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Drought, politics and war lead to famine


The reasons vary -- war, political corruption and economic catastrophe among them -- but whatever the cause, 840 million people in the world are malnourished.

In Guatemala, for example, farmers have lost up to 90 percent of their corn and bean crops due to drought. And the near collapse of the coffee export markets in neighboring El Salvador and Nicaragua -- prices are at an eight-year low -- means lower wages for coffee pickers lucky enough to keep their jobs.

The unlucky ones, those who can no longer feed themselves or their families, look north to enter the United States illegally in search of work; others leave rural communities for urban slums, searching, often fruitlessly, for opportunity.

“What we’re seeing is a slow-motion tragedy that has left hundreds of thousands of families, and especially their young children, hungry and malnourished,” said Jed Hoffman, Catholic Relief Services regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The situation is perhaps even bleaker in war-torn Afghanistan, a nation whose political and social infrastructure was ravaged by decades of war and years of Taliban rule. A five-year drought has exacerbated an already disastrous situation, said Catholic Relief Services’ Paul Butler, who returned to the United States earlier this month after a one-year stint administering aid programs in Afghanistan. Catholic Relief Services has three offices in the country.

“The feeling in Afghanistan is that the process [of rebuilding and getting assistance] is moving much too slowly,” said Butler. Why the delay? Part of the problem, said Butler, is the failure of the U.S. Congress to finish work on appropriations bills that will fulfill the U.S. commitment of $138 million in food and agricultural assistance to Afghanistan. Congress is expected to act on the legislation during its “lame duck” session.

Other observers, meanwhile, say the United States is contributing to Afghanistan’s instability through its post-war reconstruction policies. Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Mahmoud Karzai, said recently that U.S. efforts to provide humanitarian assistance are undermined by American alliances with vicious warlords who still control territory throughout the country.

Few Afghans will literally starve to death this winter, said Butler, but many -- especially children -- will die of diseases directly attributable to the lack of proteins or fruits and vegetables in their bread-only diets.

A bright spot in this otherwise bleak scenario: 40 years ago, Afghanistan was a food-exporting nation, explained Butler. “They were very engaged in agricultural markets, so they have the know-how.”

Meanwhile, said Butler, the most important aspect of alleviating the Afghan food crisis is out of the hands of relief workers and governments. “The drought has got to come to an end.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002