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Mitch relief to take years in Guatemala


GUATEMALA CITY (Feb. 9, 1999) -- The process of rebuilding the lives

tattered by Hurricane Mitch, the worst storm to hit this mountainous

Central American republic in two centuries must be measured in years, say

relief officials.

"It will take several years before the most affected regions are able to

return to pre-Mitch status. Food production and supply in 1999 will be tight

until new crops can be planted and harvested," said Jed Hoffman, program

coordinator for Catholic Relief Services' (CRS) Guatemala and Mexico Program.

Recent assessments say Mitch's rain and subsequent flooding devastated more

than 2 million acres of farmland. That equates to 9% of Guatemala's

cultivable land, with banana, coffee, corn, and bean crops being the hardest


"Mitch struck the highlands first with high winds, then with a week of

relentless rain. The wind flattened acre after acre of corn nearly ready

for harvest. Thousands of families will not have food for the coming six

months." said Barbara Gottlieb, a relief worker the Center for Christian

Services Foundation (CEDESCRI).

The country faced food shortages before the storm even struck. According to

a report by the Instituto de Nutricion, they were 40% shy of meeting their

basic demand for beans. Also, late last summer a caterpillar plague wiped out

nearly 40% of El Peten's corn crops.

"This is a primary concern due to the danger of increased malnutrition, health

problems, and infant mortality," Hoffman continued.

Gone with a chunk of the food supply are the jobs connected to agriculture. At

least 60% of the country's labor force depends on agriculture. Hoffman

expects Guatemala will face an out-migration problem when the jobless begin to

search for new sources of income in the urban areas. A rural exodus, he said,

will force the government and humanitarian assistance agencies to create a

"unified and lasting response."

"We have a six-month emergency feeding plan in place to help those communities

who lost locally-grown food supplies and stocks,.. and we are providing small

farmers with seeds and tools to produce their own staple foods," Hoffman said.

Their long-term goals, and CRS intends on continuing their relief effort

through most of this year, involves a water systems rehabilitation plan.

CEDESCRI has directed its work to the future too. Gottlieb said they have

composed a longer-scale "reconstruction" plan to stimulate food production and

to ward off wide-scale hunger. "Consultations will be held with the affected

communities to assess their needs, priorities, and availability to work. If

they request it and commit themselves to assuming the work involved, we will

provide them seed corn, agricultural inputs, chicken and other barnyard

animals, and training in organic agriculture techniques˜to relieve campesinos

of their dependency on chemical fertilizers."

Based in Guatemala City, CRS has been working on Guatemala's relief effort

since Oct. 28. It has supplied emergency food and supplies to some of

the most devastated regions, like Izabal.

Hoffman said has organization is collaborating with USAID, the World Food

Program, CARE, the Cooperative Housing Foundation, and Guatemala's


CEDESCRI is headquartered in the highlands, and has assisted by caring for the

needs in El Quiche and Alta Verapaz. During the first critical weeks, they

responded to Mitch, in coordination with the Catholic churches, by providing

food, clothing, and roofing to families.

Beyond her work for CEDESCRI, Gottlieb served four years on the staff of

Guatemala's Network in Solidarity and directed Guatemala Partners for five

years. "Any profound response to Hurricane Mitch must look beyond the

immediate emergency. It must recognize why the poor are so vulnerable to

disasters. And it must assist in the task -- admittedly long-scale -- of

helping them rise out of poverty," Gottlieb said.

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