Storms Without Names: Climate Change Wreaking Havoc in Central America

February 29, 2012

Boston Review:

“It’s worth it to come up here to drink a cafecito and meditate on the world, maybe write a poem,” Evenor Malespín told me on top of San Pedro de Carazo, Nicaragua’s highest hill. “Or even eat a carne asada.” Malespín has three bony, chestnut-colored milk cows, but subsistence farmers such as him can rarely afford to eat beef.

An extinct volcano called Mombacho loomed above us, its forested dome lost in the clouds billowing like a duvet over the relentlessly green earth. Along the volcano’s eastern flank, the blue sheet of Lake Nicaragua stretched toward the horizon. Wind stirred the towering guanacaste and ceiba trees at the base of the hill.

“This is tourism,” Malespín said with a smile as he took off his royal blue baseball cap and wiped his brow with it. His words gave me pause for a moment, since Malespín has lived nearly all of his 61 years around the village of San Pedro, where more than 150 of the 500-plus residents live in extreme poverty, lacking basic necessities such as adequate housing, sanitation, water, and employment. But for small-scale farmers, almost any outing not related to the work of survival counts as sightseeing.

“When there’s too much rain, the beans rot,” Malespín told me. “When there’s a drought, you get a few more beans, because beans need less water. But you don’t get corn, you don’t get rice. So, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.” Malespín let out a full-throated laugh that faded into a whisper: “This is the problem. This is the problem.”

In recent years, alternating extreme drought and heavy rains have been punishing the crops Malespín grows on his eight and a half acres. “Global warming is making the dry season here more intense,” he said, “and rain is very strong early in the rainy season.”

In my seven recent visits to Central America as a writer, teacher, and volunteer, I’ve met farmer after farmer who echoes Malespín. Their stories show how climate change is gradually pushing more people toward poverty and worsening the food insecurity of already-vulnerable people.

In addition to producing new hardships, climate change is making inequalities more extreme by the year. The effects of climate change are being felt in Central America, even though the people there are some of those least responsible for emissions. Demonstrators are everywhere protesting the unfairness of the global economic system. Here is exhibit A.

It was a storm that “doesn’t have a name,” El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes said of ten consecutive days of rain last October. They were not part of a hurricane or a tropical storm, and therefore didn’t register as extreme weather in the global media. But the storm was a disaster all the same.

When the rains finally slackened, almost 10 percent of both Nicaragua and El Salvador was underwater. El Salvador received nearly five feet of rain, the average yearly total and more than it received during 1998’s record-breaking Hurricane Mitch. In Central America as a whole, October’s rains resulted in at least 123 deaths and more than 300,000 displaced people. Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala each declared states of emergency.

The record intensity was produced by a stalled low-pressure system enhanced by a tropical depression and water temperatures off the coast of El Salvador 0.5–1°C above average. This allowed “more water vapor than usual to evaporate into the air,” according to Climate Progress editor Joe Romm.

For the region’s rural poor, October’s rains mean an even leaner-than-usual “hungry season,” currently underway and lasting about six months. According to a November 2011 report [PDF] by the Risk, Emergency, and Disaster Task Force Inter-Agency Workgroup for Latin America & The Caribbean (REDLAC), 200,000–300,000 Central American farming families lost 30–100 percent of their crops, with a total value of at least $300 million. The Nicaraguan Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry estimates that more than 17,000 acres of crops were destroyed. More than 20,000 farmers and their families, many of them among the approximately 1.5 million Nicaraguans who are already undernourished, lost their food and seed supplies for the next four to ten months.

The rains damaged 13 percent of Nicaragua’s cropland, leaving most farmers feeling lucky. “If it would have rained five days more, all of the crops would have been lost,” Nicaraguan farmer Wilmer Alvarez told me. Still, As much damage as it caused, the October deluge was not unique.

“This was the latest in a long series of annual crises, with a cumulative effect,” Catherine Bragg, Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator in the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said after her November 2011 tour of flood-ravaged Nicaragua and El Salvador.

In September 2010 weeks of torrential rains drowned or rotted much of Nicaragua’s bean crop, which provides Nicaraguans’ main source of protein. Severe drought in 2009 affected 8.5 million people in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In October 2008 a tropical depression brought floods and landslides that washed away entire fields throughout Central America. And in 2007 a combination of early-season drought and late-season flooding caused poor harvests.

Such weather events, compounded one after the other, have made farmers’ lives, and the livelihoods of the public they feed, increasingly precarious. Malespín, like many farmers around San Pedro, has lost his bean crop for the last four years.

“In ’94, ’95, ’96, I harvested up to 9,000 pounds of beans, and I had my food in abundance,” Malespín said. “Now, this is impossible. Losing is not a joke, because you have to pay for it . . . . You have to spend double on food because everything you lost you have to go out and buy. With the few resources you have from working, instead of buying a pair of pants or a nice pair of shoes, a nice shirt, you buy a few cheap things in order to buy food.”

In rural Nicaragua feeding a family of four a basic diet of rice and beans requires about $22 a week, more than the average farmer earns. So, most farmers grow as much of their own food as possible. In addition to buying food when a crop fails, farmers have to buy seeds for the next year’s crop; with no harvest the previous year, there are no seeds for the future. In 2011 Malespín had to spend more than $43 (roughly two-thirds of a month’s income) to buy enough bean seed to hopefully have enough beans to feed his family in 2012. He has largely given up on growing enough to sell.

“There’s no stability like there used to be,” he explained. “The weather isn’t like it was before.”…

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