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Indigenous children die of malnutrition in Argentina

Despite years of strong economic growth, bumper harvests and huge social care and food assistance programmes, there are still pockets in Argentina where hunger and malnutrition persist.

In the northern province of Salta, home to around 1 million people, per capita income is half the national average and remote indigenous communities live in particular poverty. This year alone, at least ten indigenous children from this region have died from malnutrition.

Argentina is sometimes known as the ‘bread basket’ of South America and produces enough produce to feed its population 10 times over. But most of this produce is destined for foreign markets; the country is one of the world’s largest exporters of food and along with 3 others, now provides nearly 70 per cent of the world’s fresh vegetables.

Despite the abundance of food grown in Argentina, the Health Ministry says 750,000 children under 18 suffer from health issues due to lack of nutrition. Part of the problem is that forests and areas where remote communities traditionally gathered foods high in protein, have been turned over to agriculture. In Salta, an area of around 600,000 hectares of forest has been cleared in recent years by farming corporations who have planted vast fields of soy beans, corn and cereals.

Cash transfer schemes have been put in place nationally for poor families with children under 18 and universal child benefit was introduced in 2009 (although nearly 3 million children do not come under the cover of this benefit for various reasons). However, social experts are skeptical how far such allowances address chronic malnutrition. Money is often used by families to pay for a range of necessities such as clothes and cooking gas and sometimes used to purchase items such as soft drinks and high-sugar foods which can aggravate malnutrition.

Experts therefore agree that in Argentina, problems of malnutrition are not simply a question of lack of food. They argue that the country needs to adopt policies which help build better awareness of nutrition and health issues among poor communities. Mothers also need to be encouraged to seek medical assistance when their children become ill. To address such underlying problems, the local government in Salta province has therefore asked the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to set up programs for remote communities and help poor families adapt to the changes brought by a growing export economy.

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