Latin America’s Relative Success in Fighting Hunger

Food distribution in a town in the Mexican state of Tabasco through one of the many government programmes created in Latin America in the last 15 years to fight hunger. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

Food distribution in a town in the Mexican state of Tabasco through one of the many government programmes created in Latin America in the last 15 years to fight hunger. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, May 29 2015 (IPS)

The Latin American and Caribbean region is the first in the world to reach the two global targets for reducing hunger. Nevertheless, more than 34 million people still go hungry.

“This is the region that best understood the problem of hunger, and it’s the region that has put the greatest emphasis on policies to assist vulnerable groups. The results achieved have been in accordance with that emphasis,” FAO regional representative Raúl Benítez told IPS.

According to The State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) 2015 report, released Wednesday by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), hunger affects 5.5 percent of the population of Latin America – or 34.3 million people.

That means the region has met the target of halving the proportion of hungry people from 1990 levels, established by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the international community in 2000, with a 2015 deadline.

These statistics also show that the region has lived up to what was agreed at the 1996 World Food Summit.

According to SOFI, 28 percent of the population of Latin America, estimated at a total of 605 million people, lives in poverty, compared to 44 percent in 2002. By contrast, the progress in reducing extreme poverty stalled two years ago.

With respect to the eradication of hunger, SOFI reports that South America made the greatest progress between the periods of 1990-1992 and 2012-2016. But South America, which accounts for 66 percent of the region’s total population, also has the largest number of undernourished people.

In that period, Central America also managed to reduce the number of hungry people, from 12.6 million to 11.4 million. However, the reduction in hunger has slowed down since 2013.

The Caribbean is lagging the most, with 7.5 million hungry people. That is mainly due to the situation in Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, where 75 percent of the Caribbean’s malnourished people live, the report states.

Haiti’s problems are deep-rooted, Eve Crowley, FAO deputy regional representative, said Thursday during the launch of the report at the agency’s regional office in Chile. They date back centuries and are linked to colonialism and land distribution, she added.

“The recent problem of political instability is a very important factor that has had a negative impact on economic growth,” she said. “Historical problems take a long time to fix.”

On the other hand, more than 30 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean have overcome hunger in the last 20 years, “revealing in the process a valuable repertoire of public policies that can serve as a basis for other contexts and regions,” the report says.

FAO regional representative Raúl Benítez at his office in the agency’s regional office in Santiago. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

FAO regional representative Raúl Benítez at his office in the agency’s regional office in Santiago. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

According to FAO, the improvements in food and nutritional security in the region were largely due to the “positive macroeconomic backdrop in the region during the last decade as well as the political commitment to fighting food insecurity exhibited by the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

The most recent expression of this commitment, Benítez told IPS, was the approval of the Food Security, Nutrition and Hunger Eradication Plan of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

The plan, a pioneer at the international level, proposes eliminating hunger by 2025 – a goal that encompasses several challenges, like mitigating the effects of climate change that mainly affect small-scale family farmers and the poor, who live in more complex, fragile ecosystems, Benítez said.

The task then is adaptation to climate change to achieve sustainable food production systems.

The challenges also include successfully weathering the economic slowdown that is not only affecting this region.

“The dangers of backsliding are always latent,” the FAO representative warned. “We have to raise awareness about the fact that this continues to affect millions of women, men and children in the region.

“Hunger deprives people of education, of health, even of citizenship, but it principally deprives people of freedom, and this affects all of us: the hungry and those who have full stomachs. We can’t allow any one of our Latin American or Caribbean sisters or brothers to continue to go hungry,” he added.

Benítez pointed out that in Latin America and the Caribbean the problem is not a lack of food, but the fact that the poor can’t afford it.

“It’s a problem of access, not production,” he stressed.

“Hunger is much more than a plate of food on a table, and it’s still a problem that affects all of us. It’s a regional problem, which means it needs a regional-level solution.”

Benítez said that “while all countries have been reducing the proportion of people who have managed to overcome the problem of hunger, some have done so faster than others.

“That means countries with more experience or the richest countries in the region have to help other countries, in order for them to speed up the process of eradicating hunger.”

Francisca Quiroga, a public policy expert at the University of Chile, told IPS that this new stage must be spearheaded by a change in model, from the current “extractivist” model to a new one based on more suitable forms of development and higher-quality public policies.

“Many social policies implemented by countries in the region with the aim of meeting the MDGs were focused on improving indicators or reducing the gaps based on statistics, but they failed to focus on issues that are so important for this region, such as inequality,” she said.

New problems have also arisen, such as the impact of climate change or access to the development of natural resources, or the poor quality of food, which means the new model must be sustainable, the academic added.

At the end of this year the MDGs will be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where the reduction of hunger is accompanied by other challenges involving food, such as the dangerous increase in obesity, which is becoming a major new global problem, Benítez said.

“The problem of obesity is something that we cannot stop analysing, because it has a severe impact on our populations,” she said. “It’s not as serious yet as the problem of hunger, but it threatens to become so.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

Scores of Sri Lankan Tamils Still Living Under the ‘Long Shadow of War’

A youth who lost his leg during the conflict stands by his vegetable stall in the town of Mullaitivu in northern Sri Lanka. He has a small family to look after and says he finds it extremely hard to provide for them. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A youth who lost his leg during the conflict stands by his vegetable stall in the town of Mullaitivu in northern Sri Lanka. He has a small family to look after and says he finds it extremely hard to provide for them. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Kanya D’Almeida

In many ways, Jayakumari Balendran epitomizes the plight of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces, both during and after the island nation’s 26-year-long civil conflict.

Her oldest son was shot dead in 2006 while working in the coastal town of Trincomalee, about 300 km east of the capital, Colombo, by ‘unidentified killers’.

“We are just trying to remind the government that there are people, communities, hundreds of thousands of families, waiting for justice.” — Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute
Abandoning her husband, she was forced to flee to Kilinochchi, a town in the north, which, at the time, served as the administrative nerve-centre for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the rebel group battling the government’s armed forces for an independent state for the country’s minority Tamil population.

Three years on, in May 2009, as the war dragged to a bloody finish, her second son was also killed – one of dozens who perished in the shelling of the Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital, an attack the army denies responsibility for.

Both boys were 19 years old at the time of their deaths.

Her third and final son, who was forcibly conscripted into the LTTE’s ranks as a child soldier, reportedly surrendered to government forces later that same month after the army overran LTTE-controlled areas and declared a decisive win over the rebels.

However, she has neither seen nor heard from him since, an ominous sign in a country where enforced disappearances are a common occurrence.

And her troubles did not end there. While protesting his disappearance, Jayakumari was arrested and imprisoned in the notorious Boosa prison, an institution that has become synonymous with torture.

Following presidential elections in January 2015 that saw the ouster of long-time president Mahinda Rajapaksa and the transfer of power to his former health minister Maithripala Sirisena, Jayakumari was released, in a move that activists took as a sign of safer and more just times to come.

But after returning to find her humble home ransacked and her possessions looted, Jayakumari was forced to place her daughter in an ashram for her own safety, while she herself move into a hut, the only place she could afford as a single mother – her husband died of cancer in 2012 – and where she now ekes out a rough living.

The converging issues that have defined her life over the past 10 years – war, disappearances, detention, displacement and abject poverty – are now the subject of an independent inquiry by a U.S. think-tank, the first of its kind to be released after the guns fell silent in 2009.

Titled ‘The Long Shadow of War’, the 37-page report by the California-based Oakland Institute (OI) details the unhealed wounds that still plague the former war zone, preventing civilians like Jayakumari from moving on with their lives.

During a press conference call Thursday, OI Executive Director Anuradha Mittal outlined some of the biggest hurdles to reconciliation, including continued heavy militarisation of the north and east, systematic erasure of Tamil history and culture, and the inability of the government to implement an effective mechanism to investigate alleged war crimes – for which both the government and the LTTE stand accused – committed during the last phase of the conflict.

Although Sirisena’s government has taken steps towards demilitarization, appointing a non-military civil servant as governor of the northern province in place of the former security forces commander who previously held the post, the presence of one soldier for every six civilians is a thorn in the side of many war-weary residents.

OI’s report quotes Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene as saying, as recently as February, that the government has no intention of removing or scaling down army formations in the Jaffna peninsula.

Furthermore, as Mittal pointed out Thursday, the army is not a passive presence. Rather, “it is engaged in property development, running luxury tourist resorts, whale-watching excursions, farming and other business ventures on land seized from local populations.”

Land and property have been major sticking points since 2009, with 90,000 of an estimated 480,000 people displaced during the last months of fighting still living in makeshift shelters, according to 2014 statistics published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

The situation has been particularly difficult for war widows, who are thought to number between 40,000 and 55,000, now tasked with providing single-handedly for their families.

For women like Jayakumari, poverty and unemployment combine with uncertainty over missing relatives to create a culture of fear, and stillborn grief.

Citing data from the United Nations as well as religious institutions on the ground in the Vanni – a vast swathe of land in the north and east – OI estimates the number of missing people to be between 70,000 and 140,000.

“So many mothers like me are wandering from place to place in search of their children,” Jayakumari said in a statement to the press this past Thursday.

“We need answers. The government should at least arrange a place where we can go and visit our children. I want my child,” she asserted.

Her demand strikes at the heart of what could well be the defining challenge for the present government: implementing a national reconciliation process centered on a credible investigation into wartime abuses.

In March last year, the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) agreed on a resolution that would have launched a war crimes inquiry, but the then-government barred independent researchers from entering the country.

Despite these roadblocks, the world body was set to release its findings earlier this year, but agreed to the fledgling government’s request to delay publication for six months – leading to criticisms over a perceived watering down of U.N. mandates to suit the whims of electoral politics.

“Given the past records of government inaction, international pressure is critical for any decisive action,” Mittal asserted. “Instead of pursuing their geostrategic interests, the U.S., India and other countries should demand the release of the U.N. inquiry.”

She clarified that urgent tone of the report is not an attack on the new government, but should rather serve as a reminder of the severity of the situation for ordinary Tamil people.

“We are just trying to remind the government that there are people, communities, hundreds of thousands of families, waiting for justice,” she noted.

The death toll during the war’s last stages remains a hotly contested figure, both within Sri Lanka and among the international community. U.N. data suggest that 40,000 people died, but the previous government insisted the number of dead did not exceed 8,000.

Meanwhile, a new book by the eminent research body University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) says the true death toll could be closer to 100,000.

This is one of just many unanswered questions that could be put to rest by a just reconciliation process.

Edited by Kitty Stapp