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'You wait, but nothing comes:' Honduran farmers at the mercy of climate-change-induced drought, floods

When Natividad Maldonado returned to his native Honduras after 17 years as a migrant in the United States, he was struck by the dramatic shift in the weather patterns he was experiencing on his small family cattle ranch.

Things are much different than during his childhood on his father鈥檚 farm in the southern municipality of Mercedes de Oriente. This part of the country is known as the Dry Corridor because it suffers from persistent drought, making it difficult for farmers to harvest enough to feed their families, let alone generate an income from selling on the local or international markets. 

Maldonado must grow enough grasses on the steep and arid mountain slopes to keep his cattle healthy and producing enough milk. He also grows corn and beans.

farmer growing grasses
Natividad Maldonado grows grasses to feed to his cattle.

鈥淭he varying weather patterns really affect the animals,鈥 said Maldonado, 43, noting that if he doesn鈥檛 have enough to feed them, the milk they produce isn鈥檛 as nutritious. 鈥淐limate change has hurt us a lot.鈥 

Miguel Maldonado, the mayor of Mercedes de Oriente, a small hamlet of about 1,000 people, said most of his constituents rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Most grow basic grains for their own family鈥檚 consumption, while a few also produce enough to export to neighboring countries such as El Salvador. 

Ten million people live in the Dry Corridor, which stretches across parts of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. More than half of them are involved in agriculture, with more than 73% of the rural population living in poverty and many suffering from malnutrition. An estimated , according to the .

Natividad Maldonado feeds his cattle.
Natividad Maldonado feeds his cattle.

 鈥淐limate change has hurt us a lot.鈥

鈥 Natividad Maldonado, a cattle rancher in Mercedes de Oriente, Honduras

The stakes are high: Miguel Maldonado said subsistence farming has led to endemic migration from the community, with children as young as 14 years old making the journey to other parts of Honduras and as far as the U.S. 

But with support from the , which identifies the Mercedes de Oriente community as one of the most susceptible among the world鈥檚 most climate-vulnerable countries, farmers are learning to build resilience to the effects of climate change. 

鈥淏efore, it was hard for farmers to diversify what they鈥檙e growing. But with this type of resilience program, it鈥檚 gotten much better,鈥 Miguel Maldonado said. 鈥淭his project is a way for families to earn more money 鈥 In the last few years, migration has gone down.鈥

Natividad Maldonado and his neighbors have learned a new technique to preserve the grasses his cattle eat, allowing him to store 80 feed bags. They contain grass clippings mixed with molasses and a 鈥渇lour鈥 made of rock, which provides extra nutrients. Storing the feed ensures his cattle will have enough even if the next growing season fails. In addition to the technical know-how, their local farmer鈥檚 association received support to purchase a machine that can shred the grass in higher quantities so farmers can package the feed bags more efficiently.

Farmers struggling in the Dry Corridor are not unique. Producers in different regions of Honduras 鈥 whose economy is mostly based on agriculture 鈥 told Devex climate change is wreaking havoc on their livelihoods. An inability to know the weather patterns and adjust their planting accordingly makes them extremely vulnerable to the whims of oscillating rain levels and storms, which can wipe out fields and displace families. 

It also makes it challenging to coordinate a cohesive response. In some parts of Honduras, the problem is too much water. In others, it鈥檚 too little. The government does not have the capacity to help farmers recover, so international organizations step in to respond to emergencies such as hurricanes while also supporting resilience-building programs to give farmers a fighting chance to adapt.

In May, the Honduran government  through year-end, and in September, another  was issued in response to risks from torrential rains, flooding, and landslides.

鈥淲e don鈥檛 have any control,鈥 said farmer Am铆lcar Antonio Z煤帽iga, 35, who grows corn, tomatoes, and coffee in the community of El J铆caro in the southern municipality of Oropol铆. His fields were flooded in September, but now there is too little rain, and his crops are suffering. 鈥淲e never know how the rainy season will go.鈥

The changing weather, along with lingering economic effects of the  pandemic, makes Honduras what the humanitarian community refers to as a complex crisis 鈥 layers of challenges stacked on top of each other that make it difficult for people to make a sufficient living at home. This has become a large push factor for migration from this region. 

Protecting nearby flowers allows the bees to thrive.
Cows produce more nutritious milk when they are fed a better diet.

But without images of emaciated children and livestock lying dead in fields, Honduras doesn鈥檛 garner international headlines like the .

Yet the situation has drastic consequences for the country鈥檚 food security. While the last official figures, as of Sept. 9, indicate 2.6 million Hondurans experience moderate or severe food insecurity, WFP country director Stephanie Hochstetter told Devex the real figure is now likely 3.1 million, based on WFP and FAO estimates.

鈥淵ou want to help a farmer that has nothing to eat in Valle de Sula. And you can鈥檛, aside from providing food. Why? Because his soil, the land, is under water.鈥

鈥 Stephanie Hochstetter, World Food Programme country director for Honduras

鈥淥ur fear is that the climate events that have happened since June 鈥 first with [Hurricane] Ian, then Julia 鈥 are going to have an effect, not only because 鈥 they鈥檙e already food insecure, but also these climatic changes,鈥 Hoschstetter said. 

鈥淚t鈥檚 not your regular weather patterns, so people don鈥檛 actually know when to plant, when to harvest.鈥

, a major dietary staple regularly grown in abundance nationwide, because rains from Tropical Storm Julia damaged the crops 鈥 a sign of how dire the domestic growing situation has become.

Diversification 鈥 of both income streams and crops 鈥  is a main strategy pursued by international development programs in Honduras to help people adapt to climate change and build resilience. 

The peaks of neighboring El Salvador are visible from Mercedes de Oriente, a rural mountainside community where homes are dotted along a mostly rocky dirt road residents traverse on motorcycles and mules, although portions are paved. WFP supports the local rural women鈥檚 savings group, which raises chickens. 

They earn income selling eggs, which also provide extra nutrition for a community that previously had a few backyard chickens and no eggs for sale. They also run a bakery, selling bread that supplements household income and creates a buffer during years when agricultural yields and profits are down. 

The community previously had no source of fresh eggs.

As chickens squawked in the background, Susana Turcios, 46, said her husband has had several difficult years growing beans and corn because of Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which hit in 2020. The crops were so damaged they couldn鈥檛 put enough food on the table.

鈥淗e lost everything. Everything,鈥 she said somberly. 

鈥淟ast year was also bad. There鈥檚 less water, and you wait, but nothing comes,鈥 Turcios said, noting that the climate in the Dry Corridor also makes it challenging to grow vegetables and even rice. 鈥淲e only grow the basics. If you want rice, you have to go buy it.鈥

More than 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the Dry Corridor, farmers in the western department of Lempira also find themselves at the mercy of the rains that flood their fields. 

An FAO program there focuses on helping farmers adapt to climate change through a comprehensive set of activities, including supporting honey production while encouraging reforestation, which is key to limiting the damaging effects of carbon being released into the atmosphere. 

鈥淭he objective of all of these activities is to adapt communities to these extreme temperature changes and so they have the possibility of food security,鈥 said Amy Lazo, an FAO forestry specialist. 鈥淏ut also to increase the forest cover, which is one way to fight global warming.鈥

The farmers have learned how vital it is to protect the trees, so there are enough flowers for the bees, which in turn can provide abundant honey production. 

鈥淲e tell people to try not to cut them,鈥 said Giovanni Reyes, 35, part of an association of honey producers receiving support from FAO in the coffee-growing community of El Cile, 鈥淲orking as a farmer is not only being in the field, but playing a role in the community.鈥

The honey brings in cash and also supplies much-needed nutrition for the population, which cuts out more nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables in favor of beans, eggs, and tortillas when food prices go up, Reyes said.

Mid-size farms often have access to more technology, allowing them to weather poor growing seasons. In the dry parts of the country, an irrigation system can be the difference between a salvaged growing season and one that is completely lost.

Marvin Giovanni Suniga, 30, in the eastern department of El Paraiso, grows tomatoes, beans, and corn in his 15 manzanas of land 鈥 a Central American measurement whose exact size varies from country to country, but in Honduras is less than 2 acres (0.8 hectares). He built his irrigation system using credit from a program called AgroMoney, supported by the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program. It helps shield him against erratic rain patterns. 

AgroMoney provides microcredits in the form of key farming inputs such as fertilizer, seeds, and irrigation technology like Suniga鈥檚. It also gives technical support to help farmers understand and adopt new practices that could help them even as the weather patterns change.

Financial support to farmers with few places to turn when yields don鈥檛 meet expectations is essential, as inflation in Honduras is  by the end of the year. Vital farming inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds are highly affected by inflation, hitting already struggling rural families who rely on farming for their livelihoods.

鈥淚t鈥檚 super expensive,鈥 Suniga said, noting that the war in Ukraine has affected the price of a sack of fertilizer. 鈥淚t鈥檚 a little more than double the price, almost triple鈥 from a year ago. This reduces how much he can earn, he said.

鈥淚t鈥檚 not your regular weather patterns, so people don鈥檛 actually know when to plant, when to harvest.鈥

鈥 Stephanie Hochstetter, World Food Programme country director for Honduras

AgroMoney allows farmers 鈥 who often have no bank account or access to formal credit, leaving them extremely vulnerable when shocks disrupt income flows 鈥 to pay back their loans at competitive rates, use funds to increase resilience, and expand production.

For some, the availability of water is pure luck: Suniga鈥檚 family鈥檚 land happens to include access to a river from which water can be pumped to the fields.

In other parts of the country, water has become a curse. 

The Honduran government鈥檚 weak ability to respond has left families affected by hurricanes Eta and Iota two years ago still struggling to recover, with some unable to restore their livelihoods after the storms destroyed their land with heavy rains and landslides. Fields are still flooded from rains caused by Hurricane Julia, which battered the area early last month.

Marvin Giovanni Suniga has an irrigation system so he can water his crops even when the rains don芒聙聶t come.脗 
Marvin Giovanni Suniga has an irrigation system so he can water his crops even when the rains don鈥檛 come. 

WFP鈥檚 Hochstetter laid the blame for Honduras鈥 food insecurity, which hit the northern department of Valle de Sula particularly hard, squarely at the feet of climate change.

鈥淵ou want to help a farmer that has nothing to eat in Valle de Sula. And you can鈥檛, aside from providing food. Why? Because his soil, the land, is under water,鈥 Hochstetter said. 鈥淓ven if we wanted to give seeds and fertilizer and we had everything to make him be able to recover his livelihood, he just can鈥檛 do it.鈥

Photos by: Teresa Welsh
Produced by: Janelle Cruz



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