By José Adán Silva
MANAGUA, Jul 10 2014 (IPS) - The spectre of famine is haunting Nicaragua. The second poorest country in Latin America, and one of the 10 most vulnerable to climate change in the world, is facing a meteorological phenomenon that threatens its food security.
Scientists at the Nicaraguan Institute for Territorial Studies (INETER) say the situation is correlated with the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a weather cycle that periodically causes drought on the western Pacific seaboard and the centre of the country, in contrast with seasonal flooding in the north and the eastern Caribbean coast.
Crescencio Polanco, a veteran farmer in the rural municipality of Tipitapa, north of Managua, is one of thousands of victims of the climate episode. He waited in vain for the normally abundant rains in May and June to plant maize and beans.
Polanco lost his bean crop due to lack of rain, but he remains hopeful. He borrowed 400 dollars to plant again in September, to try to recoup the investment lost by the failed harvest in May.
If the rains fail again, it will spell economic catastrophe for him and the seven members of his family. “In May we spent the money we got from last year’s harvest, but with this new loan we are wagering on recovering what we lost or losing it all. I don’t know what we’ll do if the rains don’t come,” he told IPS.
His predicament is shared by thousands of small producers who depend on rainfall for their crops. Some 45 kilometres south of Tipitapa, southwest of Managua, campesino (small farmer) Luis Leiva regrets the total loss of three hectares of maize and squash to the drought.
Leiva sells his produce in the capital city’s Mercado Oriental market, and uses the profits to buy seeds and food for his family. Now he has lost everything and cannot obtain financing to rent the plot of land and plant another crop.
“The last three rains have been miserable, not enough to really even wet the earth. It’s all lost and now I just have to see if I can plant in late August or September,” he told IPS with resignation.
Rainfall in May was on average 75 percent lower than normal in Nicaragua. According to INETER, there was “a record reduction in rainfall”, up to 88 percent in some central Pacific areas, the largest deficit since records began.
Based on data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), INETER has warned that the drought could last until September.
The nightmare is affecting all farmers on the Pacific coast and in the centre of the country. Sinforiano Cáceres, president of the National Federation of Cooperatives, a group of 300 large farming associations, expounded the sector’s fears to the inter-institutional National Board for Risk Management.
“We have already lost the early planting (in May), and if we lose the late planting (in August and September) there will be famine in the land and a rising spiral of prices for all basic food products,” he told IPS at a forum of producers and experts seeking solutions to the crisis. There is a third crop cycle, in December, known as “apante”.
The country’s main dairy and beef producers raised their concerns directly with the government. Members of the Federation of Livestock Associations and the National Livestock Commission told the government that meat and milk production have fallen by around 30 percent, and could drop by 50 percent by September if the ENSO lasts until then, as INETER has forecast.
Moreover, the National Union of Farmers and Livestock Owners said that over a thousand head of cattle belonging to its members have perished from starvation.
It also warned that the price of meat and dairy products will rise because some livestock owners are investing in special feeds, vitamins and vaccines against diseases to prevent losing more cattle on their ranches.
The agriculture and livestock sector generates more than 60 percent of the country’s exports and earns 18 percent of its GDP, which totalled 11 billion dollars in 2013, according to the Central Bank of Nicaragua.
In the view of sociologist Cirilo Otero, head of the non-governmental Centre for Environmental Policy Initiatives, a food crisis would have a particularly severe economic impact on a country that has still not recovered from a plague of coffee rust that hit plantations in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America over the last two years.
“Thousands of small coffee farmers and thousands of families who depended on the crop have still not been able to recover their employment and income, and now El Niño is descending on them. I don’t know how the country will be able to recover,” he told IPS.
According to Otero, if ENSO continues its ravages for the rest of the rainy season, thousands of families will suffer from under-nutrition in a country where, in 2012, 20 percent of its six million people were undernourished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).
“Producers do not know how to mitigate the effects of climate change, nor the mechanisms for adapting to soil changes. Unless the government implements policies for adaptation to climate change, there will be a severe food crisis in 2014 and 2015,” he told IPS.
The government has set up commissions to monitor the phenomenon, as well as information meetings with farmers and livestock producers.
The authorities have also expanded a programme of free food packages for thousands of poor families, and are providing school meals for over one million children in the school system, as well as a number of small programmes for financing family agriculture.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega ordered urgent imports in June of 20.5 million kilograms of beans and 73.5 million kilograms of white maize to supply local markets, where shortages were already being felt. The government’s intention is to lower the high prices of these products while hoping for a decent harvest in the second half of this year.
The price of red beans has doubled since May to two dollars a kilogram, in a country where over 2.5 million people subsist on less than two dollars a day, according to a 2013 survey by the International Foundation for Global Economic Challenge.