Struggling Honduran Farmers Cope With Climate Challenges
World leaders have called President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord “regrettable” and “disappointing.” But for Honduran farmers, climate change is personal.
The country ranked No. 3 in the world on the list of countries most affected by global warming between 1996 and 2014. And now, Honduran farmers risk losing millions in U.S. Agency for International Development money earmarked to help fight back.
Opatoro County sits in the densely forested western side of Honduras, a few miles from El Salvador. Its 35 villages are connected by steep mountain roads, many of them impassable during the rainy season. Life has always been hard for Opatoro’s residents: plumbing and electricity are rare, health care is scarce and poverty is endemic.
Farmer Jose Santos Martinez Gavarra has been farming coffee for 45 years, just outside the tiny town of La Florida. When asked about changes he’s seen, the first words out of his mouth are “cambio climático” — climate change.
“We’ve seen the climate change here a lot, especially with there being a lack of water from the springs,” Gavarra says through a translator. “We’ve also seen a lot of change in the amount of fruit produced.”
And then there are the funguses — he says they’ve hit hard.
The rust fungus, “la roya,” thrives in warmer temperatures. It prevents leaves from absorbing sunlight, causing plants to die. In 2013 it wiped out 40 percent of the country’s coffee crop, leading the government to declare a national emergency.
But the rust fungus isn’t the worst of the “plagues,” Gavarra says. He reserves that distinction for the southern pine beetle, an invasive insect that attacks trees.
“We were very surprised at how fast and how hard this plague hit us,” he says.
The loss of trees, he says, also caused erosion, landslides and poorer soil quality. In 2014 the government literally declared war on the pine beetle, sending troops into the forests with chainsaws. Three years and a million acres later, huge swaths of brownish-red trees stand out like beacons on the green mountain landscape.
Dilcia Garcia’s farm sits on steep hillside in El Sauce. It’s remarkable in the region for two reasons: the diversification Garcia is attempting after her coffee was devastated by the rust fungus, and the irrigation pipes that line some of her fields.
Both those innovations came with the help of USAID. But under President Trump’s budget proposal Honduras would lose one-third of its USAID money, and all the money earmarked for development assistance. In other words, projects like Garcia’s.
Garcia says the president of her village is working hard to figure out how to finish what they’ve started over the last six years, particularly the education and training. She says she knows that farmers will need to keep innovating if they’re going to survive — and that might mean putting their resources together to create microbusinesses, something she’s already attempting with a women’s collective formed to make wine from local pineapples and oranges.
Jose Roher Lopez was a lifelong coffee picker when he decided to try his hand at beekeeping. He says the local decline in coffee production was forcing him and others to travel farther and farther during the picking season — a move that was destroying families. Now he produces two different varieties of honey, which allows him to support his family.
Because he received his seed money for the project from a nongovernmental organization, he says the USAID cutbacks wouldn’t affect him directly. But he worries that those cuts could drain resources from the region at a time when farmers are starting to see real gains.
For Garcia, climate change isn’t only an immediate concern, but something she worries may ultimately change the only way of life the region has known. She and her husband have planted what she calls “wood trees,” or trees to sell for lumber, as her children’s inheritance — they take a long time to grow, and promise high returns.
But she says the plagues, droughts and water shortages are driving young people out of the region to work at menial jobs in the city.
“We see them leaving,” she says through a translator, “and then not being able to come back.”
Ultimately, Garcia says she worries that neither the wood trees — nor the children — will still be there in another decade.
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