Food security is a daily issue for hundreds of thousands of families in Guatemala. More than fifty nine percent of Guatemalans live below the poverty line and rely on self-sufficient farming to survive. Climate change, restricted access to water, land conflict, environmental and natural disasters, large-scale agro-business activities, violence, and narcotics-related activities have combined to reduce land available for farming.
Already in 2017 Guatemala has suffered various natural and man-made issues that imperil food security:
- Forest fires covering territory the size of Israel or Slovenia;
- Locust outbreaks in five municipalities of Chiquimula;
- 1,440 unresolved land conflicts;
- An estimated 77% of Guatemala’s 340 municipalities lack water access;
- Illegal blocking or rerouting of rivers for sugar cane and palm oil industries;
- Pollution of rivers blamed on sugar cane waste, palm oil and textile industries;
- Severe frosts and hailstones in Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, Quiché and Totonicapán endangering crops; and
- Between 120,000 and 400,000 families at risk of famine and drought in the “Corredor Seco” (Dry Corridor).
In large part, the crisis stems from an intersection of ineffective government, poor policy and climate change.
At least 12 attempts to create a water law in Guatemala have stalled in the nation’s Congress in recent years. Guatemala is the only country in Central America without the right to water access. A nationwide march in 2016 to demand better access to water—with only three of the country’s 22 departments believed to have adequate resources—has not moved the issue along in the public policy debate.
At the same time, areas such as the “Corredor seco”— a region that consists of seven departments in Guatemala and extends into El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua—suffer famines or droughts on an almost annual basis. The situation has been exacerbated in the past five years as temperatures have increased. Localized droughts and irregular rainfall have caused havoc with farmers’ crops. Droughts and storms have made planning difficult, leading to irregular crops, loss of crops, reduced crop yield, and, ultimately, hunger.
The latest statistics available show a dramatic increase in palm oil production and rubber from 2013-14. Along with sugar cane they have been blamed for reducing access to water for subsistence farmers either through direct use or the diversion of rivers. The result has been an estimated 200,000-hectare reduction in land available for farming.
There have been a number of recent, extreme weather-related incidents that have affected food security and government policy fumbles that worsened their impact.
In August 2001, a 40-day drought destroyed corn and bean crops in three municipalities—Camotán, Olopa and Jocotán—in the department of Chiquimula. In response, the government issued a yellow alert for famine. The resulting death toll was officially 48, but estimates were in the hundreds because of crop failure and resulting malnutrition. Over 1,200 people were treated for severe malnutrition. Alfonso Portillo, Guatemala’s president at the time, admitted that government efforts had fallen short of helping those at risk.
Tropical storms have become more frequent and more intense in Guatemala. In 2005 Hurricane Stan destroyed an estimated 20,000 hectares and $400 million worth of sugar cane, rice, bananas and corn. On May 30, 2010 Tropical Storm Agatha left 165 dead and more than 150,000 Guatemalans affected. The main effect of Agatha was to the country’s infrastructure, especially bridges and buildings with the heaviest rainfall in 60 years. Almost 400,000 people received humanitarian aid, with the World Food Program providing 200 shelters to feed those affected.
In 2016, about 120,000 families were at risk of drought and famine in Guatemala’s Corredor Seco. In 2017 that estimate has increased to 150,000-400,000 families worsening the situation in a country where chronic malnutrition affects 47% of the population. Already the trends appear to be worsening. Nationwide, at least 11 children died of acute malnutrition in the first three months of 2017.
How well is the government preparing?
There are at least three climate-change adaptation groups set up within the various Guatemalan government ministries: one in the Agriculture Ministry (Ministerio de Agricultura, Ganadería y Alimentación de la República de Guatemala – MAGA), one in the Environment Ministry (MARN) and a vice presidential commission whose current status is unknown. In theory they work together in mesa técnicas to discuss policy and best practices.
The reality is that these mesa técnicas are often ignored by members of Congress. Experts agree that the government has learned how to deal with disasters, such as buying grain in advance of potential famines but that the government struggles with long-term preparation for future events beyond disaster relief. There is both a lack of culture of prevention and budget to implement preventative measures.
Through a German NGO, MARN has a 48-hour course to teach rural Guatemalans about climate change. The course can be completed according to the individual’s timetable, but the question is what the government is doing to prepare its policy responses in advance?
More generally, though, there’s been no systematic attempt to create a national climate change adaptation policy. Many decisions are made at a national level and then left to local municipalities to enforce when they were not part of the policy creation.
There’s very little culture of collaborative work between Guatemalan ministries. Part of this is budgetary and part of this is institutional. Each ministry ends up isolated from the broader picture; task forces combining to solve issues is unheard of. For instance the Instituto Nacional de Bosques (INAB) has responsibility for the country’s forests but not for the “Mayasphere” which is located in a national park in Petén—where the forest fires were. The bureaucratic system in place at each ministry, coupled with jobs for political favors, leaves ministries both isolated and essentially a fiefdom. Leadership, from the president, Congress, ministries, mayors, and local government is lacking.
SESAN (Secretaría de Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional de la Presidencia de la República) is responsible for food security in Guatemala. However, there are similar functions duplicated in MAGA and MARN. SESAN served 414,330 families 19,231 tons of food at a cost of Q262,795,837 ($35.85 million) in 2016. This was primarily the result of a heat wave and the effect this had on crops, especially in the Corredor Seco . MAGA’s budget for humanitarian aid is Q72 million ($9.82 million) which is not enough to cover the effects of natural disasters or climate change. Farmers who lost basic crops in 2016 still had to seek international aid.
The cost of the canasta básica alimentaria (CBA) basic food basket has risen to over Q4000 ($545.70) with a year-on-year increase of over 10 percent. The average wage rose by 7% in the same period but the minimum wage ranges between Q2667 ($363.85) and Q2893 ($394.68). Essentially this leaves families requiring more than one wage earner to meet basic requirements or risk food insecurity. This wage-cost gap continues to grow every month and the minimum salary will only increase by 6% in 2017.
Day laborers are paid on average Q54 (Q7.37) per day without meals. Anecdotally, there are certain industries such as sugar cane plantations that pay Q25-30 ($3.41-4.09) per day.
Nationwide statistics from the UN’s FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) report dated January 5, 2017, show families have between one to two months food storage, meaning access to staple crops of corn and beans. As soil quality decreases due to lack of rainfall and as humanitarian aid ends, the beginning of 2017 has been difficult. Effects of climate change on crops, primarily reduced rainfall, was less in 2016 compared with 2015 according to MAGA estimates but families will face a fifth consecutive year of reduced crop yield.
MAGA’s Dirección de Coordinación Regional y Extensión Rural (Office of Regional Coordination and Rural extension) estimate damage to crops of 37,309 hectares in 99 municipalities affecting 123,201 families. A further study to verify this is planned but has not yet been carried out.
Projected consequences of inaction
- Increased poverty and rural malnutrition: Small farmers are already bearing the brunt of extreme weather patterns of flooding and droughts. Subsistence farmers will continue to suffer irregular crop yield, the loss of crops, and, ultimately, hunger. Unfortunately, the government has failed to articulate a plan to cushion those most at risk through either policy intervention or identifying target populations for assistance after extreme weather patterns.
- Internal migration: Reduced crop yields will likely produce dislocation as small and subsistence farmers are forced to seek land to cultivate or employment. The result will be greater flows of migration within Guatemala and greater external migration to other Central American countries, Mexico or the United States [See forthcoming report on migration].
What should be done?
Awareness: Ensure that climate change awareness filters down to a local level through a media campaign to assist current efforts. According to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Popular Opinion Project’s 2014 survey, the environment and climate change do not rank among even the top four concerns of Guatemalans. (Instead, it’s the economy—35.8%; security, 32.5%; politics, 12.9%; and basic services, 8.6%.) Yet, as the incidents listed above clearly demonstrate, the risks of extreme weather are real and immediate and will affect not only nutrition and health but also the economy.
Leadership: The central government needs to show leadership on climate change and food security through efforts such as promoting diversification of land use. NGOs that educate farmers are split on crop diversification between those that attempt to introduce new crops and those that do not. SemillaNueva originally tried to do this but narrowed its focus to improving the nutritional value of staple crops. The group’s argument was that this would have a greater impact and did not require battling against centuries of tradition over what crops to grow.
MAGA promotes soil conservation through the use of windbreak plants, cover crops and crop rotation, earthworm use, dry farming and indigenous crop farming among other methods. Yet the ministry has not set aside any of its Q2.8 billion ($382 million) budget to promote these ideas. The Agriculture Minister has asked for an additional Q1.5 billion ($205 million) for projects to stimulate rural opportunities. However, the rural development law (Ley de Desarrollo Rural) has been stuck in Guatemalan Congress for years, a result of opposition from affected parties and conservative businesses.
President Jimmy Morales has prioritized education, health and law and order. MAGA claims to have been ignored for 15 years and to have assisted 34,000 families with rural outreach/food assistance programs.
Given SESAN’s focus on food security, it would seem effective to allow them to lead food security operations. However, MAGA, MARN and CONRED (Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Desastres) all play some part in battling the problem. The Plan de Respuesta para la Atención del Hambre Estacional 2017 is an inter-ministerial attempt to combat food insecurity and a step in the right direction. Both SESAN and CONRED are aware of how to prevent food insecurity and avoid natural disasters but face budget constraints on putting plans into action.
Expedited land dispute resolution: As of March 2017, 1,440 land conflict cases affecting 1.485 million people were awaiting mediation from the Secretaría de Asuntos Agrarios de la Presidencia de la República (SAA). The majority of these are in Huehuetenango, Petén, Alta Verapaz, Quiché, and Izabal—centers of external migration, narco activity and some of the most poverty stricken departments in the country.
A major issue in land disputes is the number of entities involved in solving them. SAA’s conflict resolution is handled by the Subsecretary of CONTIERRA (Subsecretario de Resolución de Conflictos). A case is passed onto one of seven departments and then to a geographical region. Organizations involved in the actual resolution include: government departments, municipalities, indigenous leadership, Maya councils, Maya religious representatives, municipal development councils (COMUDE), and community councils for urban and rural development (COCODE). The second major issue is that historical land conflicts—especially where families have worked for generations—are difficult to resolve with missing, non-existent or incompatible paperwork.
Part of the problem is the disproportionate public and policy attention on land occupations over other issues of land tenure. Cases determining who has the right to land make up 66% of all conflicts, however, the media focus is on land occupations that are 16.9% of cases. At present, 1.87 million hectares of land are being contested.
SAA’s budget has remained constant over the past five years at Q42.1-Q44 million ($5.74 to 6 million), although significantly more than in 1997 when it was $341,000. Roughly 41% of the budget is spent on conflict resolution.
Since 1997, there have only been four years with more resolutions than cases reported, one of those was in 2016; 392 new cases were reported, 480 resolved. So far in 2017, 149 cases have been reported and 94 resolved.
Budget allocation and prevention: There is a zero budget for prevention schemes via Guatemalan ministries, a result of budgetary planning and cultural indifference to prevention. However, a pilot scheme called Paisajes Productivos Resilientes al Cambio Climático y Redes Socio-económicas Fortalecidas en Guatemala is due to roll out in 2017. The project will cover 11 municipalities in Suchitepéquez and Sololá departments. Funded by $5 million from the United National Development Program the aim is to improve ecosystem management and reduce associated climate change risks. The project will educate the local population and build meteorological stations for them to monitor climate change. MARN and UNDP are the main strategic partners with a host of governmental organizations, the private sector and NGOs. Similar forward-looking efforts need to be expanded across the Guatemalan government by working with other international groups.
Adoption of climate resistant crops: A comprehensive effort to identify and disseminate strains of crops that can better adapt to extreme climate, especially droughts—and the increasing incidence of pests and fungus stemming from shifting weather patterns—is essential. In addition, governments should provide technical assistance and training to subsistence and small farmers on adaptive techniques such as sun-screens, improved irrigation, terracing and other methods to address the risk of mudslides. These activities should be done in cooperation with multilateral finance organizations and donors to find the most appropriate crops, techniques and training methods and to tap the growing pool of multilateral assistance dedicated to climate change adaptation.
The technical expertise for such a collaboration would come from the MARN and MAGA. However, local municipalities, especially in rural areas need to be part of the decision-making process. Mayors complain that they have policy inflicted on them rather than being part of central government decision-making. NGOs have struggled to persuade indigenous people to change crops so SemillaNueva’s policy of improving staple products could be an indicator of the way forward. MAGA do not have the budget to support families that lose crops. Public-private partnerships and the UNDP pilot project in Sololá offer answers to promoting climate resistant crops. Unless this is in conjunction with CIV or housing NGOs, it will not have much of an effect of reducing the danger of mudslides. As Guatemala’s poor face increasingly dangerous terrain to work and live on, so the threat of natural disasters remains.