Chapter 6: Malnutrition in Latin America

We realized in the last chapter that the child terrorists are not as young as Patchett made them out to be. In Chapter 4, we are drawn to the idea that the hostages were dealing with children from their childish antics, described as “moody, irrational, anxious for confrontation” and considered too young to be holding weapons. It isn’t until Carmen revealed her age, 17 years old, that we realize how well Patchett spun this illusion, likely to make us empathize more for these young terrorists. Although it’s not all that big of a difference from my idea of them being 14 years and younger, 17 is an age we see as one year closer to being considered an adult. Therefore, Carmen should be close to her physical maturity. The lack of description for her height and weight makes it difficult for me to determine if she is the average or malnourished. Initially, she passed as a boy primarily because the hostages didn’t expect there to be girls in the terrorist group. However, I think that Gen’s observation of Carmen wearing “a wide leather belt around her narrow waist” may be an indicator of her being malnourished. This got me wondering about the extent of poverty that would lead to malnutrition in Latin American countries.

I began to further contemplate the poor economical standing of Latin American countries and it led me to their poverty rates. Since 2011, they reported that 4.6% of the population is living on less than $1.25 a day. 27.6 million of poor people are accounted for in this percentage, which is a more intimidating number to look at considering that these are still people needing the resources to stave off hunger and decreased well being.1 This poverty headcount rate is defined as the proportion of the population living in households below the international poverty line. The poverty line is used to measure poverty based on consumption of income levels. Consumption is calculated for the entire household and divided by the number of member living there. 2 However, this is not a good tool for measuring the depth of poverty in the country because it doesn’t distinguish between the people that live in just below the poverty line (less poor) and the people who sank further below (more poor) the poverty line. Primary users of this rating are policy makers and donors who want to make the largest impact by reducing poverty rate in those closest to the poverty line. Those people represent the least poor so the true poor populations are left helpless as they are persistently disregarded. The appropriate saying for this is that the “rich gets richer and the poor gets poorer”.

The United Nations (UN) has an extensive account on child malnutrition found in Latin America and the Caribbean. The forefront of this problem is extreme poverty. Food accessibility is further limited by low income, low levels of parental education and knowledge for providing their children the proper nutrition, and debridement of proper medical care and nutritious counseling. South American countries produce enough food to cover three times the current population’s consumption needs, yet 53 million people lack access to food and this results in 16% of the population’s children to suffer from “chronic undernutrition”. Undernutrition is the stunting of the child’s growth resulting in a shorter stature for their age in addition to being underweight. Chronic undernutrition affects 8.8 million children under 5 in this region that then becomes a chronic issue. These children are at a critical age where their body needs greater nourishment for maximum development yet they are unable to receive proper nutritional requirements. Sometimes it is simply because their parents are unable to provide for them with the circumstances they’ve been dealt with.3

Other factors that contribute to the lack of food accessibility include environmental problems and geographical isolation. Rural homes in areas where agriculture is threatened by environmental risks such as frequent droughts, floods, and earthquakes will have higher levels of malnutrition and infant mortality. Homes that do not have access to potable water and basic sanitation are also at an increased risk of contracting infectious diseases. The UN found people residing in the mountains of South America have a higher “prevalence of undernutrition in homes with water from unsafe sources (rivers, lakes or wells) 11-15%, approximately twice as high as in homes with access to tap water”.3

There are also considerable disparities between the countries that should be noted. “A child living in a rural area is between 1.5 and 3.7 times more likely to be underweight than a child living in an urban area. Similarly, indigenous children are four time more likely to be underweight than urban children”. 3 When I researched Quechua, I learned that it is the native language of the largest indigenous ethnic group in South America. There are currently approximately 2.5 million of the ethnic group versus the 10 million who adopted the language (speakers) found throughout South America but primarily in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. More Quechua migrated into the ridges and valleys of the Andes mountains and east into the rainforest of the Amazon Basin. They form isolated communities. In the mountains they deal with “Subsistence agriculture, a constant battle for survival against the elements, the domestication of wild, indigenous animal species.” The rainforest Quechua deal with rivers as their primary form of transportation, “electricity is provided, if at all, by solar panels, spanish is spoken much less than in the mountains, only the larger communities have schools, [and] for many of these rainforest Quichua communities their primary contact with the outside world is by battery-powered radio.” 4 Since learning this, I can assume that the terrorist children originate from a similar indigenous group. Therefore, they are forced to grow up and endure harsher circumstances than anything the hostages could imagine. Furthermore, indigenous groups are characterized by extreme poverty, discrimination and geographical isolation resulting in greater prevalence of malnutrition in their children. 3 This would further explain how Carmen and Beatriz could pass as boys because they are likely stunted and underweight.

After these findings, the closing questions I need to pose are “How do we change this?” and “What policies are being implemented to fix the problem?” Poverty is not a new problem. It was and continues to be a prevailing problem for every country in the world. Malnutrition in children that reside in impoverished countries is a further indicator of the social inequalities. Malnutrition is as much the cause as is the result of poverty. Being malnourished causes vulnerability to injuries and diseases, lack of productivity, and poor education. In order to break the endless cycle of poverty, ending malnutrition by improving quality of life for these people may be the key. The United Nations (UN) devised the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 to combat extreme poverty “in its many dimensions of income poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter while promoting gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability.” I believe that their approach to the problem is straightforward and focused. They understand that poverty is not a single entity that can be dealt with immediately. It is of no surprise that this would take years to achieve.  A more thorough list of these goals is: 5

1: Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty

2: Achieve Universal Primary Education

3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women

4: Reduce Child Mortality

5: Improve Maternal Health

6: Combat HIV/AIDs, Malaria and other diseases

7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability

8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development

Although, the UN reports having significant progress in achieving these goals there is still huge disparities across and within countries that have yet to be remedied. We should also consider that there might be gaps in the data where areas underreport that extent of poverty in the rural and urban areas of those countries. In the future, I would like to pursue more about the indigenous people so I may have a better understanding of their standards of living. How do they perceive poverty and how are they acting to improve their standard of living? Are most revolutionary groups like the terrorists from indigenous groups seeing how poverty affects their people and trying to make a difference? It would also be quite beneficial if I find the chance to compare the rate of poverty and malnutrition in other more developed countries like the US to better evaluate its full extent on our world. How does poverty define the state of a country? Can a country exist without poverty? Will saving children from poverty eventually lead to an end to poverty in the future?

Hannah Celemen


  1. Poverty and Equity: Latin America & Caribbean. The World Bank. 2015. 6 Oct 2015. Web.

2. Poverty headcount ratio at $1.25 a day (PPP) (% of population). The World Bank. 2015. 6 Oct 2015. Web.

3. Child Malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean. United Nations Publication. 2006. 6 Oct 2015. Print.

4. Education for and about Indigenous People. The Peoples of the World Foundation. 2015. 6 Oct 2015. Web.

5. What they are. UN Millenium Project. 2006. 6 Oct 2015. Web.


One thought on “Chapter 6: Malnutrition in Latin America

  1. katelynzander says:

    I enjoy how three students in the class chose a topic that relates to food but all in such a different way. Your focus on the malnutrition throughout Latin American countries has been an ongoing problem for many decades and has remained a constant struggle for natives to find a solution. I recently watched a documentary about a city in Mexico and how their culture has changed over the past fifty years. One man described that he was one of the only farmers left in the area and how although he didn’t have any money he was able to provide for his family.
    I do not believe that lack of money has become the problem, but more the globalization that has been forced upon these countries. People have become dependent on global companies to provide them with resources instead of being a self-sufficient community which they once thrived on. This documentary mentioned the large shift the local markets took. The once bustling markets filled with local veggies, fruits and herbs are now filled with junk food along with processed and packaged food. Mexico has the perfect environment for growing bananas but today most of their fruits are imported. The skill of farming is slowly dying from their culture and the communities are going to become fully reliant on imports to survive. An interesting idea would be how their diets have changed over the last fifty years in Latin America. Are they really not eating healthy because they are poor or are they unhealthy because they no longer support themselves as a country I would see if there is more information what these importing laws have caused a rise of malnutrition with in these countries.


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