The South American country of Peru is a rapidly developing nation as well as a tourism hotbed, courtesy of its coastal charm, lost Incan treasures, Amazonian allure and Andean peaks.
But behind the big cities and strong agricultural traditions, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says chronic malnutrition still exists in alarming numbers.
“Peru is an interesting place because it’s technically a middle-income country with dropping levels of poverty,” explains UNICEF Canada’s director of international programs Meg French. “Things look like they are improving, but the national figures are a little bit misleading.”
That’s because conditions for children in urban populations have been rapidly improving – with malnutrition rates below 10 per cent – but indigenous, rural populations still have chronic malnutrition rates of approximately 30 per cent.
For an outsider, it’s a difficult concept to grasp given how many families make a living from Peru’s fertile farmlands.
The problem, says UNICEF coordinator Deisy Moscoso, is that those families often sell their crops for profit and restrict their own children’s diets to soups.
Moscoso is based in Cusco, a sprawling Andean city renowned as the capital of the Inca Empire.
More than one million tourists pass through the metropolis each year on their way to one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu.
But beyond the city boundaries, many of the indigenous Quechuas still lack the knowledge to properly feed children under the age of three, stunting their development.
“It’s tricky because you don’t see full-out malnutrition,” said French. “Some of the children can look very healthy at first glance, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting the right nutrients and vitamins. On the inside, their brains may not be developing the same, and it affects everything from health to intellectual development.”
That’s starting to change.
With the help of UNICEF, community monitoring programs and health centres have been set up in outlying communities like Chumpe – a mountainside village of 96 families about an hour and a half drive north of Cusco.
Lamay, the region Chumpe is in, was the second poorest area of the province in 2000.
There, volunteers visit pregnant mothers and young children – constantly assessing their nutrition and diet, measuring weight, offering education and intervening when needed.
Maternal and child death rates have plummeted as a result, and few children now reach dangerous levels of malnutrition.
Since the community surveillance program launched in 2001, malnutrition rates in the community have dropped to 25 per cent, down from 61.
UNICEF now takes a hands-off approach, as the program is run under the village’s municipal leadership.
“The community has taken ownership,” said Moscoso during a recent tour of the village, through an interpreter. “That’s what’s important because they now want a better life for their children.”