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In the grip of an El Niño-triggered drought, farming families across Guatemala’s dry corridor struggle to eat

Sofia Tista Sis and her son, Jose Ricardo Tista Tista, walk through the small field of yucca plants they are growing with the help of filtered gray water near their home in El Aguacate, Gautemala. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Oxfam and its local partners have been helping some of the most vulnerable people with food and engaging them in short-term income-earning projects.

Across the parched hills of El Aguacate in Guatemala, lines of knee-deep trenches snake from one slope to the next, dug by farmers determined to catch every drop of rain when—and if—it comes.

Here in the department of Baja Verapaz, down through the department of Chiquimula, and across the country’s dry corridor, drought has taken a terrible toll: families are struggling to get enough to eat and seasonal work opportunities for many of them have dried up.

Triggered by the global weather phenomenon known as El Niño, a drastic reduction in rainfall robbed small-scale farmers of between 80 and 100 percent of their bean and corn harvests last year—the basics of almost every rural household’s diet. And without resources, many of the poorest farmers couldn’t plant during the second season toward the end of the year.

Now, people are doing everything they can to hold on—cutting the number and size of meals they eat, buying on credit, and migrating great distances in search of work, sometimes taking their entire family with them.

“Last year, we didn’t harvest anything, and the year before it was a similar situation,” says Juan Ixpatac Sis, a resident of El Aguacate who was elected by the people to represent them in local affairs. “And we don’t have any employment here either—maybe a day here or there.”

But the 150 indigenous Achi families trying to eke a living in this remote and dusty community are by no means alone: EL Niño—a warming of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific that can change weather systems, and consequently growing seasons, around the globe-- is bringing profound hardship to millions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

In Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador alone, an estimated 3.5 million people don’t have enough to eat because of drought. Food shortages have reached crisis levels. In a survey Oxfam helped conduct last year in 32 communities in Chiquimula, Guatemala, it found that in almost a quarter of those communities the range of severe malnutrition among children under the age of five was between 3.5 percent and 11 percent during the harvest—the time at which there should be plenty of food. The rates are substantially higher than the national average.

Globally, El Niño, and its long-lingering consequences, has affected about 60 million people, bringing punishing drought to some communities while drowning others in floodwaters.

Sofia Tista Sis stands outside the door of her home in El Aguacate, Guatemala, where drought has struck farming families hard. photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

‘It’s as if we’re going backwards’

At the hillside home of Sofia Tista Sis, 37, in El Aguacate, the talk turns to the severe challenges of trying to make it in a climate that seems to be changing.

“About five years ago, it wasn’t like this,” says Sis, looking down at the hard, dry land falling steeply away from the house where she was born. “In the last three years, it’s as if we’re going backwards.”

Able to grow only a tiny bit of corn—barely 15 or 20 pounds last year—her family, for the first time in her life, has been buying the staple. And that means scrambling for work wherever family members can find it: In Sis’s case she has hired herself out to work for another woman, even if it was only to get a meal. Every couple of weeks, she’ll walk three hours to a local market so she can sell the mats, fans, and brooms family members make from dried palm fronds. For all that effort, Sis might bring home 40 quetzals—or just over $5.

With such limited resources, food can be hard to come by. Sis says her family (she has four children still at home) eats beans, though sometimes there isn’t enough money to buy them. Occasionally they will buy rice, but not more than half a pound at a time. And they also buy a few vegetables, like chard.

“We always ate three times a day,” says Sofia Sis. “But we ate smaller portions because we didn’t have any money to buy food.”

Maria Marcelina Tista Sis and her husband, Rufina Sis Garcia, sit outside their house in El Aguacate, Guatemala.

Hunting for work

A few hills away, Maria Marcelina Tista Sis and her husband, Rufino Sis Garcia, are determined to make sure their four daughters have food even as the drought has shriveled their harvests. In a good year, they might pick 15 quintiles of corn from their rented land. But for the last few seasons, they’ve barely harvested a third of that.

So, like Sofia Tista Sis’s family, Marcelina and Rufino grab work wherever they can find it to cover the cost of the food the drought has stolen. But these days, work is almost as precious as rain: The commercial farms that provide day labor opportunities for people have also taken a hit from El Nino.

If he’s lucky, Rufino Sis Garcia says he might get work one day a week on a commercial farm. For a nine-hour day—from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.—he’ll bring home about $5.

“It’s difficult to get money,” says Marcelina Tista Sis. “If there isn’t any work and you can’t earn money, you don’t have anything.” To help her family, she has been weaving belts, which she sells locally for about 100 quetzals each—or $13. But it’s slow going: It takes 15 days, two or three hours a day, to turn out just one. 

Maria Marcelina Tista Sis weaves belts at her home in El Aguacate, Guatemala. The money she earns helps supplement the family's income--an essential contribution now that drought has made it exceedingly difficult for them to grow enough food. Photo: Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Digging ditches and planting yucca

Knowing just how valuable work is, not only for the cash it puts in people’s pockets but for the community good it can accomplish, Oxfam and its local partners—Corazon de Maiz and ASEDECHI—launched a drought response program aimed at providing the most vulnerable families with both food and opportunities for work. The goal of the initiative, which has been underway in both Baja Verapaz and Chiquimula, is also to help people build their resilience by improving some of their farming and soil conservation practices. In addition, some families have received fortified flour to help children who are severely malnourished or at risk of becoming so.

To determine which communities are most in need, Oxfam, Corazon de Maiz and ASEDECHI have been working directly with nutritionists in the over-stretched Ministry of Health. Each department’s nutritionist travels regularly to the villages scattered among the rugged hills checking children for signs of malnutrition. The data gathered helps target the response, even as the ministry itself is not able to search actively for cases of malnutrition. A debt crisis has kept the country from responding to the drought.

Poverty in Guatemala has increased in the last decade at an alarming rate: 23.4 percent of the Guatemalan population now lives in extreme poverty. Countrywide, the overall poverty rate is 59.3 percent—a hike of more than 8 percent since 2006. And poverty plays out differently depending on gender, ethnicity, and location: 79.2 percent of Guatemala’s indigenous people are poor, as is 79 percent of the country’s rural population.

All told, between the two departments Oxfam’s emergency response the program has reached about 3,315 families since it started. In El Aguacate, signs of its impact are everywhere—from the water-retention ditches farmers have dug across their fields to the gray-water filtering systems some households have learned how to build and use with the help of the program. With dish and laundry water recycled through those systems, families like Sofia Tista Sis’s now have ready access to a water supply that can help keep their small vegetable gardens going—a vital source of nutrients when other food is out of reach.

On a steep slope just beyond her house, Sis and her son climb through the yucca plants their family is nurturing. Circles of damp earth, where they have poured a bit of water, cover the roots. Starting with 45 provided by Oxfam, the family now has 75, many of them grown from cuttings from the original batch.

“The yucca has been really useful, because when you don’t have corn, you can eat yucca that day,” says Sis.

Hiking up the hill behind his house, Rufino Sis Garcia strides through one of the retention ditches he dug—a task for which he earned a daily wage through Oxfam’s cash-for-work initiative. The program engaged local people for about 18 days, providing them with tools and a bit of income that they could then use to buy some of the basic goods their families needed.

“The best thing was it (the program) gave us work,” says Garcia.

“That’s right,” adds his wife. “It’s the most important thing. People do want to work.”

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