Storms, coronaviruses and drought unfold starvation amongst hundreds of thousands in Central America

By Sofia Menchu ​​and Stefanie Eschenbacher

JOCOTAN, Guatemala (Reuters) – Successive hurricanes destroyed a small piece of corn that Tomasa Mendoza was helping to feed her five children in a tiny hamlet in the impoverished mountains of eastern Guatemala.

Even before the storms buried their crops in the mud last month, Mendoza’s husband had not worked for months after days of coffee plantations dried up during the coronavirus pandemic.

As food becomes scarce, the children cry with hunger and lose weight. You have a cough that won’t go away.

To survive, Mendoza sells her chickens to buy corn kernels. She only has five chickens left. Everyone will fetch $ 4.

“When they’re gone, I won’t have anything,” said Mendoza, a skinny 34-year-old who lives in the hamlet of El Naranjo in the Jocotan community on the border with Honduras.

Jocotan is located in a Latin American region known as the dry corridor that runs from southern Mexico to Panama, crossing parts of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. It encompasses some of the areas most vulnerable to food shortages in the Western Hemisphere, hit by periods of drought that destroy crops from year to year.

In the first half of November, Hurricanes Eta and Iota brought incessant rain for weeks, washed out bridges, crashed power lines, and destroyed crops in Jocotan and much of Central America.

The two extremes, scientists say, are signs of climate change that is exacerbating regular weather cycles.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problems. With coronavirus containment measures limiting additional incomes for many, the number of people suffering from severe food shortages has risen sharply in rural Guatemala and Honduras.

In Guatemala the problem is particularly severe. Even before the storms, 3.7 million people – or more than a fifth of the population – were suffering from high levels of acute food insecurity. This emerges from a report prepared by the Government’s Food Security Secretariat for a United Nations hunger tracking body. The UN defines acute food insecurity as a food shortage that directly endangers people’s lives or livelihoods. Almost half a million of these people were in an emergency situation, the report said.

The report forecast hunger reductions by early 2021, but has not yet been updated to reflect the storms that are estimated to cause losses of $ 5.5 billion in Central America.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, overwhelmed by the extent of the damage, called on Washington in November to exclude Guatemalans arriving in the United States from deportation.

The droughts contributed to mass migrations north in recent years, and when Iota weighed down the region on November 16, Giammattei reminded rich nations that they should not recover unless they help the Central American economies to recover recovering storms they would face “hordes” of new migrants.

The number of US migrants from Central America is already rising to pre-pandemic levels.

For most in Jocotan, however, moving to the US is not an option: the typical cost of the trip of up to $ 14,000 is just too high. Instead, they are trapped in cut-off villages with little government aid and dwindling food supplies.

“We cannot migrate because that requires money,” Mendoza said in front of a modest house made of mud and sticks.

DAUNTING JOB

The effects are being felt in other countries through which the arid corridor passes, including Honduras, where 1.65 million people are suffering from high levels of acute food insecurity or food shortages. This emerges from a report that the Honduran government prepared according to the same UN classification of hunger.

With large parts of Central America ravaged by storm damage, coronavirus outbreaks and the aftermath of years of drought, aid agencies appeared discouraged by the scale of the task of preventing people from falling into extreme poverty.

“The combination of emergencies quadruples the emergency,” said Felipe Del Cid, operations manager of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies based in Panama. “The recovery could take years.”

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) predicts the effects of the coronavirus could bring the number of starving people worldwide to 270 million by the end of the year – an 82% increase from before the pandemic. Latin America is the hardest hit region, the WFP said, reporting an almost three-fold increase in the number of people in need of food aid.

The larger province, which also includes Jocotan, is one of the worst hit in Guatemala. According to the international aid organization Oxfam, the number of people who suffered from severe food insecurity in May 2020 was four times higher than a year earlier.

The lessons of those who have tried to leave are chastening. The Ramirez family in neighboring La Palmilla sold part of their land two years ago to pay for a trip to the United States. They have been deported and now cannot grow enough to eat on their remaining property.

“We were kidnapped before the pandemic and now things are getting worse,” said 16-year-old Damian Ramirez. La Palmilla is now cut off from the rest of Jocotan after a bridge collapsed in the storms.

For many families in the region, children have been classified as malnourished after nearly a decade of drought – some have even been hospitalized for treatment. When the pandemic broke out, even households that stopped by earlier started skipping meals, seven families surveyed by Reuters said.

Guatemala’s informal economy, in which 70% of the population work, has practically collapsed. Even before the pandemic broke out, around 69% of the population lived in poverty, according to government data, with the proportion in rural areas being up to 80%.

“THE WORST YEAR”

For the community leader of Jocotan, Eduardo Roque, the damage caused by the storms appears particularly cruel. At the beginning of 2020, households with little land were cautiously optimistic. For the first time in years it had rained lightly and the harvest was ripening well.

Hurricanes Eta and Iota put an end to this hope.

“This is the worst year we have ever lived,” said Roque. “It looked like the best harvest in 10 years after the drought,” he said of a crisp link in the community that had been off power since Iota in early November.

“Then the pandemic came and now only God can help us,” he said, estimating that half the coffee crop, a money spinner, was destroyed while corn and beans were wiped out in mudslides.

When Reuters visited Jocotan in October, families said they had already reduced their diet to some tortillas, wild weeds and herbs, and the occasional beans or an egg.

Concerned parents described eating and debt-free days to buy basic Guatemalan diets for themselves as handouts for small governments and charities were running low.

Ivan Aguilar, a humanitarian program coordinator based in Guatemala at Oxfam, said the storms had made the outlook even more complicated as families who relied on small crops for livelihoods are now on the verge of disaster.

“The food situation will get worse,” said Aguilar. “Even in areas where the situation wasn’t too bad.”

The prices of beans, a much-needed source of protein for those who can’t afford meat, have increased by about 30% compared to the average price in the past three to five years, according to Aguilar, making them unaffordable for many.

Aguilar said the cost of staple Guatemalan food, tortillas and corn has increased by as much as 20% in some areas.

Guatemala’s Ministry of Food and Food Security said the storms would add vulnerability to families and children’s diets were the most vulnerable to deterioration. The ministry said studies to measure the impact are underway.

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