Climate Change Wreaking Havoc in Central America
“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.
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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.
The Mombacho volcano looms over farm fields in La Paz de Carazo, Nicaragua / photo by Liz Granberg
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 ’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.’
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.”
Beneath his avocado trees in nearby El Rosario, Alvarez told me a similar story. In the 1980s, when Alvarez was growing up, agricultural production “was very good, 90 or 95 percent certain, except when there were hurricanes,” he recalled. “But there were very few hurricanes.”
The climate of his youth is now gone, though:
These days the rainy seasons are irregular because they are affected by hurricanes [and] tropical depressions . . . that bring deluges that aren’t normal. There used to be a lot of rain, but the rainy season was stable. May 1, the first day of the rainy season, it was certain that it rained. People started planting early . . . it was certain that the dry season started in November. But today, there’s a month more of the dry season and a month less of the rainy season.
To boot, the first four months of the current dry season have featured unusually severe winds and unprecedented amounts of rain. Unripe avocados are falling from Wilmer’s trees, never to be harvested. Coffee plants throughout Nicaragua are flowering five months early, jeopardizing the country’s most important export crop.
One result of all this strange weather is that more than 20 percent of the rural population in the Department of Carazo (where Malespín and Alvarez live) is vulnerable to food insecurity, according to a 2011 United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) working paper. [PDF]
“We can’t go on producing in the new climatic conditions like we have up to now,” Sinforiano Cáceres, president of Nicaragua’s National Federation of Cooperatives, wrote in May 2010. “We have to become aware that each of us has something to say and to do in response to climate change. And if we don’t say it and do it, we’re going to have cities full of displaced, impoverished, hungry peasants.”
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Drainage ditch in the La Primavera Annex of Managua, Nicaragua / photo by Liz Granberg
In the lakeside shantytowns of Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, October’s relentless rains stirred the dirt streets into forbidding mires of mud and garbage. People trudged to work, school, or the store, where they arrived slicked with brown muck. During the storm’s most intense three days, many lakeside residents hardly left their houses.
“We only went out to go to the store,” 39-year-old Yadira Castellon told me. She lives with her husband (a construction worker), two daughters, and six other relatives in a former squatter settlement crossed by one of more than 30 drainage ditches that bring Managua’s storm water to the vast cesspool called Lake Xolotlán. The ditch’s steep-sided dirt banks cut irregularly toward the sheet metal houses on both sides. Normally, the gray, foamy, shit-flecked water flows languidly fifteen feet below the lip of the ditch. Within five minutes of a hard rain’s onset, however, the ditch fills and roars like a mountain river. Plastic bags, bottles, castoff shoes, and dead dogs washed off Managua’s streets bob in the dirty-white waves.
Castellon’s rusty, one-room house sits about 50 feet from the drainage ditch. During October’s storms the ditch flooded the street outside her home and welled-up against the house’s corrugated metal walls pocked with holes. “The water was up to here,” Castellon said as she held her calloused hand next to the middle of her shin.
Every rainy season affects me a lot. Why? Because my house is no good. Everything passes through the metal roof. I have to be repairing. I have to be shoveling. I have to put a bucket down so that it doesn’t get wet on the floor. But the water comes in anyway, and the kids get up on the bed so they don’t walk in the mud.
At least during October’s storms, the water wasn’t rising inside Castellon’s house. Hurricane Mitch was different. In the dark of night, water rushed into her former house in Managua, near the shore of Lake Xolotlán. “Because my house was made of plastic and cardboard, the lake filled it,” she recalled. “The water was up to our waists.” The army didn’t arrive in time to evacuate the house, so Castellon, her husband, and their two small children, Wendy and Ana Theresa, hurried out on their own, leaving all of their possessions behind. “I lost everything,” Castellon said.
Climate change manifests most insidiously in its daily cumulative impacts: food insecurity, disease, lack of clean water.
After Castellon and her husband carried their girls through the water toward higher ground, they wandered Managua looking for a place to stay. No emergency shelter would take them, though; Since they weren’t rescued by the army, their names didn’t appear on the lists of evacuees. They went without food for two days.
This wasn’t the first time Castellon was forced to look for a new home. A migrant from a mountain farming community in northern Nicaragua, she came to Managua in her twenties looking for work and education for her children, as did all but one of her nine brothers and sisters. Where she grew up, seven kilometers by horseback from the nearest town, there were no jobs. She and her family sold fruit and firewood to survive, in addition to growing rice, beans, and corn.
After earning a living by collecting recyclables for two years in Managua’s sprawling dump, La Chureca, and then being displaced by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Castellon and her family bounced among the houses of friends and family members for almost four more years. They finally settled on a vacant patch of ground among the 600-some squatters of the La Primavera Annex, the lakeside barrio where they have lived for the past nine years.
In September 2010, Castellon’s family faced displacement yet again. Weeks of rain swelled Lake Xolotlán above even Hurricane Mitch levels. The drainage ditch overflowed, filling Castellon’s house ankle-deep in water. She feared that her family would join the more than 10,000 Nicaraguans already in emergency shelters. This time, the Red Cross, firefighters, the Nicaraguan army, and the national police had all assembled to evacuate Castellon’s barrio.
“It was a lot of attention for us,” Castellon recalled. “They asked permission to take us away, but we said no. We were at the point of leaving, but the drainage ditch didn’t go up anymore. It just filled our house and our yard a little.”
Those rains did keep the six children in Castellon’s household from going to school for a week. “Because of their uniforms,” she told me:
Each of them only had one uniform, and it was wet. They each had one pair of shoes, and they were wet. They had one pair of socks, and they were wet. So, they couldn’t go. Normally, they wash their uniforms at midday every day and iron them and go to school. But there was no sun, so they couldn’t.
Again this past year, during the October rains, the children stayed home from school. Several suffered respiratory illnesses and fevers that lasted for weeks, part of an explosion of acute respiratory infections, diarrhea, influenza, and leptospirosis associated with periods of heavy rains and high humidity, according to Nicaragua’s Ministry of Health.
Yet, compared to millions of other Central Americans suffering from the deluges of the past two rainy seasons, Castellon’s family has been spared the worst. One ongoing challenge is the unstable price of food. Crop losses don’t only affect subsistence farmers. They also cause the prices of staples to rise in city markets. There, people such as Castellon —whose household of ten survives on her husband’s salary of roughly $175 a month—struggle to buy enough to eat three meals of rice and beans a day. Increasingly, Castellon’s family just eats rice. She and two other members of her household are anemic, and their poor nutrition shows in their thin, short frames.
Nicaraguan farmer Evenor Malespín / photo by Douglas Haynes
The family’s reduced food consumption represents a larger regional trend. Since 2006, food consumption in Nicaragua has declined by 26 percent, according to the World Food Programme, with young children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers especially affected. Alongside bad weather, the global bio-fuels boom and speculation drove prices in Central America to record highs. They have since dropped slightly but remained volatile.
“People who depend on the markets who don’t have their own land to cultivate realize that tomatoes or beans are very expensive,” Suyen Pérez, Director of the Nicaraguan government’s Office of Climate Change, told me. “And if tomatoes and beans are what provide protein to their children, their children are affected because there is a reduction in iron coming into their homes every day. Everything is connected.”
These connections mean that in Central America—where infrastructure is already often subpar or nonexistent, most people don’t have insurance, and the regional poverty rate hovers around 50 percent—small fluctuations in the climate can pose existential threats. Like poverty, climate change is what writer Rob Nixon has coined “slow violence.” Its effects are directly visible only in their most extreme incarnations: flooding, death, human displacement. Yet climate change manifests most insidiously in its indirect, daily, cumulative impacts: food insecurity, disease, lack of clean water, washed-out roads and bridges. It takes years of close observation to document the human consequences of these incremental problems in communities without social and economic safety nets. And the slow, invisible accumulation of harms makes it difficult to convince the global North to take action, as the seventeen years of UN climate change talks demonstrate.
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While some U.S. politicians won’t even admit climate change exists, Central American political leaders increasingly find the phenomenon impossible to ignore.
“The effects [of climate change] are not a hypothesis, they are a reality,” Nicaragua’s Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Juana Argeñal told me in 2010. “Every day that passes produces more hydro-meteorological phenomena that used to be more withdrawn. Now they are almost annual.”
El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes agrees. He called the October 2011 rains “one of the most dramatic disasters” in the country’s history. Afterward he gathered representatives of the Central American Integration System—a cooperative organization with six member states—outside San Salvador and told them:
Other countries are responsible for the production and emission of CO2, which brings problems in vulnerable countries such as ours, and we continue having deaths and destruction. . . . Our infrastructure gets damaged, our crops get damaged, while other countries, especially industrialized countries, are responsible for climate change and its damaging effects for the region.
As Funes and other Central American leaders realize, the negative impacts of climate change lay bare the imbalance of power and resources between the global North and South. Central America is one of the world’s regions most affected by climate change and one of the least responsible for it. According to the 2011 Global Climate Risk Index [PDF] developed by the NGO Germanwatch, Nicaragua and Honduras rank among the five countries most affected by extreme weather events between 1990 and 2009. Yet the 29 countries of Central America and the Caribbean combined to emit only 2 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gases, according to a 2010 report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the Inter-American Development Bank.
The discrepancy between who is creating climate change and who is suffering its worst consequences was the centerpiece of the global South’s agenda at last year’s UN Climate Change talks, in Durban, South Africa. There, the global climate justice movement pushed leading carbon-emitting countries to fund a long-term effort to help the hardest-hit poor countries adapt to the changing climate. Rich countries pledged to establish a UN-administered Green Climate Fund allocating $100 billion annually by 2020, but no individual country promised to provide any long-term money.
Even if the Green Climate Fund eventually does allocate money to Central American countries, the region’s trend of increasingly hot and dry weather punctuated by exceptionally heavy rains will very likely continue. Nicaragua’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) forecasts a mean temperature increase of 1–2 °C between 2020 and 2050 and significant declines in mean annual rainfall. What rain there is will likely fall in heavy events. In a country where 1.5 million people, roughly one quarter of the population, are undernourished, these climate trends will probably lead to widespread food insecurity.
And Nicaragua is just one small country in a small region in a big world of mostly poor people in the same wildly rocking climate boat. Tackling climate change means tackling poverty and vice versa. This is why, according to MARENA’s Minister Juana Argeñal, her country’s “major priority with climate change is the reduction of poverty.”
Statements such as this show not only the global North’s powerful, but also its protesting occupiers, that marginalized countries such as Nicaragua have something essential to add to the conversation about wealth inequality and why it matters. In the global context of climate change, nearly everyone in the United States is part of the 1 percent. Americans outraged about inequality must not forget that the United States produces more climate change–causing carbon dioxide per capita than any other country but Australia and emits a total amount of carbon dioxide surpassing the next five biggest polluters combined. In contrast, Nicaragua captures more carbon than it produces, according to MARENA. The millions now suffering the ill effects of climate change in Central America should be occupying Americans’ driveways, shouting, “We are the 99 percent!”
But they must attend to the business of survival. The farmer Malespín reminded me of this. After I asked him about the poems he writes on top of San Pedro’s highest hill, he stood and extended his long, deep-brown arms.
“This poem has to do with the land, and isn’t finished yet, but it opens like this,” he said. “Good Morning, Mother Earth! With the ox plow in my hands, forgive me for scraping your skin, but I’m hungry. I want to eat!”