A chronic catastrophe
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
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
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
- 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.
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?"
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
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 is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala.
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