seen in the three maps below, the quality of farmland is unquestionably related to the distribution in the map shown above. All of these maps were taken from a document from the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture found here or, if you want a direct link to the pdf document, here.

Now, we all know that correlation does not equal causation, and there could and indeed are many other underlying and confounding factors. A multivariate regression analysis found over 30 factors which had a statistically significant relationship to chronic child malnutrition, ranging from literacy to access to drainage networks to Human Development Index score to the type of cookstove a family uses (source pdf). Family size and gender inequality are also, for example, huge contributors – many women want to use some form of family planning or birth control to reign in their family size, but they all too often live under the threat of violence from their husbands who won’t allow it – indeed, violence against women in Central America is a crisis in itself.

This complex confluence of factors makes determining the roots of the problem and telling the story of its solution mind-numbingly difficult. However, blaming the people’s traditional customs and “lack of education” isn’t awfully helpful. The simple truth – and I say this on behalf of people who are agronomists – is that the farmland in the Highlands sucks. It is a pine forest unsuitable for producing subsistence crops in the kinds of quantities necessary to sustain the current and growing population density. At least, compared with the rest of Guatemala’s land, as shown on the above maps.

Yet, farming is done there. Broccoli and spinach, carrots and radishes, as well as pork, chicken, fish, beef, sausages, and many other nutritious foods were certainly very available at the market I frequented daily in the town where I lived. And of course, this creates a wonderful visual of lush abundance, but that visual is deceiving. To say that these foods are “overflowing” and that mothers simply chose not to provide them to their kids is an indictment that would require a more solid context and in-depth analysis than a couple of non-Spanish speaking  journalists wandering about in the Highlands for a few days can provide, unfortunately.

Telling the wrong story.

So, at the end of the day, if we can’t even expect highly-trained social scientists or directors of international aid organizations to navigate and distill the atomic factors causing this crisis, how are we to expect journalists to? Well, we really shouldn’t.

However, the job of a journalist is not to do so. The job of a journalist is to tell a story. And in this case, they were telling the wrong one. Overlooking the role that land distribution plays (and what that phrase is a euphemism for) is very significant. The fact that large amounts of people live and farm there is a function of history and politics – we are talking about a situation in which the indigenous farmers of this country have repeatedly had their farmland stolen from them over the past five centuries and been compelled to either stay where they live and work in feudal servitude to large plantation owners, or move to the mountains.

That historical and political fact should frame the entire conversation, and not be absent from it. What we’re seeing in current trends in development, philanthropy, and now journalism, is the tendency to essentially wipe the historical slate clean and say “well, the problem is the lack of education,” instead of acknowledging that you’re actually in what could accurately be described as the aftermath of a brutal, decades-long war and centuries of systematic oppression.

Why ignore that? There’s some sense to it if you’re working at an NGO sitting around a table trying to prioritize your efforts. It’s pragmatic. Save the Children or Catholic Relief Services or USAID or The World Food Programme simply cannot do much about land distribution. It is not within their scope. And with sustainability in mind, they focus on education and other longer-term efforts.

Politically entrenched entities, like USAID and many other organizations involved in development in Guatemala, don’t tend to broach this issue at least in part due to the significant role the US played in producing the inequality that currently exists. Remember that bit where the CIA overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected president in order to maintain a single US company’s holdings of nearly half of Guatemalan farmland in the 1950’s? If you don’t, it’s one of America’s most well-documented foreign policy disasters of the 20th century, and has had far-reaching implications into the current situation today. Aid workers know this, but can’t do much about it. And, in a place where a genocidal civil war is in the recent memory of every adult you meet, this is not the easiest topic to bring up in any conversation, especially if you’re a foreigner living there and there’s a slight change you could be a CIA agent yourself (you never know, I suppose).

However, journalists telling the story of malnutrition are at best incompetent and at worst irresponsible to overlook this reality. More than that, boiling it all down the the peasants’ ignorance and backwards social customs is intensely wrong. In essence, it is a slightly masked form of victim blaming.

The fact that education is a good solution to a problem does not mean that lack of education is its underlying cause.

Discourse surrounding development and international aid is intensely moralizing. Either explicitly or implicitly, we’re always seeking to assign blame. All to often, the finger gets pointed at poor people themselves, even if subtly and unintentionally.

Claiming that the solution to poverty is education is pragmatic. However, claiming that the root problem is lack of education is not the same. It’s another way to say that the reason the poor are in their position is that they’re ignorant, uneducated, culturally backwards – that there’s some cultural or intellectual deficit that is preventing them from seeing progress in an otherwise flourishing and civilized world. This mentality has persisted since the days of colonization. Just because education is a good solution to a problem does not mean that lack of education is the underlying issue.

You can be pragmatic about the role of education in the solution to poverty while being honest and forthright about it’s causes – this is only fair to those who have historically been forced off their own homelands and had their farmland stolen from them time and time again, relegated to farming the infertile pine forests of the Western Highlands. This historical and political fact is a deep structural root of the current malnutrition crisis. While not the focus of most aid and development agencies, who look to education as a solution, this is a very real history which every person in Guatemala knows by heart.

If journalists are seeking to tell the real story about why half of Guatemala’s children are permanently stunted, jeopardizing the human capital of an entire country, they should get out their history books. To not do so is both and irresponsible and incompetent oversight that does not do justice to the people who are suffering daily trying to feed their families.

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2 thoughts on “PBS aired a special on malnutrition in Guatemala. Here’s what they got wrong.

    • It´s so bad that we have te thrird place on Malnutrition around the world. That situation has to change, for our own good. The state institution called MAGA is in charge of the food situation, so we hope they do something about it. 🙂 But we also could help by helping the poor people.

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