Prolonged drought, rising temperatures and coffee rust – the growing crisis in Central America

Agriculture, Climate Change, Food & livelihoods, Food security

Increasingly severe climate conditions are having a devastating impact on food security and livelihoods in Central America. Here, John Magrath looks at how prolonged droughts alone are serious concern, but with the added problem of rising temperatures leading to a spread in the coffee rust fungus and predictions for next year to be the hottest yet, families are increasingly vulnerable.

This year, which is increasingly looking as though it will be the hottest year on record, drought has hit around 2.5 million people across Central America. Drought is not a new phenomena in the “dry corridor” that runs through all the Central American nations but the 2014 drought has been particularly prolonged –  Guatemala, in particular, has not seen such a drought for 40 years. There, 250,000 families have been affected, and 120,000 in Honduras, 100,000 in Nicaragua and nearly the same number in El Salvador. The drought – which follows another in 2012 – also extends
into Colombia and coincides with drought in California and southern Brazil, which have been much more noticed by the world’s media.

Furthermore, hotter conditions have helped increase the spread of the “la roya” coffee rust, which is killing coffee bushes in farms and plantations at higher altitudes that were once free of the fungus. I have previously blogged and reported how the destruction of coffee bushes has hit export earnings but more importantly, has had a catastrophic impact on the employment of hundreds of thousands of labourers who depend upon work in the coffee harvest for much
of their annual income.

Thousands of families have been forced to reduce their number of meals per day or to sell family assets

At the beginning of last month an emergencies bulletin from Oxfam staff in the region reported: In Guatemala, the drought effects have reached “unprecedented peaks” according to the Ministry of Food Security, who estimates that an 80% of corn crops and 63% of the bean crops have been lost within the last weeks. This is already affecting over 250,000 families (1.4 million people), and 500,000 children are suffering hunger. At the same time the price of basic food has doubled. To cope with this situation thousands of families have been forced to reduce their
number of meals per day or to sell family assets, which only makes them poorer and even more
vulnerable. The government has made an international appeal for humanitarian aid”.

In Honduras, the price of beans had increased by 188% and in El Salvador came reports that chronic malnutrition was affecting two out of five children in the worst-hit parts of the country.

In El Salvador, Oxfam recently published an assessment of the state of the livelihoods and food security of families working in the coffee sector. Oxfam staff surveyed 4,367 families, a total of 23,819 people. The households surveyed use cash from day labour to buy 78% of their food. The results were disturbing. The great majority of families were cutting back on the amounts they eat, cutting out meals, buying cheaper food and getting into debt with
loans and credit.

It was also worrying that, even in the best of times, people’s diets consisted mostly of maize, beans and oil. Vegetables were only eaten in small quantities, meat even more rarely. Even though parents have been prioritising feeding their children, chronic malnutrition is common and increasing.

Even though parents have prioritised feeding their children, chronic malnutrition is common and increasing. 

The El Salvador report concludes: “Over the next 12 months in El Salvador, the food security situation of day labourers and their households is likely to worsen. When they have used up what little food reserves they have, they may have no choice but to resort to…distress sales of assets and land”.

Oxfam is therefore calling for the government to immediately scale up assistance programmes of cash or vouchers for food, particularly over the typical hungry period which lasts from now until about March 2015. It is calling for efforts to encourage market gardens, more diverse crops and better food storage.

What of the future? This is finely balanced between hope and concern. The crisis can be seen as an opportunity for governments to lead campaigns to revive the moribund coffee sector, in which many of the plants are old and genetically monolithic, and put people into work to grub up the old and plant new varieties. But will they?

Perhaps of even more concern is whether the droughts, and shifts in the seasonal patterns of rain, mark a permanent shift in the climate along the dry corridor in eastern Central America. Drought conditions of such severity have in the past been associated with the climatic phenomenon of “El Nino”, but this aridity has occurred despite an El Nino failing to develop. However, this may be because the overall temperature of the Pacific Ocean is consistently warmer and whereas this seems to have so far
inhibited the development of a full-on El Nino, some El Nino-like effects on precipitation patterns are occurring – and with the continuation of ocean warmth, may continue to occur.

It is particularly worrying that 2014 looks highly likely to be declared the hottest year on record and this has occurred without an El Nino, which normally raises global temperatures. And if an El Nino does occur soon, then we could see an even hotter 2015 and all the weather disruption likely to go with it.

Read more

Author: John Magrath
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.