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Seeds of hope
by Martin Bissig and Thierry Meyrat

Proper nutrition is key to improving public health in Chiapas

Many people in Chiapas rely on humanitarian aid, due to political tensions, geographical isolation and forced displacement, which have particularly affected agricultural resources. As a result, for the last three years, the ICRC has been involved with local communities in projects aimed at gaining self-sufficiency.
Aseed is falling on fertile ground at a time when, on the political front, a solution might be in sight allowing for the return of the long-sought peace in Chiapas.

Peace in the area has been a long time coming. Following the upheaval of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) in January 1994 in the state of Chiapas (Mexico) and despite a ceasefire, the situation in many regions has remained unstable. The continued existence of antagonistic groups, the availability of small arms and the failed dialogue between the government and the EZLN maintained a climate of tensions and violence. On 22 December 1997, it all culminated with the massacre of 45 civilians, mostly women and children, in the village of Acteal (Municipio de Chenalhó).

In other areas of Chiapas, dozens of communities remain isolated by the conflict. Thousands of people are cut off from health services and other basic infrastructure. Since 1994, the ICRC and the Mexican Red Cross Society have maintained two health posts in the area, responding to medical emergencies and providing primary health programmes, such as vaccinations.

The displacement of some 6,000 people at the end of 1997 and early 1998 prompted the ICRC, in cooperation with the Mexican, Spanish and German Red Cross Societies, to start a food distribution programme in the Municipio de Chenalhó. The aim was to cover the needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) and 4,000 others living in dangerous security conditions.
Today this programme remains essential as the current situation still prevents IDPs from returning home or having access to their fields. It is crucial, however, that displaced and affected residents should not depend exclusively on outside help as their only ways of maintaining a degree of economic independence or diversifying their nutrition. In a region where most people are farmers, agriculture is the best answer and training programmes have been de-signed to meet their needs.

Food security

In the framework of the agro-training programmes, the displaced communities elect representatives - called promoters - whose responsibility it is to share the information they gather during their training. In the region of Los Altos, where most displaced people are living, 29 groups of farmers have each named a promoter who is attending the training course.

As a first step, community-based kitchen gardens were put together. Promoters were given tools, seeds and fences to build their own: to date, some 40 such gardens are supplying vegetables to displaced people.

As well as the distribution of seeds, new crops, such as soya, potatoes and peanuts were introduced.

Courses focused on the use of green manure, compost, biological pest control as well as seed recollection. Red Cross staff regularly visited the groups of farmers to give extra technical advice.

Some 30 hectares are now cultivated on the basis of sound ecological methods, using terraces and green manure.

Terraced demonstration plots were set up to combat the increasing land erosion and to encourage farmers to abandon their traditional slash-and-burn system. Around the terraces, leguminous bushes were planted in order to stabilize the plots and fertilize the soil. To help achieve that, the fast-growing, multipurpose plant Cajanus Cajan was grown. This plant can be eaten as peas or used as firewood, which helps meet an acute need since forests have been devastated for years by extensive chopping for domestic use.

At the same time, the use of a green manure plant called "Nescafe" (Mucuna pruriens), used in the area as a coffee substitute, was encouraged. In bordering Guatemala, where similar weather conditions prevail, yields of maize were be doubled this way.
Increasing food security not only means that production has to be improved, it also means that post-harvest losses, caused by rodents, insects and fungus have to be reduced. Surveys in Chiapas have shown that 15 to 25 per cent of maize and up to 50 per cent of bean crops are lost during storage.

A training programme on improving storage methods was initiated. It focuses on three lines of action: the protection of storage houses against rodents and insect damage by using local plants and ash as repellents; the construction of improved storage houses, where interested farmers could bring in the timber needed and the ICRC contributed to the tin roofing; and the introduction of metallic silos.

Medical relief supplies make their way through a checkpoint on the road to San Miguel, Chiapas

Towards primary health

Promoters attending primary health courses given by the ICRC in the region of Las Cañadas - which normally focus on topics such as diarrhoea, nutrition, pregnancy and birth, vaccination and first aid - are also trained, at their request, in sanitation and agricultural techniques. Participants are asked to identify the health problems they face and take part in designing appropriate answers to solve them. Once a plan is designed and agreed to by the community, the ICRC provides the material and the expertise needed. This approach has proved to be particularly effective as health problems experienced by the communities are addressed in an inclusive way, with the participation and support of all concerned.

Inviting beneficiaries to participate in the definition and, when possible, in the implementation of a humanitarian project is the best way to ensure its success. Experience shows that combining training and practice, with follow-up and support, and the choice of economically acces-sible technologies helps guarantee that communities will accept the project and take it on as their own.

In Mexico the ICRC focuses on providing relief to internally displaced people and residents affected by the situation in Chiapas. It also works with people who have been deprived of their freedom. Dissemination activities are carried out for members of the police forces and academies.
The Mexican Red Cross Society is cooperating in food distribution, medical relief and technical assistance programmes.

Martin Bissig et Thierry Meyrat
Martin Bissig is an ICRC agronomist in Mexico. Thierry Meyrat is ICRC head of delegation in Mexico.



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