Surrounded by a great group of international reporters, I traveled to Guatemala to help put a face on the global fight against hunger and highlight this small country's struggle to defeat endemic poverty and widespread food insecurity.
This was my third Media Tour as Ambassador to the UN Agencies in Rome, a tradition established by my distinguished predecessor, Senator George McGovern and enthusiastically maintained by other USUN ambassadors before me. The idea is to take to the road and bring along a team of journalists from different countries, so they can see the diverse work U.S. and the UN agencies are doing on the ground around the world. In Guatemala, I was accompanied by a group of five journalists from Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Honduras. They were equipped with a variety of cameras, recorders, notebooks -- and ready smiles.
Guatemala has the largest population in Central America (14 million people); it is rich in fertile land and natural resources, yet 53 percent of the population lives in poverty, 13 percent in extreme poverty. Most of these are rural indigenous people, many of Maya descent, who make up about 40 percent of the population. It is they who are affected more than anyone else by the most tragic consequence of poverty in the country: chronic malnutrition.
The chronic malnutrition rate for children under five in Guatemala is 49.8 percent, the highest in Latin America, and the fourth highest in the world. It increases to 66 percent in the indigenous communities. Chronic malnutrition in young children stunts growth, both physical and mental, and has irreversible consequences on health, education and productivity.
You see it right away. I asked two little girls, who giggled and eyed me shyly, how old they were. "Cinco," said the little one in blue, squinting. "Ocho," said the older sister, proudly.
"No way," I thought, until I looked into their eyes and saw the (relative) wisdom of a five-year old in a child the height of a two-year old. Mature faces in toddler-size bodies.
The girls (and the rest of their friends and neighbors from Zaculeu, in the Chimaltenango district, a few hours west of Guatemala City) proceeded to trail me as I visited a one-room health clinic with a weighing station, where a woman had brought her son, and was being given advice on improving her child's nutrition. After that, we clambered down the hillside to see a proud family's vegetable garden built on terraces in the steep hill. It was small, but rich with a variety of vegetables ready for picking.
This is a USAID SHARE project, thanks to which families get assistance in growing vegetables and raising poultry. They are also taught how to prepare more nutritious food with what they grow, and to manage their income and resources.
When it was time to go, the tiny mayor in his wide-brimmed hat and bright green shirt gathered the men of the town around U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Arnold Chacon and me for a good-bye photo.
The drive from Zaculeu was stunning, weaving (lots) up and down the mountains (no tunnels), past volcanoes and through wooded valleys, across lively market towns, to a big open field at 6,000 feet. A blue cloth had been tied between four trees to provide shade . It was great to stretch our legs and walk in the crisp mountain air of San Pedro Jocopilas . Here, at the La Primavera community, WFP and FAO provide the indigenous, small subsistence farmers with tools and skills to help them increase their production. They teach them soil and water management, encourage them to raise farm animals (we saw turkeys, rabbits, and a big rough black pig) and generally provide support to make more food available to them and reduce malnutrition.
Here, I had a determined assistant: a Quiche' woman who decided I needed help, quickly took me by the arm, and held me tightly as we clambered up and down the hill looking into chicken coops and rabbit huts. Along the way, women told us in the local Quiche' language how, after training, they now disinfect and store their seeds properly. In one woman's sparse kitchen there were four pots and five little black tortillas cooking at once on the flat surface of her primitive wood stove. Opening her pots, she explained that now she incorporates vegetables and meat in her dishes, to supplement the standard corn and beans.
I was struck by the pride these people showed as they patiently explained what they had achieved, and I was struck by the fact that all but one demonstration was by the women.
I was pleased to see these two sister UN agencies putting their forces together to help this struggling community in such a magnificent location become self-sufficient, giving them the tools they need to increase their food production, feed their children properly, and one day perhaps even sell at market.
Projects like these, tailored to the country and the local community, are a strong stride in the right direction. They don't attempt to revolutionize time-tried customs, but strengthen them with new skills and knowledge.
It had been a long day, but the tiny Quiche' woman's strong grip on my arm, and the bright look on the weathered faces as I thanked the community for its hospitality told me I was where I needed to be.
As the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Agencies in Rome, I spend the best part of my time in meetings and conferences with the representatives of dozens of countries discussing what we should do to end hunger: proposing programs and solutions, contemplating ways to finance them, and ensuring all this is done efficiently. This work is fundamental. But unless you climb into a car in Guatemala (or Tanzania, or Bangladesh) and head for the back-country, it has no context.
So, thanks to colleagues from the U.S. Embassy to Guatemala, the World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), And most of all, a very special thanks to the incredible people of Guatemala who so wonderfully illustrated why our fight to end hunger around the world is critically important...and why we have so many reasons to remain encouraged, committed and unflaggingly engaged.