Food security, agriculture remain threatened 2 months after Central American hurricanes

A worker drives past a banana plantation damaged by the floods due to the rains brought by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, in San Manuel, Honduras. Photo by: Jose Cabezas / Reuters

Multiple facets of the food system in Central America remain challenged in the countries worst hit by last year’s Hurricanes Eta and Iota, threatening the region with food insecurity and prolonged agricultural disruption in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.

The two storms swept from Panama to Belize in November 2020, just two weeks apart, causing widespread damage to homes, agriculture, and infrastructure. Over 9 million people across the region were affected.

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Floodwaters have yet to recede in some areas, making it impossible for families to return to their homes or farmland. Employment remains restricted while food prices rise.

“We have not seen yet what the consequences [are] of all this in the medium- and more longer-term of both of these emergencies mixed together,” said Eva Mejia, country representative for Global Communities in Honduras, referring to the hurricanes and COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Integrated Food Security Classification, at least 2.9 million people in Honduras are expected to experience high levels of acute food insecurity through March, with numbers projected to continue increasing through September. In Guatemala, 1.2 million people in the north and northeastern parts of the country remain affected by storm aftermath, and nearly 200,000 hectares of land are damaged. Nearly 127,000 animals were killed.

The storms destroyed crops from the region’s second annual growing season that were in the ground when they blew across Central America, and the effects continue to impact agricultural activity. Some fields have yet to drain, making replanting impossible. Both subsistence farming — which allows farmers to feed themselves and their families with regional staple crops like corn and beans — and larger-scale agricultural production were disrupted. In Honduras, Mejia said that losses at banana plantations in the north of the country are predicted to cause an 80% rise in unemployment in that area.

“Sometimes when we think about malnutrition, we think about lack of food or hunger, but often we forget disease. And disease is a key aspect.”

—  Yvette Fautsch Macías, nutrition in emergencies specialist, UNICEF Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office

Even if products such as bananas are bound for export, disruption to this agricultural activity reduces available employment, which affects a family’s income and ability to buy enough nutritious food.

In the Dry Corridor of Honduras, many farmers rely on coffee crops to make their living. The inundating rains damaged the plants, irrigation systems, and roads.

Food prices are also rising in some places as a result of the increased price of inputs, which have risen because of the continued transportation challenges, Mejia said.

In the Izabal Department of Guatemala in the country’s east, Oxfam recently completed a €2.2 million ($2.7 million) project to help women and their families gain ownership of their land. In some parts of the country, poorer and Indigenous farmers have less access to land because the area is increasingly taken over by large palm or sugar plantations. According to Ana María Méndez, Oxfam’s country director in Guatemala, monocrops across Central America have increased 300% in the last 10 years.

After families were able to gain the right to their own land, Oxfam assisted with home construction and livelihood development.

“In three days everything was lost. Everything … The water came up to the roofs,” Mendez said. “They lost it all ... We’ll just have to see when and how we can again rebuild.”

In addition to impacting agricultural activity, lingering floodwaters also pose a threat to a safe water supply. Project HOPE is working with local NGOs to conduct training about water purification and how chlorine can be used to make water safe to drink.

The organization is also working in the Santa Barbara department of Honduras to help increase availability of water testing, said Tom Cotter, director of emergency response and preparedness at Project HOPE.

“When the hurricanes came in it really damaged the infrastructure in these communities,” Cotter said. “What we’re finding is a lot of the coliforms, the E. coli, comes from poor waste management and poor water supply. So these families, when they get water from the well, it's been contaminated basically by sewage and that lends itself to a really dangerous situation where the water supply can make people sicker.”

Children who have been compromised by contaminated water are at higher risk of malnutrition, said Yvette Fautsch Macías, a nutrition in emergencies specialist at UNICEF's Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office. UNICEF is visiting communities to determine the rates at which children under age 5 as well as pregnant and lactating mothers are experiencing acute malnutrition. Failing to act in time, Fautsch Macías said, could lead to stunting.

Over 3.5 million children in Central America have been impacted by the storms, and she said inadequate food consumption is a major concern. Many also do not have access to nutrient rich foods, and require micronutrient supplements.

“All the elements are there so that the nutrition situation deteriorates. Sometimes when we think about malnutrition, we think about lack of food or hunger, but often we forget disease. And disease is a key aspect. In malnutrition, disease and inadequate consumption goes hand in hand,” Fautsch Macías said.

“Nutrition interventions are mainly channeled through health services, so it’s really important in the long term to strengthen health services.”

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About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.