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CENTRAL AMERICA: Food Security Further Undermined by Climate Disasters

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Jun 15 2010 (IPS) - Adverse climatic conditions and weather-related disasters are damaging crops in El Salvador and neighbouring countries in Central America, aggravating the food vulnerability that the region already faces.

In late 2009, for the first time ever, Guatemala was included on a worldwide list of countries in crisis requiring external assistance, compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

In September and October of that year, the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate phenomenon led to a shortage in rainfall throughout Central America, which negatively affected the planting of grain and bean crops in areas of Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to the FAO report.

Then, in November, Hurricane Ida struck Central America, causing severe damage to agricultural infrastructure in parts of the region. In El Salvador, heavy rains left 198 people dead and 15,000 homeless, in addition to 239 million dollars in losses and damages.

“All of my efforts were destroyed. Only a small part of my corn crop was saved,” Isidro Rivas, 48, a farmer in the village of Izcanal, 45 kilometres east of San Salvador, told IPS.

The torrential rains unleashed by Hurricane Ida flooded his three hectares of corn, sorghum, pepper and papaya crops.

El Salvador and Guatemala were battered by the force of nature once again in late May, this time by the passage of Tropical Storm Agatha.

Losses in the agricultural sector have been estimated at six million dollars in El Salvador, according to official figures. However, the full economic impact of the storm has yet to be calculated, although it will be massive, stated Alexander Segovia, the technical secretary to the president of El Salvador.

“Whether it is flooding or drought, extreme weather conditions always hurt agricultural yields, especially since approximately 60 percent of grain crops in El Salvador are grown on hillsides,” Edgar Cruz of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) told IPS.

El Salvador, which never produces enough garden vegetable crops to fully meet domestic demand, will now have to increase its imports by 30 percent, according to estimates from the Salvadoran Chamber of Agriculture and Agribusiness (CAMAGRO), quoted in La Prensa Gráfica.

CAMAGRO reported that at the beginning of the year, El Salvador imported six out of every 10 garden vegetables consumed in the country, but now, because of the damage caused by Agatha, it will have to import nine out of 10.

This has already led to rising vegetable prices in the country’s stores and markets.

“The most practical way of measuring the level of food security is by determining whether a country is self-sufficient in the production of a particular product, in other words, if it produces a sufficient amount to satisfy domestic consumption,” said Cruz.

The outlook for agricultural production in the near future is not encouraging. An extremely active storm season is expected for both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in accordance with the updated forecast released in early June by Colorado State University in the United States.

The university’s forecast team has predicted 18 tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and 12 in the Pacific over the coming months.

Many small farmers do not have the means to recover from the damage wrought to their crops by heavy rainfall.

“I was really worried. Without a harvest you have no income, and with no income you go hungry,” said Rivas, a father of five.

His family was one of 3,136 in the central Salvadoran provinces of La Paz and La Libertad who received assistance from a FAO-sponsored programme launched in December 2009.

The aim of the programme was to restore the means of survival for families who had lost everything to the torrential rains caused by Hurricane Ida, by providing them with the supplies needed to set up household gardens and chicken coops, as well as seeds to replant their bean crops.

For the household gardens, the programme provided each family with 25 pounds of fertiliser, a hoe, shovel and spade, and enough radish and string-bean seeds to plant an area of 50 square metres.

This component of the programme was coordinated by the National Centre for Agricultural and Forestry Technology (CENTA), a government agency, which also distributed beand and cucumber seeds.

Each family was also given 10 laying hens, one rooster, and the mesh netting needed to build a pen. In addition, one veterinary kit with vaccines and vitamins was provided for every 25 beneficiaries.

Most of the programme beneficiaries in the village of Melara are women. Although they had raised poultry in the past, this was the first time they got fully involved in farming work.

“I had never done it before. I had no idea how to plant a cucumber or a radish. I even got blisters on my hands from working the land so much,” said Rosa Olivia Amaya, 28.

Once they had chickens and vegetables, she said, they recovered from the worry that loomed over them after Hurricane Ida: what to feed their children.

But only months after harvesting their first crops, the farmers of Melara saw Tropical Storm Agatha destroy 50 square metres of cucumber plants — a small area of land compared to the total area of crops planted through the programme, fortunately.

The storm also destroyed 300 pounds of fertiliser, according to Luis Valladares, an agricultural engineer at CENTA.

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