Alvaro Colom, the Guatemalan president, announced he would invoke the public order laws to impose a “state of calamity” in an effort to stave off mass hunger in the Central American nation.

The measure allows the government to make special purchases of food and Mr Colom said he hoped it would inspire the international community to send aid.

The World Food Programme of the United Nations provided an immediate response, pledging to send 20 tons of nutritional biscuits to the worst-affected areas in the countryside. Guatemalan volunteers in the cities set up collection points from which to send provisions to the poor.

Mr Colom blamed climate change in the shape of the El Niño phenomenon for a drought that has blighted crops of the maize and beans food staples in the “dry corridor” of northeastern Guatemala.

But Mr Colom, a social democrat who has frequently been accused of responding feebly to growing drug-related and political violence in Guatemala, blamed other factors as well. In a nationwide broadcast on Tuesday night he said: “Guatemala has had high indices of poverty and malnutrition for decades, provoked by a long history of inequality. There is food, but those who go hungry have no money to buy it.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reckons that half of all Guatemalan children aged under five are malnourished. But the figure rises to 61 per cent among the indigenous peoples who make up the largest sector of the population.

At least 25 children are reported to have died so far this year from malnutrition and hundreds more are in hospital.

On a visit to Guatemala last week, Olivier de Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, expressed alarm at the situation. “Humanitarian responses don’t provide a long-term solution,” he said, “but they are extremely important in the present context.”

Mr Schutter said that measures taken to tackle the crisis should be sustainable and transparent. Critics say that the nation’s budget for food programmes – equivalent to that of seven ministries – is managed with secrecy by Mr Colom’s wife, Sandra Torres.

Whatever the problems that provoked the present crisis, solutions are complicated by the parlous state of Guatemalan agriculture. Land rights are ill-defined, violence is rife in the countryside, and drug traffickers have snapped up swathes of territory for the growth of narcotics where once staple crops held sway.

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