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Comparison of the four villages

The earliest difference between the communities was ecological, separating Espíritu Santo from the three mountain villages. The agro-ecological differences in themselves were not highly important, but they led over time to distinct forms of social organization in the different communities. In Espíritu Santo, the regular temperature and the level topography, coupled with the good productive capacity of the land, favoured a distinctive pattern of land use as well as an important infrastructural buildup (i.e., the irrigation canal), which in turn stimulated the early emergence of commercial agriculture in the region, particularly through contract farming arrangements with large tobacco companies. The establishment of a commodity economy and the concentration of the factors of production (particularly land and labour) thus occurred long ago, and as a result the peasant households have traditionally relied on agricultural wage work to ensure their subsistence.

In the mountain area, by contrast, the possibilities for profit-oriented agriculture have always been limited by the difficult topography, the low fertility of the soil, and a lack of water. As a result, the state and the private sector showed little interest in developing the infrastructures in the area. Subsistence cropping thus remained the norm for a long time, and peasant farmers have been able to retain and even consolidate their hold on land.

Over time, the initial morphological differences between the two regions evolved toward a second type of difference, having to do with the income-generating activities available. Whereas agricultural wage employment has long been the primary source of income in the lower Motagua valley, independent subsistence production has historically maintained families in the mountain area. This pattern is still evident today. Differences between the valley and the mountain region can also be noted in relation to non-farm occupations. Because of their greater proximity to Guatemala City, the mountain villages were much more affected by the opening of economic opportunities there than Espíritu Santo was. In the latter, non-farm activities had to be found locally, which helps to explain why such low-paid activities as traditional palm weaving could retain their importance through time.

Most of the attributes and processes just described were already well established by 1969, and the social and economic differences between the families of Espíritu Santo and those of the three mountain communities have been present ever since the study began. The influence these differences may have had on the study results should therefore be perceived as constant.

A second set of contrasts can be drawn among the three mountain communities. The differences here are more recent and were not fixed throughout the study period. First is the spectacular transformation that has affected the traditional farming system in Conacaste. With the reconstruction efforts that followed the 1976 earthquake, Conacaste's farmers shifted from their initial subsistence orientation toward agro-export production. As a result, their income now depends more on fluctuations generated at the level of the international market for agro-exports (which is highly volatile and very competitive) than on local conditions over which they have control. Furthermore, Conacaste's farmers are now engulfed deep within the workings of capital through debt servicing (for the irrigation system) and input purchases (mandatory for product standardization). Finally, after the shift of land parcels from food to commercial crops, food acquisition within farming households has been commoditized to a large extent. This intensification of and monetary profit from Conacaste's agriculture contrast with the stalled subsistence production of San Juan and the overall decline of agriculture in Santo Domingo.

Also within this second group of differences is the important increase in urban employment between 1974 and 1987 in Santo Domingo, in contrast both to the persisting inward orientation of San Juan and to the deepened agricultural orientation of Conacaste. Here again the household economy is based on money, but on terms highly different from those in Conacaste or in Espíritu Santos. The results of these tendencies are important: First, as urban workers generally earn better wages than their rural counterparts (whether independent producers or agricultural wage labourers), Santo Domingo's households have become relatively wealthier through time. Second, as income flows from urban employment are less sensitive to the seasonal fluctuations characteristic of agriculture, the basic household economy may now be more stable in Santo Domingo.

Finally, there is San Juan's economic stagnation and later decline: not only did the village stop progressing after the 1970s (as indicated by the demographic and income indicators); it regressed (as shown by the gradual collapse of the community's infrastructure). There may be some positive aspects to this—for instance, the slow pace of social differentiation, as witnessed by the consistently egalitarian distribution of land—but these are outweighed by negative aspects such as income stagnation and low access to services, in contrast to the generally improved conditions during the study period in the other communities.

Additional information on the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the four communities is given in Engle et al. [11].


Two sets of differences have to be drawn among the four communities. First is the long-standing difference between the mountain communities and the lower Motagua valley community. Second are those that have emerged more recently among the three mountain communities themselves. The question is how these differences matter for household nutrition. The means test of total family income by village reveals that, except between Santo Domingo and San Juan—the two extremes of the spectrum—no significant differences in aggregate household income are evident among the communities. Considering the differences in the ways families from each community derive their income, however, leads us to ask whether one single, aggregate indicator (total family income) is sufficient to predict nutrition status or whether the nature and composition of that total income influence the ways in which food is portioned out to individuals within the household. It is beyond the scope of this article to examine this question in detail, but a number of specific issues can be proposed for later research on the basis of the distinctions noted so far.

A first question is whether cash income is different from subsistence income in its influence on the types and amounts of food that enter the household. The literature on this question suggests that the form in which income accrues to the household influences the quantity and quality of food purchases [15]. As this paper demonstrates, this varies across communities: Espíritu Santo is best described as a community of rural proletarians who derive most of their income from wages Similarly, most families from Santo Domingo now derive most of their income in monetary form from urban wage jobs. On the other hand, the people in San Juan as well as in Conacaste still obtain an important portion of their income in the form of basic grains from family agriculture, although those in Conacaste also realize an important portion through the sale of commercial crops. It is therefore a matter of concern whether differences of these sorts have different effects on nutrition.

Another question that deserves attention is the seasonality of the various production systems. Research has shown that rural families' economic capacity to acquire foods fluctuates seasonally with the various phases of agricultural production [16], and this may affect family (and particularly child) nutrition, especially when periods of high child morbidity coincide with the lean season [17]. The communities studied exhibit highly varied crop-production systems and may therefore be subject to substantially different seasonal pressures: in Espíritu Santo there are wide fluctuations in income flow due to the sharply seasonal processes of tobacco production. Similarly, the villagers of San Juan and (until the 1980s) of Conacaste were affected by the seasonality of their subsistence production, which is quite different in timing from that of Espíritu Santo. By contrast, the people of Santo Domingo may have seen a stabilization in their income flow, urban employment being less subject to seasonality than rural work. Similarly, Conacaste's farmers may have been able in recent years (since 1980) to smooth out their income flow thanks to the diversification of their crops. Effects from these seasonal differences, if they matter, have thus been present all along.

A final question worth considering is the issue of women's work. Two factors are likely to affect child nutrition at this level. The first is income control. It has been argued that household nutrition is a "female preference" [18]. If this is so, we could expect (other things being equal) that the children in households where women earn an income (and have control over it) will have better nutrition status than where women do not control income, as a greater proportion of the total household income will go to buying food. The second factor is time allocation. In households where women are involved in income generation, they may have less time available for child care than where women's responsibilities are limited to their domestic chores, thus in some degree counteracting the positive effect of mothers' controlling income [19]. The net effect of women's work on child nutrition is therefore problematic and not straightforward. In this sample, Espíritu Santo stands out among the four villages for the amount of time women spend in income-generating occupations within and outside the household compound. Whether this has had a distinct influence on the children of that community remains to be studied.


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