The Miami Herald
December 7, 2001

Drought's effects linger, sharpen threat of hunger

 SOMOTILLO, Nicaragua -- A drought that killed millions of dollars of crops and pushed Central American families into hunger this summer is largely over, but experts say a series of disasters coupled with poor farming methods have created a permanent state of crisis and malnutrition here.

 In Guatemala, U.S. experts say nearly 6,000 children are acutely undernourished, largely as a result of this year's crop losses. At least 10 have died.

 Most farms are now thriving in Nicaragua, but many families planted nothing at all this season: After July's crops all died, farmers had no seeds. And in Honduras, the government is still distributing food aid to families in the north where harvests were flooded -- and in the south where they dried up.

 The series of calamities highlights the vulnerability of small-scale farming in Central America, where up to 1.5 million people grow what they need to eat. Their last good year: 1997. Unless governments pour big money into long-term solutions, like irrigation, experts say families will go hungry -- every year.


 ``Each year, people are getting worse off,'' said Jordan Dey, of the United Nations' World Food Program. ``This area is going to be hit over and over again.''

 The United Nations has called for diversification of crops and investments in rural infrastructure, particularly irrigation. Many people live right by a river, but lack a pump or a well to water their crops. Most continue to plant only corn, a food that is most sensitive to drought and least likely to recover from dry skies.

 But addressing the needs of small-time farms is a costly venture few governments are taking on.

 ``We don't have the technology, and we do not have the resources,'' said José Alas, of the Foundation for a Self Sufficient Central America, a small, Texas-based group that works in El Salvador. ``Non-profit organizations cannot do the work. This is something that must be done by the governments.''

 In the meantime, needs are addressed small scale: A $7 million project for 14,500 families in western Nicaragua teaches farmers simple tricks to cheat nature, like how a barrier of branches around a farm can keep water from seeping out. A plastic jug suspended over a plant can drip water if weather won't.

 ``Before, if you had five days of no rain, that was it, you were done,'' said Rogelio López, a farmer in Somotillo, a town near the Honduras border that is routinely plagued by drought. ``Now we can hold out for 15 days. But eventually, we need rain. We can prepare, be trained -- but if it doesn't rain, we're dead.''


 To combat the chronic deforestation that leads to severe water shortages here, López and his neighbors have begun planting trees. They also revolutionized their farming by planting unfamiliar but weather-resistant foods like pumpkin, squash and sweet potato.

 ``At first you didn't really want to try new things. Then your neighbor sees your land and says, `Hey, that looks good; I'll try the same,' '' said farmer Horacio Carrasco. ``We didn't think we could save these lands with our own two hands. In a few years, we'll be all right.''

 But even the World Food Program acknowledges that to be successful, the program should be 10 times its size.

 The WFP and the U.S. Agency for International Development recently conducted a study to see how Nicaragua had recovered from a drought that in July destroyed nearly all the region's crops.

 Although 80 percent of this season's crops are doing well, the agencies found that 46 percent of the farmers planted less food than they did last season, and 14 percent did not plant at all.

 In Guatemala, president Alfonso Portillo's government came under heavy criticism in recent months for failing to make the crisis a priority after the first reports of starvation surfaced in August.

 ``Our central task is to halt this cycle of hunger,'' said Portillo, president of a country with the highest malnutrition rate in Latin America. ``I don't know if we have the
 resources to face the problem, but if we don't try, our children will suffer even more.''

                                    © 2001