Tortillas on the Roaster, a new climate change study from CIAT, CIMMYT and Catholic Relief Services, has found that climate change is likely to cause serious problems for two of Central America’s most important staple food crops: maize and beans. According to the report, around one million smallholder farmers and their families could find themselves in the danger zone, as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns are disrupted.
It estimates that Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala could face combined maize and bean losses worth around US$120 million per year – within the next couple of decades.
It’s particularly troubling news because Central America already suffers from a kind of climatic bi-polar disorder, swinging between seasonal extremes of drought and intense rain.
In the dry season, the whole region sits in an intense, thrumming heat haze. Parched stalks of last season’s maize still stand in the field; a carpet of fallen leaves crackles underfoot, and from time-to-time you hear the breeze-blown thwack of farmers clearing the debris from their land, in hopeful anticipation of the rains. On the dusty roads you pass men carrying shoulder-mounted stacks of firewood; a boy passes with his goats, some of them rearing up to strip what they can from thorny bushes.
It’s a dust bowl, but occasionally you see a flash of green – a little oasis.
These farmers are the lucky ones: they have water. Down a steep trail off an undulating, rock-rutted road in the hills of Totogalpa, Nicaragua, one farmer in well-worn flip-flops runs umpteen times a day from his tiny bean plot, with a single plastic bucket to scoop up water from a stream, then back up the slope to fling it on his crops. With the plants still dripping, he disappears again, into the undergrowth, for another round. They’re some of the healthiest-looking beans I’ve ever seen and he’s looking in pretty good shape himself.
And that’s part of the cruel irony for the majority of smallholders in Central America. In the dry season, conditions are almost perfect for a bumper food crop: there’s ample sunlight, low humidity, and few pests and diseases.
But without water, nothing survives.
That means most farmers have no option but to plant during the oppressive, gloomy rainy season. There’s plenty of water – often too much – but little sunlight. Crops return poor yields on large – and increasingly larger – tracts of land. There are pests and diseases taking a bite out of production too, and frequent flooding and hurricanes.
While The CIAT-CIMMYT-CRS report identifies several areas that could be forced to switch out of maize and bean production altogether due to the effects of climate change, it also makes a series of policy recommendations for buffering the impact on smallholders. Improved water management – including better use of rainwater – is high on the list.
Last year, here on the CIAT blog, we got quite excited about rainwater harvesting pilot projects in Central America, funded by the Common Fund for Commodities (CFC) and coordinated by the Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice (FLAR). By constructing simple reservoirs at the base of interlocking hillsides, farmers were able to capture excess rainwater during the rainy season, and store it for irrigation during the dry season. Those involved have been able to make that seemingly impossible switch from rainy- to dry season food production – and they’re raking it in.
Other projects that might seem less ambitious are no less effective. In the Jamastran Valley, Honduras, a shimmering, parched plain and one of the “hotspots” identified in the Tortillas on the Roaster report, we met another farmer with his own little oasis. By pooling resources with his neighbours he was able to invest in a pump to draw groundwater, and then installed drip irrigation. His maize is tall, lush and bursting with cobs, and the huge pile of discarded pods is testament to his impressive bean harvest.
As well as improved water management, the Tortillas on the Roaster report also recommends improved soil management, crop diversification and the use of sustainable and so-called “climate-smart” approaches to help farmers do more than simply weather the storm.
What’s really needed now is the support to implement them on a large scale – institutional, infrastructural and donor support – to help turn the curse of a bipolar climate and the looming threat of climate change into a potential boon for smallholders – and the region as a whole.
Click for the official Tortillas on the Roaster press release, and see below for a selection of media coverage of the story: