FLOR DEL CAFÉ, Guatemala – In their tiny mud shack in the mountains of Guatemala, corn farmer Mauro Cante and his wife, Clara, prepare tortillas for their children. Corn tortillas are the mainstay of their diet; the family eats them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But this year, a severe drought has ruined their entire harvest. On this day, Clara had to borrow a few pounds of cornmeal for their afternoon meal – a staple that they usually make themselves.
"It's a disaster. There’s no food,” Cante said. “We're constantly asking ourselves what we will do tomorrow. If we don't have corn today, we have [to] figure out where we will get it.”
The drought that has gripped Guatemala for the past three years has been attributed to this year’s El Niño, which has disrupted the weather patterns on which farmers like Cante depend for their food and livelihoods.
Poverty is widespread in Guatemala, with millions of people surviving off of the land. Mike Vargas, Communications Officer for the World Food Program, says this is worst dry season the country has had in 35 years.
He said it’s “affecting not only Guatemala but [everywhere] from Nicaragua up to here. El Salvador has been hit very hard. Honduras as well.” By the World Food Program’s estimate, nearly 2.5 million people have been affected already.
When crops fail, farmers typically look for alternative sources of income. But jobs here pay as little as $5 per day – if you can find one.
"For the past two years, we've had to buy corn. But sometimes we get really anxious,” Cante said. “It's difficult because in this area, there are no day-labor jobs. The people in [nearby] San Pedro Pinula raise cattle and have no need for the skills we corn farmers offer."
In Guatemala, when food is scarce, the youngest often suffer the most. Nearly half of all Guatemalan children are malnourished – the fourth-highest rate in the world.
The consequences of malnutrition are dire for individuals and families, but also for the country and economy as a whole. Dr. Victor Navarijo, a pediatrician at National Hospital in the department of Jalapa, says the impact of malnutrition can continue for years.
"If the children don't recover nutritionally, their intellectual development will be affected [as well as] the quality of education they're able to receive. It will be difficult for them to learn,” he said. “There will definitely be a difference in the way these children will be able to contribute to the country's economy."
The UN estimates that some 2.3 million people in Central America will need food aid due to El Niño.
Health care workers worry that as food reserves continue to disappear, child malnutrition will rise.