Report from Honduras: Catholic agencies work to fight climate change and a hunger crisis
Neri Garcia’s bean crop is coming in nicely. Neat green rows march down a gentle slope not far from his humble wooden homestead on a mountain plateau near El Cedro, Honduras. The individual plants look strong and healthy. No sign of pests or scorching from the sun.
This crop will produce a good amount for him to dry and set aside for his family to eat, and if he can get a few more bean crops in over the coming year, he will end up with a surplus to take to market. The beans, a foundational component of the daily diet here in Central America, will produce income he can use to buy agricultural supplies like fertilizer, as well as clothing and other goods for his family.
In 2020, a program administered by Catholic Relief Services led to the creation of a small watershed-fed reservoir in the hills above Mr. Garcia’s home.
He and his family don’t have electricity, but a line runs not far from his home, offering the promise that perhaps one day the Garcias may also be connected to the power grid. He maintains a detached sink and cleaning shed where a jury-rigged line brings potable water quite close to his home; this is a recent, welcome addition for him and his family, who would otherwise have to rely on captured rainwater or carrying water home from a nearby river.
Life is bien duro—“hard enough”—for subsistence farmers like him, he says. Picking beans and harvesting corn and coffee can be backbreaking work, and farmers in Honduras, like farmers everywhere, live at the mercy of the elements.
In recent years climate change has made that bien duro life even more difficult. Dry seasons are getting hotter; drought is a greater, relentless threat. At the same time the tropical storms and hurricanes that harass the region appear to be getting more frequent and more violent, dumping greater quantities of water leading to mudslides, ruined fields and lost crops.
The weather today is cold and rainy, and a heavy mist shrouds the mountainside. But it should be hot, Mr. Garcia says. The sun should be blazing overhead.
Picking beans and harvesting corn and coffee can be backbreaking work, and farmers in Honduras, like farmers everywhere, live at the mercy of the elements.
His coffee plants are stumped by the erratic weather, coffee cherries have already matured on lower branches, ready for picking, while branches near the top are just beginning to flower. Timing the harvest will be a guessing game—that is, if the flowering buds are not desiccated completely by the sudden return of dry and hot conditions. (In fact, the next day the sun and heat did return; forecasts predict those conditions will persist for days more.)
The only thing that is clear to him is that this year’s coffee bean yield will be stunted again by the erratic conditions. In years past, he says, the hot and rainy seasons were as reliable as clockwork, and the rain-dependent farmers around him were able to time planting and harvesting to these months-long cycles.
Now persistent drought can devastate crops and unexpected rains can flood fields and produce landslides.
Now persistent drought can devastate crops and unexpected rains can flood fields and produce landslides. Hail has even stripped corn stalks to their stems. Severe drought in 2018 caused more than 65,000 farm families in Honduras to lose 80 percent of their crops, according to Catholic Relief Services. The U.S. church’s international relief and development agency is hosting a team from America Media this week to witness firsthand how climate change is affecting the most vulnerable agricultural producers in Honduras.
The isolated farms in the scores of small communities that surround Mr. Garcia’s growing parcels are part of the Dry Corridor, a mountainous area in Honduras’s south and west where conditions are typically hot and dry, and where water is an obsession among thousands of small producers in mestizo and Indigenous villages. Honduras is one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere—in 2021, per capita income was $2,772. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, this year nearly 5 million Hondurans face moderate to severe food insecurity and 1.5 million are undernourished.
The World Food Program designated Honduras a “hunger hotspot” in 2022. That hunger is most acute in rural regions where six in 10 households endure extreme poverty.
Dependable access to water can help reverse such trends. Mr. Garcia will assure you that it has transformed his family’s life. He may be worried about his coffee crop this year, but he is feeling much more confident about other crops he is raising for food and income.
In 2020, a program administered by Catholic Relief Services led to the creation of a small watershed-fed reservoir in the hills above Mr. Garcia’s small finca. It introduced drip-line irrigation and included training on crop diversity, drought resilience, natural pest resistance and judicious fertilizer use. The program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs, reached 3,990 families around El Cerdo. It was extended this year as part of C.R.S.’s Water Smart Agriculture program, with support from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
The water delivery system in this water-parched part of the world has given Mr. Garcia renewed confidence about the prospects for his family and this Lenca Indigenous community even as climate change looms as a new threat to overcome. In many other water-stressed communities in the Dry Corridor, that confidence is being drained by climate-change hardship. Without help soon, many will face the stark choice between hunger and the dangers of a journey north, through Central America and Mexico, to the United States.
Mr. Garcia is relieved that he will not have to contemplate that decision. He urges “just a little help” from agencies like C.R.S. and rich countries like the United States to “lift up” farmers like him. He’s sure it will mean many thousands would remain here in El Cerdo with their families in the bien duro life they have always known and accepted.