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Climate-Driven Drought, Deforestation Create Devastating Challenges for Honduran Farmers

Though long accustomed to poverty, violence, and political corruption, many Honduran farmers are experiencing an ongoing drought compounded by deforestation as a whole new level of suffering and fear—with little hope of resolution.

InsideClimate News says the sustained climate impacts leave them with a stark choice: pray for rain, or migrate.

Amongst the 500 people who live in the tiny village of El Rosario are those who know something “about the vast, complex forces of cambio climático roiling the weather,” InsideClimate reports. Others understand that “the disappearance of the pine forests around the village is partly to blame for the rising temperatures and the diminishing streams, which once ran clear and plentiful.” 

Everyone, however, has seen “their staple corn and bean crops shrivel.” While the village has yet to endure outright starvation, that spectre haunts farmers like Ronis Martinez, who recalled that even in the midst of the years-long drought, the August rains had always arrived—until last year when, for the first time ever, they did not.

“If that is repeated this year, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Martinez said. Hunger is reportedly the “primary driver” for many of the Central American migrants currently moving north in desperate search of a more secure life.

Already one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, Honduras is also one of the world’s most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, thanks in part to an unlucky geographical position that leaves it exposed to the worst of Atlantic hurricanes, compounded by erratic rains in the tropical dry forest belt known as the Dry Corridor. Western Honduras, where El Rosario is located, is projected to soon become one of the world’s “climate hotspots”.

Citing a World Bank projection that climate change will make refugees of nearly four million people from Central America and Mexico by mid-century, InsideClimate points to “a threat multiplier that could aggravate all of Honduras’ vulnerabilities, leaving people little choice but to leave their homes.”

While such mass movements of people present profound risks to national and geopolitical security, it is the increasingly hopeless suffering of poor Hondurans that most immediately worries Martinez. Also concerned is a retired doctor and humanitarian from Vermont, Dean Seibert, who at age 86 still makes a yearly pilgrimage to El Rosario, 21 years after Hurricane Mitch dealt the country a blow from which it is still trying to recover. Seibert described his own sense of how climate change is putting years of hard-won progress at profound risk.

“For decades, everybody had a sense of optimism and progress,” he said. “Some of our accomplishments—their accomplishments—were terrific in terms of water systems, education, medicine. Real progress was being made,” he told InsideClimate.

“But now there’s a different feeling creeping in. They’re realistic enough to appreciate there may be no resolving this problem.”

Conditions have further deteriorated since last summer, “when the Honduran government declared a national emergency because of food shortages, joining governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, which issued similar alerts,” InsideClimate notes. At the time, “nearly 100,000 families in Honduras and two million people across the region lacked adequate food.”

Compounding that basic problem is the climate-accelerated threat of a pathogen that is devastating the coffee crop, a major source of income for Honduran farmers and the backbone of the nation’s economy.

Citing the Famine Early Warning System, ICN reports that “food shortages have reached, or will reach, crisis levels, mostly among poorer households across Central America.”

Geoff Thale, vice president of programs for the human rights advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, said concerted support for local farmers is urgently needed in places like El Rosario. “Central American governments, as well as the donor community, particularly USAID, have abandoned small and mid-sized agriculture for years,” he explained. But “if you want to address migration from rural areas, you have to address livelihoods. That means addressing sustainability of small-farm agriculture and rural development, and those are intimately connected with climate change.”

Oliver-Leighton Barrett, research fellow with the Center for Climate and Security, agreed that in “extreme fragile” countries like Honduras, farmers “don’t have the kind of economic resilience to weather a season with no crops. They’re usually the first casualties. They can’t feed their families. They’re going to migrate.”

While most of El Rosario’s citizens are holding on so far, the future looks far from bright, thanks in part to the compounding destructiveness of rampant deforestation. “Once surrounded by subtropical pine forests that helped lower temperatures and control erosion,” the village now sits exposed to the ever more sweltering sun.

Honduras lost 30% of its precious forest cover decades ago to industrial logging, InsideClimate states. Now deforestation driven by palm oil interests and drug traffickers seeking to launder money through cattle ranching operations are doing the rest. All in all, for the farmers of El Rosario, “deforestation, lack of water, and increasing heat are inseparable challenges, bearing down on this area with equally unforgiving force.”

And yet, writes InsideClimate, they are refusing to give in, with some El Rosarians like farmer Nelson Mejia making the 160-kilometre journey to the Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation near San Pedro Sula to learn how they “might find a way to farm—to survive—in their parched valley.”

There, head of research Victor Gonzales recommends planting drought-resistant, deep-rooted crops, and building water-retaining structures around the base of remaining trees, even as he understands “that farmers in the region might be skeptical of trying anything new.”

“When you have nothing, risk aversion is very high,” he said.Mexico recently announced that “it will extend a reforestation program to Honduras, and increase funding to $100 million to create jobs in Central America and stem migration from the region,” reports the Toronto Star.