Siriaco Mejia is an optimist. His friend Gloria Gonzalez says he is always smiling, even when he is in trouble. He just has a positive outlook.
But even Mejia was unable to put a favorable spin on his situation at harvest time in late 2009: after he’d planted his corn and beans in his field high above the languid Chixoy River, now flowing at a very low level, his crops had failed, owing to lack of rain. Most years he can grow 22 quintales (about 2,200 pounds) of corn. This year, Mejia says he got about a tenth of that.
“We could see the corn cobs, but when we opened them up, many were totally empty,” Mejia says, standing in his field. “We got almost nothing this year.”
Mejia did everything he could short of making it rain, including fertilizing his field twice at great expense. But now that the 42-year-old farmer has harvested nearly everything, the field is overgrown with bright yellow weeds. Some call them flor de muerto (flower of death).
Mejia says at this point he is done trying to grow food and must wait for the next planting season in June 2010.
“We hope there will be rain,” he says. “Otherwise, we may die.”
Chronic food shortage
Guatemala has the highest rate of malnutrition among children under five in Latin America: nearly 50 percent, according to the World Food Program. For indigenous children the malnutrition rate is even higher: close to 70 percent. On a recent visit to Mejia’s area, Francisco Enriquez, a sustainable livelihood specialist for Oxfam in Guatemala, found that most of the families had lost between 80 and 100 percent of their crops.
The hills above the Chixoy River are gray and dry at harvest time, with dark rocks visible through thin soils on the exposed slopes. It’s a tough place to farm, and Mejia’s family is just one of about 350,000 families the government of Guatemala said are at risk when it declared a food emergency in September 2009. Most vulnerable are those in central Guatemela’s “dry corridor,” where Mejia lives in the department of Baja Verapaz. His village, Xinacati II, is just one of the hundreds of communities—many composed of indigenous people—that are struggling to grow enough food to survive.
This food shortage is occurring in a country of luxurious green that exports millions in sugar cane, pineapples, bananas, and coffee. Despite this abundance, poor Guatemalans, who are mostly indigenous Maya people, regularly face chronic food shortages. There is plenty of food in stores, but poor people can’t afford it.
Since the Spanish colonization of Central America, indigenous Maya people have been systematically moved off the most productive farmlands to arid areas and steep hillsides. In Mejia’s case, his community and several others were originally in the Chixoy River valley but were involuntarily relocated in the 1980s to make way for a hydroelectric dam. Most of the flattest, best land is used to grow export crops like coffee and sugar cane and, more recently, biofuel crops.
“The country is producing less and less corn and beans each year,” says Enriquez. He says the government “is not pushing for spending that will specifically benefit small farmers. … They need to invest in producing food; otherwise, when there is a drought or a flood, it becomes a dramatic crisis.”
The lack of rain in Baja Verapaz could be the type of dramatic crisis Enriquez fears.
Most of the families with significant crop losses last fall have few options. In order to earn money to buy the food they need to survive, many men from communities like Xinacati II will migrate to distant coffee and sugar cane plantations, where they will work for a few months, returning occasionally to bring money to their families.
If things are really tough, entire families may relocate temporarily. Mejia says he can pick more coffee beans with the help of his wife and five kids than he could alone.
“We would like people to have more options than just migration,” says Gonzalez. Oxfam is working with the Association of Community Health Services, known by its Spanish initials ASECSA (where Gonzalez works), as well as the Training Institute for Sustainable Development, to help farmers survive the winter. They will provide seeds and tools to help families grow vegetables to improve their nutrition and they will help families with feed and veterinary care for small livestock like chickens, pigs, and ducks. Oxfam is also helping fund ASECSA’s network of health promoters to provide nutritional counseling for families with young children to reduce child malnutrition and death.
This project will also support a range of community improvements: paying local people to work on irrigation systems and other infrastructure to help farmers when they plant next spring; producing organic fertilizer and insecticide to save money and protect the soil; and teaching farmers about native seeds to reduce costs and increase production of corn, beans, and peanuts.
“These things will help people after our project is over,” says Enriquez, who has worked with the UN and Oxfam in Guatemala for 10 years. “They will be better positioned to survive another drought.” The agriculture assistance and community service activities will help nearly a thousand families. Oxfam has committed $266,000 to the project.
“We tried asking others for the money for this but did not get a positive response,” Gonzalez says in the ASECSA office in Rabinal, two hours by walking and driving from Xinacati II. “So it is perfect that Oxfam is working with us. We are concentrating on the worst-hit area, and if it works, we will replicate it in others.”
A bad growing year
Some of the factors contributing to the poor harvests in Guatemala in 2009:
- Erratic rains and higher temperatures (credited to the El Niño weather phenomenon) during the summer of 2009 reduced crop yields.
- High prices for fertilizer in 2008 lowered yields, so many families ran out of food earlier in 2009.
- Family members living outside the country reduced their remittances because of the global economic slowdown, so many families had less money to buy fertilizers and other inputs.
- The government lacks effective policies that will help small-scale indigenous farmers improve their production.