COVID-19 is increasingly perceived as a threat, but not only to our health and economy. As the virus progresses, hunger, food insecurity and violations of the right to food increases rapidly, mainly affecting the most vulnerable populations.
The global pandemic affects our food systems, putting small producers, merchants, entrepreneurs, markets and informal food sellers as well as consumers at risk. As stated by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS): "It has never been so important for all of us to focus our collective energy and our efforts on promoting sustainable and resilient food systems".
In La Paz, Bolivia and Huánuco, we are facing a wide range of risks in our food system. Although countries have different responses and possibilities, the vulnerability of people throughout the food system is evident in both scenarios.
One of the groups that is most affected by the crisis are people who work in small scale production and who do not always have permission to sell their products in the city. Protection mechanisms are not guaranteed, and distances are often too great to move safely. Although both Peru and Bolivia are granting transit permits to small farmers, the process can become bureaucratic and leave producers with unsold products.
There are also repercussions in small towns, due to complications in transporting their products to the cities and bringing back other essential staple foods. There are cultural repercussions as well, for example, in some towns near La Paz, people are afraid that when they go out to sell the products in the city they could catch the virus and carry it to the towns.
Agribusiness companies are the current big winners
Agribusiness companiese enjoy logistical support of local and national governments and can meet the necessary requirements to guarantee biosecurity.
A great deal of products are left with the producers without being consumed and are going to waste. In Bolivia many people are "residents", that is, they live in the city and often travel to their communities to tend the crop. Right now, it is harvesting season for potatoes and other products. With travel restrictions in place these products cannot be harvested and there will be a significant loss of products and food. Similarly, products that were destined for the gastronomic and hotel industry don't have a market now.
Although the markets remain open, there are generally no mechanisms to protect vendors. They have to walk to get to their work centres and very few spaces have biosafety measures implemented. In the same way, several markets are generally full of street vendors, who need to go out to earn their daily living. These markets are open daily and although they contribute positvely to the food supply, they can be a source of infection for vendors and consumers if they do not have the appropriate security measures.
The wholesalers or intermediaries are the ones taking advantage of this situation at the expense of the producers. Since a large number of producers cannot go out to sell their products, intermediaries or wholesalers buy these products at minimum prices. Producers are forced to sell them to earn some income.
One of the sectors strongly affected by the quarantine, is gastronomy. In most cases, small businesses must not only pay their employees but also rent and loans. In La Paz, these small businesses were closed during the conflicts of October 2019 and a large number were close to shutting down. Many were slowly recovering but in the face of this new crisis, there is a high possibility that they will not be able to reopen. So far, the government has showed little support or incentives for this sector to pick up their business again.
In the case of Huánuco, Peru there is a similar situation. All "non-essential" businesses are closed, putting the economic livelihoods of thousands of people at risk. However, the Peruvian government has approved an unprecedented economic stimulus package, which includes aid for independent workers and companies that generate employment. This may reach the gastronomic enterprises. Also, the economy has, in general, been more stable for the past years.
The case of consumers is the most complicated, since we are all consumers. Lack of economic activity, mass layoffs and shortages of certain products due to panic buying and poor food distribution structures increase the food insecurity of lower-income people without savings. Due to the lack of supply; price speculation and the need to save money, people are buying more ultra-processed (canned) products. This leads to the consumption of less fresh and nutritious food, which in itself leads to an unhealthy diet. In the rural area there is very little supply of products from other ecosystems, causing people to consume mainly from their family production, without being able to add variety to their diet.
Economic insecurity leads to food insecurity
Although the two governments are providing monetary or food subsidies to vulnerable groups of people, it is unlikely that this aid will succeed in guaranteeing the population's right to food.
One vulnerable group suffering from food insecurity during this social isolation period is children. In Latin America, school feeding programmes reach 85 million girls and for many of them, this food is their main source of daily nutrition. La Paz and Huánuco are no exception. While families with school-age children are being provided with financial support, this does not guarantee that they will invest in nutritious food.
Our global food system is neither fair, sustainable nor crisis-proof. It must be rebuilt from the ground up.
The work of Welthungerhilfe partners
Within the project: "Advocacy for the human right to food and promotion of local food systems in Peru and Bolivia" the partner organisations in La Paz and Huánuco are working hard to guarantee the right to food for the population in their territories and to support small producers in the framework of the current crisis.
In La Paz, the partner Unitas in collaboration with other organisations who are working within the framework of the project, is participating in the elaboration of the supply strategy for the city of La Paz. This group is mainly working to support small agro-ecological producers in areas close to the city of La Paz in getting their products to consumers. It is also part of the inter-institutional supply committee, in which strategies are discussed to get food to remote neighbourhoods without large markets. Through this committee, it was possible to establish free movement of supply vehicles and to establish mobile markets for peripheral neighbourhoods, thus ensuring access to fresh food for a large part of the population.
In Húanuco, the Peruvian partner, IDMA, implemented a service to deliver bags of agro-ecological food to consumers in the city. This work was done in close coordination with networks of producers and consumers to ensure that agro-ecological producers have a market during the crisis.
The future is uncertain, but with low economic activity, many people will be increasingly vulnerable to food and nutrition insecurity. Without adequate nutrition in times of a global pandemic, we are more vulnerable to several diseases. It is the primary role of governments to ensure the right to adequate food for all people. However, we know that governments need support.
Community organising and the role of civil society organisations are crucial at this time. We must work in an articulated manner to support small producers to continue feeding the city with fresh products and earning a fair income so that these products reach all families.
This work will continue to be developed through networks and coordinated work with the government, producers and consumers. We reaffirm our commitment to continue working towards local solutions to reduce the structural causes of hunger. We will continue to work with a network of partners to promote more sustainable food systems that strive to guarantee the right to food.
This article was written by Nicole Szucs, a consultant working for Welthungerhilfe South America as a food systems advisor.