Indigenous children in Peru are growing up stunted and with cognitive impairments, and food aid programmes are part of the problem.
For the Ashaninka people in the rural Peruvian province of Satipo, several factors led to malnutrition; migration of people to the land they live and hunt on, an increasing population, deforestation and certain farming techniques all meant they had less food from natural sources in the forest.
A new report based on interviews with the Ashaninka people reveals that what also increased the community's profound and lasting hunger were the food aid programmes designed to solve it, and the lessons learned here could be applied globally.
In response to the devastating malnutrition faced by indigenous communities like the Ashaninka, the Peruvian government has taken an approach championed by international organisations including The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Bank and the World Food Programme (WFP). This is the traditional 'food aid' approach carried out throughout the Majority World, based on the distribution of pre-packaged food produced externally (often by multinational food companies) and brought in to malnourished communities. This method has caused several problems for the Ashaninka community, which could have wider implications for global food aid policy.
A significant flaw is that the people the programmes were meant to be helping were not consulted in their design. As all marketers know, you may think you know what your 'target market' wants and needs, but unless you carry out market research you could miss vital information that renders your plan ineffective.
In this case the lack of involvement of the Ashaninka people meant local knowledge and dietary histories were not taken into account. This led to the frequent provision of inappropriate foodstuffs and astonishing errors such as largely lactose intolerant communities being provided with milk as a staple food. As a local Ashaninka professor put it, "we Ashaninkas are not used to eating the kinds of food donated. The kids don't like it, the food makes them sick and creates health problems. They don't go to indigenous communities to figure out what foods would be best."
The Peruvian government has taken measures to improve things; a later food aid programme brought in to the Satipo region took a slightly more participatory approach by using "buying committees" of community members who are in charge of selecting the foods to be included in the pre-cooked meals which are then distributed to schools.
But these buying committees cover a huge region and the Ashaninka people report receiving no information about the programme. In fact they have had no involvement at all in determining which foods are purchased despite the fact that the programme is running in their children's schools.
Perhaps the most significant flaw in the food aid approach is its unsustainability. Putting resources into bringing food in from elsewhere rather than strengthening local peoples' capacity to produce their own food is not conducive to a long-term solution to hunger and malnutrition. It creates dependency and means communities lose the skills they need to be self-sufficient. As one community leader said, "The government, by giving us things, is killing us with hunger....you eat and empty a can of tuna, and the next day, what are you going to eat? Tuna doesn't produce more food. You could plant it, but nothing would be produced. But, at least for now, if the government was able to provide seeds that could grow, we could plant that."
The use of externally produced foods in food aid programmes is part of a wider shift towards market-based food consumption, which creates further problems. This community is poor - that's part of the reason they're hungry in the first place - and the high cost of nutritious food frequently prevents them from buying it. Relying on buying food also leaves them vulnerable to the volatile global food market; during a price spike in 2007 and 2008, for example, the prices of major foods such as legumes rose by 29% and pig meat by 13%. The Ashaninka people, like poor communities around the world, experience a very close link between food price fluctuations and calorific intake - when prices go up they eat less, which means a fragile dependence on externally sourced, commercially bought food leaves them at an extremely high risk.
Of course the story in Peru is not simple. Various elements have combined to lead to this situation and the solution is far from straightforward either. But there are lessons to be learned from the Ashaninkas, not least in their desire to have the means to produce food.
Enabling communities to have the power to produce their own food rather than rely on externally produced hand-outs is an approach known as 'food sovereignty'. It is about the human right to food, and communities having the power over their own means of production, and there is evidence to suggest it is a more effective approach. In 2002 a large scale study of almost 9 million farmers across Latin America, Africa, and Asia showed that when communities have the ability to produce their own food via gardens, fish ponds, and similar methods, coupled with a good use of natural resources like water and natural fertilizers, they have more access to food. In fact, in the year after these measures were implemented, 75% of participants reported being free from hunger. This is the approach that Health Poverty Action is taking, working with the Ashaninka to implement gardens, fish ponds and chicken coops, and seeking to influence the local authorities to incorporate these approaches in their own programmes.
It's important not to forget that food aid does save lives in genuine malnutrition emergencies. But that does not mean it is the only measure that should be taken or that it is the best long-term solution. If the experience of the Ashaninkas are anything to go by, a long term answer should involve prioritising the development of local agricultural and food production using local resources to achieve self-sufficiency, with food aid programmes being an interim measure that are designed with the involvement of the community they are intended to help.
Health Poverty Action has launched a report today called 'Killing us with hunger: Indigenous perspectives on nutrition, food aid and food sovereignty in the central Amazon of Peru.'
Follow Sarah K Edwards on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@healthpoverty