Feeding (ourselves) during disaster

Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute

The year 2020 has laid bare the incompetence of institutions and public services, and the lack of political will to transform structural conditions that consolidate the eternal crisis that the majority of disadvantaged people experience. Moreover, far from there being interest in settling the debt that regional States owe their citizens, it appears that the people in control of government positions seek, like leeches, to bleed dry the very people who, by constitutional mandate, they should serve.

Perhaps this analogy between blood-sucking worms and the political class is not the ideal way in which to introduce the theme of this article – the delivery of food as a post-Natural disaster intervention strategy. It may be better, in this instance, to compare these governments with intestinal parasites that create malnutrition and anaemia in the boys and girls of Mesoamerica.

It is well known that Guatemala has the highest incidence of child malnutrition in the whole of Latin America; less well known is that it is often the children of indigenous and rural origin who are most affected, regardless of whether they are part of the farming population or not. The causes and effects of this poor diet are not due to one single factor but relate to multiple issues which highlight the many links between distinct sectors of society.

Just as child malnutrition is related to many factors, any one factor can have an impact on multiple social issues. Short-term vision and planning, for example, has an impact on levels of investment in risk mitigation; despite the high environmental risks faced by a region, few resources are allocated to preventative policies. It is the very same short-term vision that impedes the prevention of worsening of food crises during environmental disasters.

When environmental catastrophes occur, traffic via roads, sea and across borders is limited or blocked. However, we depend on these foods moving so that raw materials are able to arrive first at factories, where they are turned into products, and then to distribution centres before reaching the consumer. It should be noted that this food production chain, dependent on the use of monocultures, chemicals, exports, and exploitative labour, increases environmental vulnerability. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the creation of pollutants as a result of food production, transportation, and manufacturing, as well as the mishandling of containers, wrappers, and other solid waste.

The products within this packaging, rather than meeting nutritional requirements or cultural practices of the population, meet the consumerist values promoted by the food industry. Biscuits, instant soups, refined flours, fortified cereals and atoles [cornflour drink], juices, canned products, and other industrial foods, in addition to damaging people’s health, foster the loss of ancestral knowledge about edible plants and how to prepare them.

In addition to the aforementioned, there are also repercussions of an economic nature. Money that is invested in the purchasing and distribution of food products ends up in the hands of large companies, thus contributing to the widening inequality between those living in poverty and the small minority who hoard their money. When one analyses the economic variables, it becomes clear that the many strategic errors in food delivery systems are due not only to the incompetence of the ruling elite, but also to the excessive greed of those holding political power.

The approval of a national budget which serves the interests of the Guatemalan elites, besides demonstrating their greed, sounds like the growling stomach of a monster that wants to gorge itself on every resource available. Fortunately, Guatemala has once again demonstrated that the appetite of any beast can be stalled by the power of popular protest: something important to remember for the near future.

If fuelling the gluttony of powerful groups with public resources funded by taxes and loans is entirely deplorable, then it is yet more deplorable when the government puts personal interests before the good of the population. Worse yet, they seek to obtain a slice of the political action by leading the population to believe that the delivery of food is thanks to the kindness of the government.

An example of this is the way in which the food donation made by El Salvador (whose public debt is 92% of national GDP) to Guatemala (with a debt of 31% of national GDP) and Honduras (with a debt of 56% of national GDP) became international news. Thanks to the excessive propaganda campaign that typifies the government of President Bukele – currently occupied with stopping the decline in popularity of the ‘millennial dictator’ – his generosity was exalted. Conveniently, it was not acknowledged that this food was funded by loans, nor that it was illicitly purchased from Salvadoran, Mexican and Brazilian companies linked to cases of corruption and money laundering, audits of whose purchases were blocked by the President via the army and the police force.

At this point, it is worth asking whether the analogy between heads of state and intestinal parasites is fair to the latter. Whilst the livelihood of the parasite depends upon the thieving of nutrients, the ruling elites who have usurped political and economic power possess the resources to not only satisfy their own needs, but to improve the quality of life of entire nations. In any case, it is futile to continually remove intestinal parasites so long as the conditions that allow their transmission remain the same. Therefore, we should focus on promoting mechanisms that help us to tackle the current food crisis, which only continues to worsen during and after environmental disaster.

By recognising the complexity of social dynamics relating to food provision (well-illustrated by the delivery of food packages), the importance of proposals made by civil organisations that constantly fall on deaf ears becomes more and more obvious. Strategies such as the redistribution of land through agrarian reform; the transition from the current agricultural model to environmentally friendly alternatives; the strengthening of local markets; the diversification of crops to include creole and native species; and the promotion of food sovereignty will help minimise the impact of impending natural disasters, whilst at the same time these strategies will contribute to the transformation of our disappearing social structures. Will we take up this responsibility, or will we wait until the white flag once again reminds us of the urgency of this situation?