To face climate change, Guatemalan farmers change their ways

Carlos Perez, accompanied by his son in the field behind their home, shows the difference between corn crop farmed using traditional practices and that using climate adaptive practices. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

EL RODEO CAMOTAN, GUATEMALA — Corn stalks in the plot behind Carlos Perez’s house are brown and limp, sagging toward the dry soil without a cob to be seen.

In recent years, many of the fields surrounding Perez’s land in the tropical dry forest known as the Dry Corridor of Guatemala have looked the same: Severe drought has caused around 80% of farmers in the area to lose their crops. When they can’t grow their own, they are forced to migrate to other areas of the country, into neighboring Honduras, or even farther in order to be able to make enough money to put food on the table.

“We haven’t had enough water because we keep track each month, and in July it only rained about five times, just a little,” Perez said. “This doesn’t benefit us at all.”

Yet in Perez’s field on this remote mountainside, the withered plants are part of an experiment. Next to the lost crop, corn stalks stand tall and healthy, bearing cobs he uses to feed his family of five children. Despite being planted side-by-side and experiencing the same lack of rain, these plants are producing as they should because Perez used new farming techniques he learned through participation in a program run by Catholic Relief Services and its field partner Caritas.

Technical experts teach farmers best practices to increase the adaptability of their crops to changing climates and prevent the lost crop that can negatively impact household nutrition and access to food. According to CRS, participants in the program harvested during one growing season an average 41% more than farmers who had not learned the techniques.

Those include leaving crop brush — leaves, stalks, and stems — in the field, acting as a mulch and covering the soil to hold in moisture and shield it from the hot sun, which can speed evaporation after rain. They also plant trees, which provide additional shade and nutrients for the soil, and have stopped burning their fields, a traditional practice that had been passed down among generations.

“In this part of the countryside, before CRS and Caritas arrived here with this project, we had a custom, if you can call it that: We took the brush, put it in a pile and lit it on fire so the land would be clear to plant new seeds,” Perez said.

Now, thanks to the training they have received, farmers value the brush for the benefits it can provide the plants, he said.

Farmers learn how to evaluate their soil health, fertilize properly to improve it, and when to plant seeds to best maximize harvest amid increasingly rare rain. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

Farmers also learn how to properly fertilize their fields to best help their yield remain strong.

Although it’s displayed on the T-shirt he’s wearing, Perez doesn’t need the reminder: He can recite from memory the “four Rs,” an agricultural nutrient framework that helps farmers increase their yield by strategically using fertilizer. This includes the right source, ensuring the proper kind of fertilizer; the right rate, the proper amount of fertilizer; the right time, fertilizing at the proper time in the crop cycle; and the right place, keeping nutrients in the soil so plants can maximize their benefit.

William Sosa, a deputy technical coordinator at Caritas, said it can be difficult to get people interested in the program because they are not offering food or other tangible items. Their assistance comes in the form of knowledge like the four Rs, and it can be more challenging to demonstrate the value of this to the community.

But in the long run, this is more useful for farmers and their families, said Ivan Palma, marketing and communication coordinator for CRS’s Guatemala country program. It helps ensure the sustainability of the program even after it has ended because farmers retain what they learned and continue using best practices. They can also pass the knowledge along to others in the community who may not have benefited from the original training.

“It’s important the farmer understands what they are doing. This is the key, so that they’re not just repeating an action but they understand why they’re doing these things,” Palma said. “When the farmer can understand why they’re doing something, they’re going to continue doing it.”

‘There is no product’

The current El Niño, which according to the Food and Agriculture Organization is causing one of the worst droughts in 10 years, is also negatively impacting larger scale agricultural producers in Guatemala. A women’s farming cooperative in San Lucas Sacatepéquez in the department of Sacatepéquezis concerned the ever more frequent droughts caused by climate change that will threaten its ability to fulfill export contracts of its products including carrots, beans, and peas.

The only women’s cooperative in Guatemala, which has received seed capital support from international NGO CARE, ships more than $6 million in vegetables to the U.S. each year. The money the women earn has allowed them to purchase plots of land in their own names, a rarity in the country, members of the cooperative told Devex. Extra income has also gone to support education for their children or care during health emergencies.

Sandra Ziquin's farming cooperative has had to adapt to less rain, threatening its ability to fulfill export contracts. Photo by: Teresa Welsh / Devex

Members of the cooperative said they are noticing less rain than they used to, and other natural events can also impact production. Last year, the cooperative’s fields received enough rain, but ash from the Volcán de Fuego eruption in the next department destroyed their crops. The ash, which covered the soil, is still negatively impacting this year’s harvest, cooperative president Sandra Ziquin said — in addition to a lack of rain.

“Now, with climate change, it hasn’t rained for 15 days. There wasn’t any production,” Ziquin said. “The first harvest was very small and now there isn’t anything, it’s done growing. It was too dry ... This means we run the risk of losing clients if we don’t complete orders. We can’t fill them because there is no product.”

She said they know they must change their farming practices to better keep more moisture in the soil and prevent the sun from scorching newly planted seeds, killing them. Ziquin hopes the adaptations will enable the cooperative to keep producing at a level that will allow exports to continue. A reduction in those contracts could impact the financial success of the cooperative and the economic empowerment it has provided its members. It could also increase migration from the area, which cooperative members say is currently relatively low.

Farmers in El Rodeo Camoton say that as the amount of rain continues to fluctuate they will continue having to adapt their practices. Eventually, they would like to see such a significant improvement in their soil health and crop output that they would be able to grow enough to sell, generating extra income. This will provide further food security for families and reduce the probability the environmental changes will spur migration.

“One day CRS will leave, but we have a ton of theory and practices,” Perez said. “These practices are things we’re not going to forget, and above all our desire is that what we’re learning we also tell other people — our neighbors, our family — so they use the same practices with respect to the land.”

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About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She 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.