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FOOD-GUATEMALA: Bad Omens for 2011

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Oct 15 2010 (IPS) - Guatemala needs to take steps to prepare for even worse problems of hunger in 2011, caused by climate change and farmers’ heavy dependence on a few basic crops like corn and beans, experts warned on the occasion of World Food Day, celebrated Saturday.

“The phenomenon of La Niña is expected to last through 2011, bringing extremely heavy rains,” Eddy Sánchez, director of the National Institute of Seismology, Vulcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology, told IPS. “Extreme climate conditions will continue to be seen over the next few years.”

La Niña is characterised by cooler than normal sea surface temperatures and unusually strong trade winds in the equatorial region of the Pacific Ocean, which often bring torrential rains.

El Niño and La Niña are opposite phases of a Pacific Ocean cycle that affects temperatures in the ocean and the atmosphere above it. They repeat every three or four years on average, and are the extremes in what is known as the Southern Oscillation.

The proportion of malnourished people in Guatemala rose from 15 percent (1.4 million people) in the 1990-1992 period to 21 percent (2.7 million people) in the 2005-2007 period, according to the “Panorama de la Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional en América Latina y el Caribe” 2010 (Overview of Food and Nutritional Security in Latin America and the Caribbean).

Honduras and Nicaragua, meanwhile, reduced their malnutrition rates from 19 to 12 percent and from 50 to 19 percent respectively, in the same lapse of time, the report adds.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) study released this week warns that the food security situation in Guatemala, as well as Bolivia and Haiti, is serious.

The production of corn, the main subsistence crop in this Central American country, has declined due to the impact of climate change. The projected harvest for the May 2010 to May 2011 period is 28 million quintals, while average annual consumption is 40 million quintals, according to the United Nations agency’s office in Guatemala.

Sánchez said that in order to counteract this situation, the country must adopt measures to adapt to global warming, using flood- and drought-resistant seeds, and diversifying crops, for example.

The situation has not been easy for Central America, especially Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in the region. Half of the population in this country of 14 million people lives below the poverty line and 17 percent of Guatemalans are extremely poor, according to U.N. figures.

Tropical storms Agatha, in May, and Alex, in June, and torrential rains in this year’s rainy season left more than 100,000 people homeless and caused serious damages to roads and other infrastructure.

Paradoxically, the main problem in the region last year was drought, which caused severe losses in grain crops, and even the malnutrition-related deaths of at least 54 children in Guatemala.

Furthermore, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala are still feeling the effects of the devastation caused by hurricanes Stan, in 2005, and Mitch, in 1998.

“We are entering a more alarming stage,” Roberto Cabrera, with Action Against Hunger, told IPS. “We have had three years of virtually continuous shocks since the 2008 global economic crisis, the drought caused by El Niño last year, and the excessive rains this year.”

The expert said small farmers have not had “a single successful harvest season” due to the erratic climate conditions, which “this country is not prepared for.”

This year’s heavy rains caused crop losses mainly in the south and the west, while the so-called “dry corridor” in the centre and east of the country continued to suffer the effects of drought and the food crisis, although there was less crop damage, Cabrera said.

Guatemala needs “an integral government policy that creates alternatives which would free farmers from having to grow corn and beans, their main sources of livelihood,” he said.

Sucely Girón, with the Food Security Observatory, told IPS that it would be very important to “put a priority on food and nutritional security” when the government budget for 2011 is being discussed.

She called for strengthening the Secretariat of Food and Nutritional Security information system in order to map out where the hungry are located, and for the earmarking of funds for the institutions that make up the National System of Food and Nutritional Security.

These institutions were created by law in 2005 to promote policies and mechanisms specifically designed to fight hunger. However, they have not yet had tangible results.

Girón also said it is necessary to invest in studies to explore other possibilities of subsistence for people in rural areas, such as tourism. “People cannot continue to depend on the cultivation of corn,” she argued.

In addition, “crop diversification must be promoted, as well as the use of agro-forestry systems,” or the combination of agriculture with the planting of trees, to optimise production, she added.

Gustavo García with FAO Guatemala also commented to IPS that alternative sources of income in rural areas must be explored. But he stressed that access to credit must be improved in order to do this, because “many farmers would like to diversify their crops, but don’t have the means to do so.”

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