Will El Niño mean disaster for Guatemala?

Drought has already ravaged crops and in some cases destroyed the livelihoods of the country’s farmers

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."

'You feel trapped'

Nearly half of all Guatemalan children are malnourished – the fourth-highest rate in the world.
America Tonight

For many young Guatemalans, such as 21-year-old Yesenia Augustine, the drought can make it seem like there’s no way forward.

The daughter of a corn farmer and a teacher by training, Augustine dreams of better opportunities abroad.  

"You feel trapped, without a way out,” she told America Tonight. “There's nowhere to go to help your family. If I had the opportunity, I would go there [to the United States] to help out my parents and my younger siblings who are still growing."

Experts have found that the prolonged drought is driving thousands of people to emigrate in search of better opportunities. While this may appear to be a solution to falling incomes, the increase in emigration could deal another blow to communities in the not-so-distant future.

Migration can slow development in rural areas, says Alejandra Gordillo, the Executive Secretary with the Guatemala National Council on Immigration.

 "Studies have shown that development in rural areas is often restricted because the youngest workers migrate,” she said. “We sometimes see communities where the majority of the population are mothers or grandmothers looking after children. The local economy gets stuck. Remittances are sent back but they don't create a catalyst for community development.”

A lasting impact

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. 

Climate adaptation

Communities are turning to climate adaptation techniques, such as planting drought-resistant varieties of corn and beans.
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Experts say that recurrent drought and extreme weather can be expected due to climate change. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Guatemala is one of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change in the world. In an effort to mitigate the negative impacts, NGOs and Guatemala's government are now turning their attention to climate adaptation.

In Cante’s community, that means applying new techniques like planting drought-resistant varieties of corn and beans, and terracing – a method that can help conserve water and prevent soil erosion. Cante says these technologies give him hope.

"When I see the beans growing green and tall with good seeds inside … I see, and I imagine, it's like a child who's been born strong, who's been well nourished and is big and robust, who's free from sickness,” he said. “This is what I see in this green field.”

El Niño is expected to continue into early 2016, bringing more wild weather. But Guatemala's farmers hope these predictions are wrong: The future of their families depend on it.

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