The mountainous town of Camotán, in eastern Guatemala, is synonymous with hunger. A staggering 89 percent of the municipality’s population lives in poverty, water resources are scarce and the infant mortality rate is the highest in the country.
In November 2011, a local NGO launched a lawsuit on behalf of five children against the state of Guatemala for failing to protect them against malnutrition.
In what was a landmark legal ruling in Latin America, a judge found the government guilty in a 2013 decision — but nothing much has changed.
Six-year-old Brayan still lives in a straw hut with a mud floor, high up in the mountains. He gets tired easily, doesn’t speak much and suffers from a rare growth disorder that doctors say might be a result of a genetic condition or a lifetime of poor nutrition.
“I felt content when they said the judge had resolved the case,” said Brayan’s mother, Santos Floridalma. “I thought, ‘oh great,’ and they said that soon [the government] would have to do things. But now we’re some time on and we haven’t seen anything. The institutions take the word of a judge as a joke.”
According to the World Food Program, Guatemala´s malnutrition rate is the highest in the region and the fourth highest in the world. In 2012, the government launched its flagship program to end poverty called Hambre Cero (Zero Hunger), but it has yet to reach all areas of the country.
During the court case, four-year-old Mayra received a hip operation that enabled her to walk properly for the first time in her life, and medication to combat the diarrhea that doctors feared would kill her.
“My daughter was really bad: she had diarrhea and she didn’t get better, just diarrhea every day and every night. I took her to the doctor and he told me it was from birth and that she had little time. We couldn’t continue in this condition,” said Angelina Raymundo, Mayra’s mother.
The judge ruled that the state had violated the children’s human rights to nourishment, an adequate life, health, housing and education, and ordered the government to implement 28 actions in order to reduce malnutrition and improve living conditions in the area.
However, the state’s reaction has been slow and poorly executed. The Ministry of Labor created textile workshops for about 75 local women, but since there is no market in Camotán for the products they produced, the women who learned to weave have yet to earn any money from their new skill.
“For agricultural workers and small producers, the Right to Food – recognized worldwide – is linked to access to land and water. Hunger can no longer be addressed just by assistance policies during periods of crisis. It is urgent to address and bring solutions to the structural issue of land, which is concentrated in very few hands,” said Laura Hurtado, Country Director of ActionAid Guatemala, which supported the NGO, Nuevo Día, during the trial.
And if the impact of the trial on the families has been small — with the most significant change being that each of them now receives a few extra monthly food rations, such as another bag of rice or packet of beans — it has been practically nonexistent in the surrounding villages.
“That the judges stated that there were violations is of course a result, but the goal right now is that these teachings reach more Guatemalans,” said José Castillo, Program Coordinator at Nuevo Día, which took the cases to court. “We are facing a government whose public policies don’t respond to Guatemala’s reality. This process, what it wants to do is tell the State to modify its policies. This is the only way to stop poverty and malnutrition.”