09 Mar, 2021

The crops of Wrath. Driven away from home by food insecurity

by Marco Carlone and Daniela Sestito

The Central American Dry Corridor is an ecological region on the Pacific Coast of Central America largely composed of tropical dry forest. This area is characterized by a high degree of social vulnerability, while the kind of subsistence farming practiced there allows very limited margin for action in case of adverse climatic conditions.

If someone had been asked in the early 2000s what the Central American Dry Corridor was, probably no one would have been able to answer. And the reason why is simple: this term has started to be frequently used only since 2009.

The Central American Dry Corridor is an ecological region on the Pacific Coast of Central America. It is largely composed of an approximately 1,600 km long strip of tropical dry forest, which runs through the low-lying regions of the costal area and most of the central pre-mountain part of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.

This area is characterized by a high degree of social vulnerability: some 45 million people live in this eco-region, mostly in rural areas, half of whom, according to a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, have an annual income considered to be below the poverty line, while 20% live in absolute poverty.

About one third of all employees in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua are agricultural workers, and FAO estimates that half of the 1.9 million small-scale producers of staple cereals of the Central American regions are located in the Dry Corridor. Most livelihoods are heavily reliant on the production of staple cereals such as rice, beans and maize, and the farmland is in most cases low-yielding due to a lack of both commercial technology and irrigation. 

About 10% of the population suffers from malnutrition, "a percentage that varies depending on the weather", FAO continues. Indeed, among the factors that have had an impact on the lives of many families in the Dry Corridor is climate. As an area with a predominantly agricultural vocation, climate trends - which strongly influence agricultural production - condition a large part of the economy, the life of the population, and the demographic balance itself. 

The kind of subsistence farming practiced in the Dry Corridor allows very limited margin for action in case of adverse climatic conditions. As the World Food Programme (WFP) states: “If they lose a crop, they will not have reserves to eat or sell, to survive until the next harvest”. Once their food reserves have been emptied, households often turn to emergency coping strategies, such as selling farming tools and animals to buy food. The other path is emigration.

Blame it on the Niño

The climate of the Dry Corridor region is significantly influenced by the warm phase of El Niño (“The Little Boy” in Spanish), a fluctuation in temperature between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific that can influence global weather and climate. 

Its intensity varies with each occurrence in countries overlooking the Pacific Ocean: during the years of El Niño, rainfall falls by 30-40%, with long periods of heat waves and droughts during which hardly any rain falls. This lack of rainfall has disastrous consequences for staple cereal crops such as maize. Conversely, during years of heavier rainfall, tropical storms often have equally devastating effects. Its episodes usually last 9 to 12 months, but sometimes they may last for years. Although it is a periodic phenomenon, it is not deterministic, and its occurrence cannot be predicted. 

In addition to a complex weather pattern, there is also climate change, since the Dry Corridor is “one of the most susceptible regions in the world to climate change and variability”, according to FAO

Although there is a broad agreement in asserting that climate change is intensifying the way hurricanes occur, it is still difficult to understand whether this is also responsible for the intense hurricane and storm season that hit Central America and the Gulf of Mexico with extreme rainfall and wind events during 2020, causing damage and casualties. However, there is little doubt that global warming has contributed to the long periods of drought in the Dry Corridor.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) fifth report indicates that Central America has become significantly warmer and drier in recent decades: precipitation decreased by about 1 mm per day between 1950 and 2008, and temperatures increased by about one degree over a 40-year time span, starting in the mid-1970s. "Evidence for this has been accumulating particularly in the last 30 years, with a steady increase in extreme events including storms, floods, and droughts". 

The rapid destruction of an agricultural system

In the last decade, adverse climatic conditions have reduced crop yields by huge amounts, especially in three countries of the Dry Corridor: Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. As a result, poverty and food insecurity have become major issues for families and communities living in the area.

In the second half of 2009, the influence of El Niño resulted in a food crisis in Guatemala: the climatic event extended the Heatwave (the warmer phase of the year) and damaged between 60% and 80% of the crops in the zones which were affected most. 

In 2014, a prolonged period of lack of rainfall ravaged harvests in Central America, especially southern Guatemala, northern Honduras and western El Salvador. An estimated 2.8 million people began to struggle to find food.

By the end of June 2016, two years of drought had passed, and again an unprecedentedly intense El Niño impact affected the Dry Corridor. According to FAO, "3.5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance with 1.6 million moderately or severely food insecure in the hard-hit countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras."

In 2018, below-average rainfall in June and July led to the loss of 280,000 hectares of beans and maize, hitting more than 2 million people, in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

In 2019, after six years of drought, the geo-agricultural monitoring (GEOGLAM) reported that small-scale subsistence farmers in the wider Dry Corridor region had suffered crop losses of 50 to 75%.

The smallholder and rural agricultural communities, which rely on the precipitation falling between May and October to produce both staple cereals and cash crops such as coffee, were the worst affected.

Since it has an impact on the income and food security of these communities, climate has been related to internal displacement and migration from this eco-region. The WFP has estimated that emigration from the Dry Corridor increased almost fivefold in five years, between 2010 and 2015. 

The food insecurity loop

When it comes to a phenomenon as complex as migration, it is difficult to identify a single reason, and this also applies to migrants from Central America.

Violence and poverty are usually indicated as main drivers for leaving Central America. But in the Dry Corridor, lack of food is also a decisive cause for hundred thousand people choosing to leave their houses and families in search of better opportunities abroad. So, many start a very risky journey towards Mexico and the United States of America. 

In 2017, WFP estimated that one third of the households with migrants in affected area of El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras cited climate-induced lack of food as the main reason to migrate. Half of the people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who were turned back at the Mexican border had been working in the agricultural sector before leaving. The following year, also the commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection cited crop failure and drought in Honduras and Guatemala as a main driver for those attempting to migrate to the United States.

In this context, food insecurity impacts both on those who leave and those who stay. According to a study conducted by the WFP, those travelling on valid visas usually have the necessary funds to afford the journey. However, those without a valid visa frequently resort to a migrant smuggler, paying high costs and getting into debt, with properties such as houses or land being used as collateral. Family members left behind have to bear the debt incurred, and if the migration project fails, the debt amount is likely to increase.

Moreover, "78% of households in the home country receive monthly 'remittances' from those who emigrated, of which 42% indicate that remittances are their only source of income". Often the people left behind, mostly women, are forced to replace those who have left at work, as well as carrying out the usual household duties. When they no longer receive remittances, their situation immediately worsens. In fact, emigration cuts the available labor force and is likely to cause a further increase in food insecurity and poverty if there is no compensation from remittances.

The presence of several caravan of migrants led to growing conflict with authorities in both countries of transit and on the US southern border. Indeed, this boundary line has historically been the intended destination and most desirable starting point in the US for many trying to escape the worsening situation to the south. But in the past five years, it has been shut down.

What about the future?

Under current conditions this crisis is not likely to end quickly. Models issued in 2014 by the IPCC predict that temperatures in the Dry Corridor could increase by between 1.6 and 4° by 2100. Concomitantly, precipitation would also decrease.

A recent study published in December 2020 by IOP Science confirms this hypothesis, and even warns that "Throughout the rainy season, during which farmers are most dependent upon stable rainfall patterns, short-term droughts are slated to lengthen, intensify and become more frequent". But the major threats would come from long-term droughts, projected to potentially intensify more-than-triple in length.

All the international organizations working on this issue have been warning policymakers for years about the need to take measures to adapt to the situation, not least because the effects are already clearly visible today at the border in Mexico and the US.

According to a World Bank report, climate migration will increase in the coming decades and the sub-region could see up to 3.9 million climate migrants by 2050.