Diana Ulloa / AFP / Getty Images

Seared by climate change, Nicaragua’s small farmers face food crisis

Environmental and charitable groups call on Sandinista government to respond to hunger and drought

El AGUACATE, Nicaragua — As Olman Fuzez turned over a bucket of millet, an old fan on full blast separated out small leaves and rocks. Nearby stood a small rusty silo that once stored maize. “It has been empty for three years,” said Fuzez.  “We didn´t eat millet before, but now we have no choice.”

For two years straight, Fuzez has lost his entire corn crop due to a prolonged drought. For dinner his extended family of six will eat millet tortillas with a small portion of beans — they have enough beans to last only three more months, and not enough money to buy seeds for the next planting season.  

Like the Fuzez family, hundreds of thousands of small farmers in Central America are facing a food crisis. They live in the Dry Corridor of Central America, which stretches from the low areas of the Pacific through the foothills of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and parts of Costa Rica.

As its name implies, the area tends to have a deficit of rainfall. But the last few years have been particularly dry as a result of El Niño, a weather phenomenon related to the abnormal warming of surface waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Late last year, NASA warned that the El Niño phenomenon would continue into 2016, threatening to become the worst year on record.

View of a corn field in La Tuna, a community in Madriz, Nicaragua, affected by severe drought, on Nov. 17, 2014. In Guatemala, 80 percent of the first season crops in the Dry Corridor in 2015 were lost, affecting 154,000 families. El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua reported corn production dropoffs in excess of 60 percent.
Inti Ocon / AFP / Getty Images

Small farmers in Central America harvest their crops at the end of two planting seasons, the first between May and August and the second from September to December. For 2015, the World Food Organization estimated that corn production from the first planting season would drop 8 percent, adding to an already dire situation given crop losses the previous year.

In Guatemala, 80 percent of the first season crops in the Dry Corridor were lost, affecting 154,000 families. El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua reported corn production dropoffs in excess of 60 percent.

The Sandinista government of Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega is sending 40,000 packages of food aid to the affected areas within his country, but civil society organizations such as Caritas, a Catholic relief organization, have said it isn’t enough. They want the government to elevate the situation to a national emergency. Caritas Nicaragua issued an international call to action to raise funds to help the poorest families.

“Sixty-five percent of small farmers are affected,” explained Agustin Alvarado, coordinator of emergencies and risk management for Caritas Nicaragua. “They produce most of our food but are not being adequately attended to.”

“The government is minimizing the situation,” he added. “What is going to happen to these people?”

Centro Humboldt, a Managua-based environmental NGO that has 92 monitoring stations in the Dry Corridor, says annual rainfall there averaged 1.3 meters before the latest El Niño phenomenon, but has dropped to 0.5 meters since 2013. 

“It is no longer raining in the first months of the year,” said Abel Garcia, who heads the organization’s risk assessment office. “Between July and August, it normally rains at least 11 days, but last year it rained only three.”

To make matters worse, the rains have become more irregular; making it difficult for farmers to know when to sow their seeds.

“It rains too little or too much all at once,” Garcia said. This causes the topsoil to erode, which forces farmers to spend more on fertilizers or risk losing their crops altogether.

“This year has been terrible,” said Rosa Maria Urroz, who lives in the small rural community of Lechecuagos, just 57 miles northwest of Managua. She said it’s the worst drought she has lived through in her 38 years, and that blinding dust clouds are increasingly common

“There is so much dust, we can’t see anything,” she said, adding that her family is more susceptible to respiratory illnesses.  

Since they don’t own land, the family rents about 20 acres to plant sesame, which they sell at the end of each planting season. Their livelihood depends on their ability to reinvest their earnings into other activities, like buying and selling animals.

“Before I used to kill a pig every Saturday to sell the meat, and now I don’t have money to buy animals,” Urroz said. She estimates her family lost 80 percent of the crops they planted last year.

They used to also harvest the tamarind pods that grow in their backyard, but the drought eliminated that crop as well.

This year they will diversify their crops by planting squash along with the sesame. “In the western part of the country we can no longer plant corn,” she said. “We are planting plants more resistant to the drought, such as squash, but there is so much of it that prices have dropped.”

‘This year has been terrible … There is so much dust, we can’t see anything.’

Rosa Maria Urroz


According to the Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua (UPANIC), the drought has affected important export crops — such as sugar, peanuts and sesame seeds — as well as the cattle industry.

“The production of sugarcane fell by 330,000 tons,” said UPANIC President Michael Healy. This puts some ten thousand workers at risk of losing their jobs. In total, the agricultural sector reported $222 million in losses since 2015 as a consequence of El Niño.

Only 7 percent of Nicaraguan farmers have irrigation systems, since small farmers cannot get loans to invest in their farms.  Larger farmers, who have land titles in order and more capital to invest in their farms, fear their credit will freeze up if crop yields fall further.

A peasant looks for good corn during harvest in La Tuna, Nicaragua, on Nov. 17, 2014. With the drought and food shortages continuing, civil society organizations such as Caritas, a Catholic relief organization, want the government to elevate the situation to a national emergency.
Inti Ocon / AFP / Getty Images

There are international funds for adaptation to climate change. But Nicaragua is unlikely to receive funding because it is one of the few countries that did not submit a climate pledge during the COP 21 in Paris this year. Those countries, which include Panama and Nepal, effectively opted out of the final agreement while demanding that the world’s largest polluters commit more funding to help the world’s poorest nations.

Healy suggests the Sandinista government revise its priorities.

“The government is proposing the construction of a $50 billion interoceanic canal, but in the short term we need between $3 and $4 billion to reforest, harvest water and install irrigation systems,” he said.

“There is a lot of paperwork, but few concrete actions,” said Abel Garcia, who points to the fact that government’s official strategy to combat climate change expired last year as evidence of the challenges facing Nicaragua.

Almost 40 percent of Nicaragua’s forests have been lost to deforestation since 1990, largely due to the growth of extensive cattle farming, and water aquifers are being depleted at a rapid pace.

“Wells dug by hand no longer have water,” Garcia said. “Wells have to be dug with machines to reach at least 100 meters.”  

As water resources dwindle, the poorest families spend more time looking for water.

In Urroz’s community, the municipal water stops running well before midday.

To supplement her family’s diet of mostly rice and beans, she is working with the Coordinadora de Mujeres Rurales, a women’s organization that teaches small farmers how to adapt to climate change. She now grows green peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, pineapples and other small plants in a new vegetable garden behind her house equipped with a simple irrigation system.

“The drip irrigation system allows us to plant all year around,” she said. 

She feels fortunate to be one of the 50 women benefited by the program, which is investing $400 dollars per irrigation system.  Each morning she fills a 750-liter rubber tank, which is connected to small pipes dotted with holes that crisscross the garden.

But most families are left to fend on their own.

Back in El Aguacate, children and elderly line up at Pilar Maradiaga’s house to receive packages of fortified rice and soy donated by a Protestant church group from the United States.   

“We don’t have enough help,” said Maradiaga, a resident and farmer who assisted in handing out the food.

“There will be more poverty in the valley,” Fuzez added. “We can only hope that God will bring us rain.”

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