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A chronic catastrophe
Anna Fresse

As rural communities in Central America overcome the devastating effects of drought, some experts predict they face further hardship with the return of extreme weather caused by the El Niño phenomenon.

An estimated 1.4 million people in rural communities in Central America are affected by drought. The Red Cross is responding to the current emergency as well as finding sustainable solutions to prevent another one.

Natural disasters are a regular occurrence in Central America. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and droughts are part of its history, and have contributed to the poverty that affects 80 out of every 100 people living in the area. Two decades of conflict in El Salvador and Nicaragua and three in Guatemala have further aggravated the situation.

There is little promise of change in the region's dispiriting history. "In 2002 we see the situation in Central America as presenting a picture of starvation," explains Francisco Roque Castro, World Food Programme (WFP) director for Latin America and the Caribbean, in an interview. He says efforts so far to deal with natural hazards "have prevented a greater degree of suffering or hunger". But the measures, according to Roque, have failed to address the heart of the problem - the underlying social and ecological vulnerabilities of impoverished, mainly farming, communities.

A vicious circle

In several regions in Guatemala and El Salvador, it did not rain in June, July or August 2001 causing 80 per cent of crops to fail. In Nicaragua losses were as high as 88 per cent, while in southern, central and western parts of Honduras the lack of rain led to a complete crop failure.

Although farming has always been difficult in these areas, the problem escalated when Hurricane Mitch first destroyed crops in 1998. One villager in Piedras Negras, a mountain village in north-eastern Guatemala explained, "There was only one harvest the following season [after Mitch], and a year ago the May harvest failed and the September harvest achieved only moderate results."

The numerous disasters experienced by this forgotten mountain-top region of Guatemala is typical of the rest of Central America. Crops here were adversely affected in 1997 and 1998 by the El Niño phenomenon; and later wiped out by the devastation from Hurricane Mitch, by flooding and minor droughts in 1999 and by the lack of rain in 2001.

In El Salvador, two major earthquakes increased the despair and sense of hopelessness. Comments such as this one by Cristóbal Sánchez, the community leader of El Potrero in the department of Morazán, can be heard all too often: "The drought was the last straw; I lost 90 per cent of my crop."

Today, throughout the region, families in poor farming communities no longer have the reserves to cope with the drought and are finding it nearly impossible to recover as one disaster follows another.

 

Impasse

When there is sufficient rainfall, farmers are able to produce enough maize and beans for food, exchanging any surplus for other products, including eggs and meat, which are very scarce in these communities. "Now, the situation is so bad that they do not have enough food to eat and sometimes they even have to resort to eating the seeds that they have set aside for the next planting season," explains Douglas Reimer, the Federation's regional disaster preparedness delegate.

As a result, malnutrition is the primary problem within affected communities. Guatemala has the highest rate of malnutrition in the region. According to government surveys, an estimated 60,000 Guatemalan children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition with 6,000 at risk of dying. The government also reports that 102 of the country's 331 municipalities are suffering from food insecurity and in need of assistance.

The situation in Guatemala is typical of the overall situation in Central America. Although there have been no reports of deaths, the percentage of people affected by food insecurity in Honduras has risen considerably. Similarly, in Nicaragua there are 115,400 people in urgent need of aid, and the total number of people affected is approximately 187,645. The country least affected by the droughts is Costa Rica, although it is now facing problems caused by large numbers of Nicaraguans pouring into the country in an attempt to escape the bleak situation in their own country.

An appeal to humanity

The Federation, in conjunction with the national societies in the area, has put into action a programme to assist vulnerable families. This includes:

  • Subsistence aid is being provided for 8000 families whose crops were destroyed by the most recent drought
  • The nutritional state of children under five is being monitored
  • Cases of malnutrition will be reported to the authorities of the country
  • Training in good hygiene, water treatment and health practices will be provided for people in these countries
  • Improved seeds and fertilizers are being distributed
  • Agronomists will be recruited to train farmers
  • US$ 25 will be distributed to women responsible for the family farm to buy tools, medicines and supplementary food.
  One hardship after another

Experts in drought relief say one of the most effective solutions to the problem is for rural communties to diversify their economic base. In Central America, this means men getting seasonal employment on coffee plantations to earn extra income. But falling prices for coffee on world markets has meant less work. The Salvadorean Coffee Council reported that real coffee prices are lower than they have been in the past 100 years.
Authorities are worried about the social consequences of the drought and high unemployment in the coffee growing areas. One representative of the Coffee Growers' Association in El Salvador is quoted as saying: "Out of every ten coffee workers, only five are working, and the other five have children to feed and what can they do?"

Sustainable development

To relieve the current crisis everyone agrees that food aid is not enough. As one peasant farmer said in an interview with the BBC, "To make the land fertile, we don't only need rain, but bank loans and education so we don't waste what the land can give us."
The WFP is pushing governments in the region to increase social spending and plans to put in place medium-term programmes to enable poor farmers to be more self-sufficient and less vulnerable to climate swings. "One reason [for the chronic hunger]", explains Francisco Roque, "is the lack of equality in terms of access to welfare and to wealth in this continent."

The Federation is also working with the local National Societies to help people survive the crisis and prepare for the next one. Seeds and fertilizer are being distributed, and agronomists are working with the Red Cross to train farmers in effective agricultural practices during a drought.

An uncertain future

South and Central America are now feeling the effects of the El Niño phenomenon. Rainfall in July and August is expected to be half the normal amount, explains Oscar Fernández, general coordinator for the Red Cross Disaster Management Office in Honduras.
If these predictions prove correct, another disaster will be added to the long succession of adversities suffered in the region, worsening the plight of subsistence farmers. Then Central America will find itself in the grip of malnutrition and disease, with its inhabitants dying a slow death.

Ana Fresse
Ana Fresse is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala.



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