Drought Causing Severe Food Shortages in Central America

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Drought Causing Severe Food Shortages in Central America

By Mary Jordan Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, July 29, 2001; Page A26

MEXICO CITY, July 28 -- More than 600,000 people are short of food in Central America because of a prolonged drought this year, according to the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), which says this is the worst natural disaster to hit the region since Hurricane Mitch three years ago.

Honduras has been hit hardest, but Nicaragua and El Salvador also have been severely affected. This week, the government of Honduras declared a national food emergency in much of the country, saying thousands of small farmers have lost their crops for lack of rain. After a tour of the Honduran countryside this week, officials of the aid organization said that as many as 185,000 people there were at risk of malnutrition.

"The problem is now beginning to be hunger; in some places, people are eating only one meal a day," said Rosa Antolin, WFP's deputy regional director for Latin America, reached today by telephone in Managua, Nicaragua.

In Nicaragua, the government has reported losing more than half the staple food crop of maize this year. This loss, on top of a poor crop last year, has forced many families to cut back on meals, and in some cases abandon parched fields to move to urban areas. "Some farmers in the dry parts lost everything," Antolin said.

At the same time that much of Nicaragua is suffering from lack of rain, an area along the Mosquito Coast on the Caribbean Sea has been inundated with rain and floods in recent weeks. There, as many as 8,000 people -- mostly rural indigenous people in scattered villages -- suffered near-total crop loss, according to a WFP official who toured the area.

"These people, already living in abject poverty, are currently eating a fruit . . . [called ojon] which is normally fed to pigs and which provokes diarrhea and vomiting when consumed by humans," according to the WFP report issued this week.

In El Salvador, already devastated by two earthquakes this year, the lack of rain is affecting the eastern and northwestern parts, and the government is considering declaring a state of emergency in those areas. Several international aid groups, including some backed by the U.S. government, said they are discussing relief strategies for the region.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 29, 2001


From just about everything I read these days about what is going on around the world it seems it is drought, drought everywhere.

-- Uncle Fred (dogboy45@bigfoot.com), July 29, 2001.

Monday, 30 July, 2001, 13:22 GMT 14:22 UK Guatemala farmers on drought losses

Farmers in Guatemala say they will lose 80% of this year's bean harvest because of a drought which has devastated large regions of central America.

The president of Guatemala's Agricultural Congress, Fernando Asturias, said the drought - which lasted through most of June - will cost 17,000 farmers more than $20m in lost beans.

But government officials say the drought has affected far fewer farmers, and will cost the country just five percent of its bean crop.

The Agricultural Minister, Joge Escoto, said farmers were deliberately overstating their losses in order to drive up prices.

From the newsroom of the BBC World Service

http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/americas/newsid_1463000/1463833 .stm

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 30, 2001.

http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-081701drought.story Severe Drought Imperils Poor of Central America Disaster: More than 1 million rural residents face dire food shortages, illness as crops fail in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. By T. CHRISTIAN MILLER Times Staff Writer

August 17 2001

JAGUAS, Nicaragua -- A severe drought is ravaging Central America, creating a humanitarian and agricultural catastrophe that has left more than a million of the region's most impoverished residents hungry, desperate and sick.

A dry spell that began two months ago has destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of corn and beans, the primary source of food for the rural poor. In some areas of Nicaragua and Honduras, the drought has ruined the summer harvest, leaving fields of dry, stunted corn less than a foot high.

The resulting shortages have endangered the lives of Central America's poorest, especially women and children. Families in remote villages are scavenging for wild mangoes and other tropical fruit normally fed only to pigs. Men in search of work are flooding crowded cities, blocking streets and holding sometimes violent protests.

Though there have been no confirmed reports of deaths, officials with the United Nations' World Food Program say they have seen early signs of increased malnutrition and disease.

"Everything is lost," said Vicente Vasquez, the 21-year-old leader of this small, remote community in the mountains of northern Nicaragua. "There is nothing left to hope for."

Central America's drought is more than a natural disaster. It has also cast a harsh new light on the region's threadbare social and economic fabric.

In more developed countries, a single failed harvest would not cause drastic food shortages. But in Central America, constant land disputes, grinding poverty, local farmers' ecologically disastrous techniques and a series of disasters such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and last winter's earthquakes in El Salvador have turned two months without rain into a regionwide calamity; in the most stricken areas, as much as 70% of the population is suffering, according to Honduran government estimates.

Government and aid groups have rushed to help but lack money and resources. The World Food Program, for instance, estimates that it can assist less than a third of the 1.4 million people affected by the drought, the worst in decades.

"There are too many communities to access, and the access is very difficult," said Ramon Noguera, in charge of WFP relief efforts in northern Nicaragua, one of the worst-hit regions. "There are simply not enough resources . . . to help everyone."

Further hampering relief efforts is the fact that the drought has become political fodder, particularly in Nicaragua and Honduras, which are in the middle of heated presidential campaigns.

Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman has bluntly declared that "there is no famine." In Honduras, opposition candidate Ricardo Maduro took television cameras, reporters and food to a drought-stricken village to show how the government is failing to address the needs of its people.

In El Salvador and Guatemala, meanwhile, the governments have been slow to declare a state of emergency despite quickly vanishing food supplies.

"The government is taking political advantage of the crisis. Even the delivery of aid is being politicized," said Jose Ines Cartagena, secretary of Honduras' Cooperation of Rural Farmers.

The worst of the drought has hit small towns like Jaguas, a place literally at the end of the road, a rocky, broken trail that requires a 2½-hour trek involving four-wheel-drive and the fording of several rivers.

It is a beautiful, lush site some 1,400 feet high in the Isabella Mountains of northern Nicaragua, one of the areas where crop losses have hit 100%. Footpaths wind through green forest, connecting homes of mud and wattle or simple open-air huts of dried palm fronds. A rocky stream fills the still air with the sound of rushing water.

But the Edenic backdrop stands in sharp relief to the hellish reality of the town's 300 residents. All around the town, one- and two-acre fields filled with withered cornstalks line steep hillsides. Neither the church nor the government has delivered emergency aid. There are no stores for miles.

The town is simply out of food. Of more than 20 people interviewed, none had eaten anything more substantial than a tortilla with salt by 3 p.m. that day. Most said they had been eating only mangoes for the last several days.

Among the most worried were mothers. In a community where even in a good year average daily nutritional intake is 20% less than recommended, according to the WFP, the drought has sharply increased the chances of disease. Many children in the region show signs of malnutrition, including yellowing hair, bloated stomachs and stunted growth.

Berta El Carmen Vasquez was breast-feeding her daughter along a dirt track leading to fields surrounding the town. Maria Auxiliadora, a year old, weighs about 17 pounds, below average for her age.

"She is very thin. She has a bad cough," said Vasquez, 20. "We have to fight for everything we get. There's not enough to go around."

Standing on a porch as aid workers came into town was Paulina Mendez, 52. She smiled when she learned that help was a few days away, as final bureaucratic details for providing food were being hammered out.

But her face collapsed in anguish when asked about the health of her children.

"They are all sick," said Mendez, a mother of nine, as she broke into tears. "They are eating the mangoes that God has given us"--but nothing more.

Many of the town's 54 families are headed by women, as a number of men have left to find work. In some cases, families have abandoned the town altogether and headed to nearby cities.

Evelina Martinez, 71, walked past a vacant, whitewashed home on a sloping hill overlooking four acres of dried corn, surrounded by a sea of green jungle. Her sister and her family had lived there until they abandoned it a month earlier.

"They left to find a life where they could eat," Martinez said.

Despite its severity, the drought is deceptive in many ways.

For one thing, a two-day tour through the worst-off areas in northern Nicaragua and southern Honduras revealed a verdant countryside filled with flowing rivers and grazing cattle. Only on closer inspection could the damage be seen in cornfields.

For another, there are no nationwide food shortages in any of the affected countries of Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. Grocery stores are filled with produce. Overall production targets will probably be off by no more than 10% to 15%, according to government and U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.

Instead, the problem disproportionately affects the region's millions of subsistence farmers, who survive by growing their own food on small plots.

These farmers count on two harvests a year, in the summer and fall. The first is far more important because it provides not only 80% of the food for a family but also the seeds for the second harvest. Meteorologists are predicting normal rains for the second harvest, which is to begin later this month; that would significantly ease fears of famine in the region.

Tens of thousands of workers also rely on a third harvest, the winter coffee-picking season, in which they earn extra income as day laborers. But with wholesale coffee prices at an all-time low, many coffee farmers have gone bankrupt or simply abandoned their land.

In addition, the drought has affected milk production, which has dropped 15%, according to the Honduran government, and aquaculture, where increases in salinity in the water have destroyed Honduras' considerable shrimp harvest.

"It's not like you can't go to the grocery store and see food," said Francisco Roque, the regional director of the World Food Program in Central America and the Caribbean. "The problem is people don't have access to it."

Compounding the crisis is the oldest problem in Central America: land. Rich property owners--big coffee growers, cattle ranchers and melon farmers--own the best land. That forces the poor to plant on steep hillsides or in low-quality soil. And, since the families rarely own the land they farm, they have no incentive to improve it, resulting in slash-and-burn farming techniques that further damage the soil.

Finally, there is the long-term indifference of Central America's governments toward its poorest residents. There is actually no shortage of water in many of the affected areas--streams and lakes sit by browning fields--but there are no irrigation systems in place.

"Nicaragua is a country of lakes. But it costs too much to bring the water to the fields," Roque said.

In the face of the crisis, aid groups and some government officials have taken two tacks: One provides short-term help in the form of emergency rations or food-for-work programs that require recipients to perform basic tasks such as improving roads or terracing slopes to improve soil conservation.

The second focuses on long-term projects, many of which have been in place for years, to ease the poverty that has sharpened the drought's effects.

The World Food Program, for instance, has long worked with communities throughout Central America to reduce their dependence on a single crop. In the tiny community of Las Minas in southern Honduras, for example, a group of nine families has stopped farming corn completely and is instead focusing on developing a nursery to sell cashew and ornamental trees.

"It's not worth doing things that always lose. It's only worth doing things that gain," said Blanca Estela Nunez, 23, one of the leaders of the project.

Some sectors of the government also realize the need for improvement. The Agriculture Ministry in Honduras, for example, has an ongoing, $80-million project to improve three watersheds in the country.

The problem is money. Honduras' vice minister of agriculture, Miguel Angel Bonilla, has drafted an emergency plan that includes $1 million to distribute seeds and $15 million for irrigation projects. But the government can't afford it, he said.

"We are hoping the international community will help us out," Bonilla said. "We don't have much money. We don't have all we need to fight the problem."

Even successfully financed projects have had a hard time competing with the twin threats of drought and poverty.

Cerro Verde is a rural farming community in the hills outside Choluteca, one of the hardest-hit cities in Honduras. A dozen farmers started a cooperative more than a decade ago to buy small quantities of leftover corn and beans from members, then sell them back at slightly below-market prices in times of need.

But several consecutive years of drought, natural disasters and El Niño weather conditions have emptied the small silos that held the extra crops. Now the town depends on emergency food rations to get by.

"There is no harvest again," said Angel Israel Sembrano, 31, vice president of the cooperative. "It's killing us." --- Miller was recently on assignment in Nicaragua.

http://www.latimes.com/templates/misc/printstory.jsp?slug=la% 2D081701drought

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 17, 2001.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ