NYTimes.com Article: Drought Creates Food Crisis in Central America
- Subject: [cg] NYTimes.com Article: Drought Creates Food Crisis in Central America
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- Date: Tue, 28 Aug 2001 17:39:44 -0400 (EDT)
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This is an article from the NY Times on drought weather conditions and subsistence farmers in Central America. Here is a classic quote: "These people are subsistence farmers in a world that is not a subsistence world," said Francisco Roque Castro, the Latin America director of the United Nations World Food Program. "They live an outdated routine. Yet people are depending on an uncertain rain for an uncertain harvest that will only maintain them in a precarious situation."
The received wisdom is not always wisdom.
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Drought Creates Food Crisis in Central America
By DAVID GONZALEZ
PILLADO, Honduras, Aug. 24 — A merciless and stubborn summer
drought has left almost 1.5 million of the poorest farmers in
Central America with no crops to sell or food to eat.
From Nicaragua to Guatemala, many of the region's poorest people
have been reduced to scavenging for mangoes and bananas after
seeing the bean and corn fields they planted months ago reduced to
a crunchy tan carpet of withered stalks and wrinkled leaves.
Although the long-awaited rainy season has finally begun, there is
no assurance that it will be enough to sustain the year's second
planting season, which began a few weeks ago. Already crippled by
debt from the failed harvest, farmers have neither the cash nor the
credit to buy the fertilizers and pesticides they need to coax
their crops from the overworked soil.
Officials estimate that more than 700,000 people have lost at
least half of their crops.
It was only out of habit and hope that Celestino Salinas trudged
through his small field here today poking a stick into the earth,
tossing in a few seeds of sorghum and corn he had hoarded. "We have
nothing now," he said. "I only think about God and ask that he
favor us. We are planting with faith."
In a region battered over the years by earthquakes, hurricanes and
conflict, the drought is a potential coup de grâce. People suffer
from malnutrition. Communities fret about vanishing supplies of
drinkable water. And cash-short farmers, trying to stave off
impatient lenders intent on repossessing their land, sell off the
few scrawny cows and chickens that gave them milk and eggs. There
are already reports of a desperate migration northward in search of
work in neighboring countries or the elusive salvation of the
The governments of the region have said little. While Honduras has
declared an emergency, other countries have tried to minimize the
severity of the problem. The mixed and delayed responses, as well
as a continued dependence on emergency food aid, point to a
persistent inability of the region's leaders to prepare for
disasters and to provide water, financing and social services for
the many peasants who live on the edge.
Aid workers and disaster experts say that instead of considering
the drought an isolated emergency, officials must begin looking at
long-term rural development needs.
"These people are subsistence farmers in a world that is not a
subsistence world," said Francisco Roque Castro, the Latin America
director of the United Nations World Food Program. "They live an
outdated routine. Yet people are depending on an uncertain rain for
an uncertain harvest that will only maintain them in a precarious
Misery has been the only constant over the years in rural towns
along the dirt roads and rocky hillsides. Even before the drought,
6,000 children in El Salvador alone died from hunger each year, the
United Nations says. The loss of crops and farm laborer jobs
increased the suffering.
In Honduran towns around Choluteca, a region that lost 92 percent
of the first harvest, many 5-year-olds are as tiny as toddlers,
their wavy brown hair streaked with yellow, a sign of protein
Local officials say residents have rummaged through the castoff
shrimp heads from local fish packers to make a thin soup, although
even the shrimp farms have diminished output because of low water
Some families have one daily meal of bananas and milk. What little
money adults earn is quickly spent, just as a recent food donation
from the World Food Program was rapidly devoured.
"The children are desperate," said Ana Rosa Amador, who has four
children. "They ask me to bring them an apple or an orange, but I
say no. If I buy corn and beans, I cannot buy fruit. If they are to
go to school, it is a battle. My children are without food or
shoes. Sure they need shoes, but they need food more."
For months Vicente Herrera has fed his family with mangoes that he
and his friends pluck from trees on the other side of a nearby
hill. It is a long trek, made all the worse by having to haul sacks
of the fruit in the hot sun. "We pick them green," he said. "And by
the time we get home they are ripe."
Others are taking a riskier journey, spilling over from Nicaragua
and Honduras in search of scant work in El Salvador, while those
Salvadorans who have the resources or connections venture to the
"Our problem is we are a small country with many people and few
resources," said Ceslo González Hernández, the comptroller in the
border town of El Sauce. "What will happen to those people who are
in their most productive work years? What can they do? They will go
on an adventure and end up in the deserts of Arizona. There is no
Aid groups and international donors have begun to provide food and
seeds, but United Nations officials said they cannot begin to meet
The United States, mostly through the Agency for International
Development, is providing 4,800 tons of food, a month's supply for
about 365,000 people. But the shipment will not arrive for three
weeks, forcing aid officials to shift reserves from current feeding
The farmers are also grappling with leftover debt from the first
harvest and the unwillingness of banks and businesses to make loans
or sell on credit. In Honduras, although the government pressed
banks to forgive part of the farmers' debts, lenders have been
"The banks are repossessing a lot of properties," said Ismael
Banegas, the southern regional coordinator for the Honduran
Agriculture Ministry. "In some zones there are armed people who do
not want to see their land taken. In one town they told the
ministry that if we do not fix the situation, they will."
But the only lasting solution, aid officials said, will have to
come from an assessment of why the region has failed to cope with
The aid officials say insufficient investment in rural areas, poor
planning that allows mud-and-wattle shacks to be built on
earthquake- or landslide-prone hillsides and the lack of health
care and education for the poor only set up a country for the
"Disasters are a symptom of a failed development paradigm," said
Ben Wisner, a visiting researcher in environmental studies at
Oberlin College and vice chairman of the hazards and risks
committee of the International Geographical Union.
"The governments have no respect for the farmers' culture," he
said, "nor do they have any tradition of providing rural services,
because they do not see the payback in human terms."
Aid officials also said that in some countries, politics had taken
precedence over human need.
In El Salvador, they said, the government lagged in declaring a
modified state of emergency, apparently out of fear that it would
drive up interest rates on foreign loans. In Nicaragua, where
campaigning is under way for the presidential election in November,
the outgoing president, Arnoldo Alemán, suggested that the drought
was God's punishment against his Sandinista political opponents.
"It is unfortunate that this crisis had to happen at the same time
as a presidential election," said one aid worker in Nicaragua. "As
with foreign aid, it becomes difficult for humanitarian assistance
not to become politicized."
Some countries have begun to look at the longer term. Honduras
plans to build irrigation systems in regions affected by the
And some have used their own resources and money from aid groups
for agricultural research, seeking drought-resistant seeds and
alternative crops. But too often, aid officials said, such plans
are spotty and subject to political whim or the changing focus of
the donor groups themselves.
"Every decade there is a lack of continuity and investment in
public infrastructure, and agricultural research falls off a cliff
and people start all over," said Kevin Sanders, the Nicaragua
director of World Relief, an evangelical development group. "There
needs to be more discernment by by donor agencies in seeing what is
going on with resources."
But aid officials also fear that Central American leaders are
distracted by the current emphasis on luring overseas investors to
build factories. They doubt that factories will help the rural
areas, since the manufacturing zones are not nearby.
Nor have the aid officials seen the opening of local markets to
free trade as having spurred farmers to improve their methods and
"These farmers are confronting tomorrow's challenges with
yesterday's tools," said Mr. Roque of the World Food Program.
"You cannot try to survive in this modern world," he said, "when
you only have corn and beans to cultivate on land that is marginal
and subject to drought and floods, or when you have open markets
and your major competition is the United States. All it creates are
generations with a built-in disadvantage."
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