Gumersindo Rodriguez has become accustomed to measuring his family's well-being in inches: of rainfall, of crop growth, and the height of his grandchildren.
And by that gauge, the drought that’s afflicted his corner of Central America these past two years is the worst he’s seen. “Barbaric,” he calls it.
Walking down the steep, rocky patch of farmland behind his house, Mr. Rodriguez points out where his beans have died and to corn stalks that don't even reach his knees. “Every year it seems to get worse," he says.
Still, he is better off than many of his neighbors, thanks to hard work guided by his friend Gabino López Vargas, whose organization helps small-scale farmers adapt to a changing environment. Mr. López and Rodriguez – and scores of others in this increasingly dry region – think they’ve found a way to counter conditions that threaten more than 2 million people in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
It’s a model based on “harvesting” water, diversifying crops, and avoiding practices like burning farmland between crop cycles. And they’re working to see that their project spreads.
Across the region, governments and aid agencies that help subsistence farmers survive lean times are struggling to keep up with recurring drought. Some are rolling out improved early warning systems, while farmers are also benefiting from drought-resistant crops.
Subsistence farmers, of which there are roughly 1 million in the so-called dry corridor that runs through Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, are most at risk during droughts. When the rains don't come their children eat less; livestock is sold off, never to be replaced; and kids miss school because they’re out in search of water.
“Food security for families is the number one priority,” says López. “And the key is water. There’s nothing else.”
The landscape in this hilly region is spotted with large brown squares and rectangles. They’re signs of traditional slash-and-burn cultivation methods that remain popular in Honduras.
Burning can return nutrients to the soil, but it also exacerbates droughts, says López. The loss of trees means less shade and a hotter, drier micro-climate as ground water evaporates. And when it does rain there's more erosion, since there's less plant matter to anchor the soil.
López, a Guatemalan-born agronomist, began working with about 50 households here in the late 1990s, encouraging them to plant gardens, fruit trees, and drought-resistant crops like plantains or yucca. He taught them quick tricks, like hanging water bottles upside down on sticks set up around a sapling. Condensation accumulates inside the bottle and even once the land starts to dry under the sun, drops of water will continue to fall out, feeding the earth.
“This isn’t something that creates change in one or two years. It takes time,” says López. Today he works with nearly 1,200 households across the municipality, as well as households in another four municipalities in Honduras.
In workshops, his organization Cosecha teaches techniques like digging holes for trees and lining them with organic material that can help retain rainfall, or terracing hillside farms so that big rains don’t wash away topsoil or crops. It's also enlisted farmers like Rodriguez and about 100 other men and women to work as community educators, sharing tips with others.
“We are always experimenting and we all look to each other,” says Rodriguez of the farming community here. “People who are still burning their land are seeing that their crops aren’t growing. They come to me and ask, ‘how can I do this, too?’”
Today, Rodriguez’s land is full of towering fruit trees, including mango, lemon, and mandarin, bushes of hot peppers and medicinal herbs, vegetables like squash, and even a few boxes where he’s raising bees.
“Now when the beans don’t grow, a family doesn’t go hungry,” says López, who shares a boiled papaya recipe he recently learned from a family working with Cosecha here. “They have options, which leads to a healthier diet.”
Rodriguez’s young granddaughter waddles out of his squat concrete home waving around an empty red bowl. Getting nutrient-rich food to families here is top of mind for everyone, he says.
About a 15 minute walk up the bone-dry, eroded dirt road from Rodriguez’s home sits a sea-green and yellow two-room medical center. Doctor Michelle Alvarenga stands inside, surrounded by posters about vaccinations and mosquito-born illness. After a month working here, she’s seen many underweight or malnourished children, and a handful with chronic malnutrition that can lead to stunted growth or mental development, and weaker immune systems.
“The problem is, even if it rains, if a child does not eat during a certain period of time, the damage can be permanent,” says Alejandro Lopez-Chicheri, from the UN’s World Food Program, which runs programs like cash transfer and community works projects across the drought-stricken region.
Nearly 25 percent of Central Americans suffer from malnutrition, according to the UN, though the number has decreased over the past two and a half decades – from 12.6 million in 1990 to 11.4 million today. Still, food security is fragile, especially during droughts.
“We eat what we grow. Most of us here can’t buy food because we don’t have an income,” says Angel Sierra Mesa, a farmer who has built barriers around his trickling, often dry spring in order to preserve water. That’s had a big impact on his crops and his family, he says.
“We are technical [in our work], we’re not sages,” says López. “But, we’re looking ahead, and we are hopeful.”
– Whitney Eulich reported from Honduras as a fellow with the International Reporting Project.