Rain is gradually returning to Guatemala after a more than monthlong drought in the middle of rainy season brought tragedy to some of the poorest regions of the country. But many agricultural workers say it’s too late to save their harvests.
“We usually cultivate maize and beans, but this year we’ve lost everything because of the drought,” says Lázaro Martínez, who lives with his wife and four children in Chiquimula, a province in eastern Guatemala already renowned for high levels of poverty and malnutrition.
“It started raining again a couple of days ago but the problem is that there’s no money to buy seeds so we can’t plant anything again now. I don’t know what we’ll do next year.”
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina recently declared a state of emergency in 16 of the country’s 22 provinces after a government survey indicated that more than 260,000 Guatemalan families have been affected by the lack of rain and are in need of humanitarian assistance.
The Agricultural Ministry estimates the economic impact of the drought to be Q631 million ($81.7 million).
The majority of those affected live in the so-called Dry Corridor, in the eastern part of the country where access to health care is low and economic marginalization is high. Many of the men from Martínez’s village dedicate themselves to seasonal work: going across the border to Honduras to labor in coffee plantations in the dry season and selling produce from their own harvests in rainy season.
However, coffee plantations have been hiring fewer seasonal workers recently due to a plant fungus called coffee rust, or roya in Spanish, which claimed the majority of coffee crops in 2012 and the effects of which are still being felt today. Together with this year’s ruined crop harvests, rural Guatemalans are being forced to move anywhere in search of employment.
“I have to find work somewhere – even if they just pay me in maize or beans it’ll be something. At the moment we’re eating tortillas and salt as there’s no money to buy anything else,” said Martínez.
Experts claim the severe drought was caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon, a change in the temperature of the Pacific Ocean, which has also prompted state of emergencies to be declared in some parts of Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica.
Last week the Guatemalan government began distributing food rations, seeds and fertilizer in the most affected parts of the country, but officials say there isn’t enough to reach all of the families in need, and the president has called on the international community to help.
“We’re not going to allow any Guatemalan, any family affected by the drought that has gone on for more than 40 days, to go hungry,” Pérez Molina said. “We’re going to resolve this crisis that we’re going through. We’ll look for measures to make the soil more productive, that’s what we’re prepared for and we’ll reach all communities.”
This isn’t the first time that rural Guatemalans have faced food shortages, which have no doubt contributed to the country having the world’s fourth-highest rate of chronic malnutrition. A variety of sectors are now calling on the government to invest in long-term solutions rather than short-term hand-outs.
“Last year the harvest was low but not as bad as this,” says Celfido Asmen, an agricultural worker and father of six. “If there were a watering system or something we wouldn’t have lost out, but we don’t have anything like that.”
Asmen usually harvests 20-23 kilos of corn, but predicts that this year he’ll get just two or three.
“It’s been a huge loss for us. We’re thinking of migrating to other farms to look for work but it means I’ll have to be further away from my family. I hope we have a good harvest next year.”