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.
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
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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