Maggie Von Vogt meets small-scale farmers living with drought and demanding action on climate change.
The husk of the corn makes a dry, loud crackle as Everardo Bairez Rivera peels it away to reveal the distorted corn cob below. The kernels vary in size and color and look dry and shriveled, and the cob is about two-thirds the size of most corn cobs.
"This corn was planted 20 days ago, and it needs another 20 days of rainy season still to be able to bear fruit. If it doesn't rain it won't give fruit and we will lose it all," he explains.
On the milpa
Nearby on the milpa (corn field), María Isabel Orellana, 61 years old, comments, "We are distressed. Mother nature doesn't want to give us anything any more. Sometimes we lay down at night, but we don't sleep, thinking about everything we have lost."
For her and her eight family members, losing their crops means not counting on being able to feed their own family or having any harvest left over to sell, like they have done in years past. For these communities, one bad growing season can break you: the government-funded (GMO, pesticide use-based) agricultural packets aren't enough to start over again the next season, especially with no money to cover the extra costs of fertilizers, transportation, and other unforeseen expenses. This is the reality that most farming communities in rural El Salvador face.
The municipality of Jucuarán is located approximately 150 km southeast of the capital San Salvador, in the department of Usulután, just north of the Pacific Coast. The majority of Jucuaráns 14,000 residents work in agriculture and cattle raising.
There are two seasons in El Salvador: The rainy season, referred to as winter, and the dry season, referred to as summer. The two seasons have been constants around which the majority of the rural populations have built social and economic patterns, especially agricultural communities.
We went to Jucuarán to speak with local people to learn more about the impact of last year’s drought in the region. Farmers across the country were struck by an extremely dry growing season. A heatwave hit the region last September, exacerbating the already dry conditions.
The heatwave was due to "El Niño" and its counter effect "La Niña" which are cyclical climate patterns out in the tropical Pacific Ocean that have been intensified and increased by global warming. "El Niño" tends to cause intense heat and dryness, leading to drought; "La Niña" causes intense rainfalls and subsequent flooding.
But talking with people in these communities, you realise that things are changing. The famous "winds of October" that once marked the transition between winter and summer, from rain to heat, don't necessarily mean what they used to. If the winds come, heavy rains may still come afterwards, like last year when El Salvador was struck by record-breaking rainfalls that caused a devastating landslide in the Verapáz region of San Vicente.
For agricultural communities, this climatic insecurity means deepening already existing conditions of poverty and vulnerability. That can mean losing entire crops to strong rainfalls that wash away recently planted seeds, or to scorching heat waves and drought in a country that already suffers from hydric stress.
"It's god's will. He goes along punishing us bit by bit."
In the backdrop of the milpa lays a stunning panorama of green and brown hills. The sky is a clear blue with patches of fluffy white clouds. Down below, 70-year-old Basilio Valencia (pictured above) walks slowly between the rows of corn with a sack and machete hanging from his back, evaluating his crop. As he approaches us, he smiles and agrees to share his thoughts about the situation. "We live off agriculture, nothing else. What will happen? Only God knows." He holds his hand up to show how small the corn the harvested was grown, about the length of 5 inches. "I added fertilizer and it didn't work, the Earth is so dry."
Basilio has three children. He mentions that one is a carpenter and one has left to go to the United States, but “it hasn’t gone well for him there. There is no help for us," he states flatly.
When asked why he thinks the drought has occurred, he responds, "It's god's will. He goes along punishing us bit by bit," sighing and half laughing.
Back from the milpa, in the center of town, residents have gathered in a meeting organised by OIKOS Solidarity, an UNES member. UNES (the Salvadoran Ecological Unity) is a Progressio partner. Many people are willing to share their stories with us, hoping that it can lead to some kind of help. It seems that most people have lost most of their crops, and that everyone is worried.
One woman in the meeting explains how the drought not only has a negative economic impact, but also aggravates already existing social inequalities: "Our children depend on us, the women to feed them. Many of us are single mothers, the only provider of the family. And when there aren't any beans? Then what do we do?"
Creating an opportunity to share testimonies and understand the problem is one step in this community's struggle to face the problems they are encountering. When discussing what could be causing the drought, many residents do not just attribute the drought to God's will, as Basilio did, as they also mention deforestation and environmental degradation.
Residents of Jucuarán know that things are changing, and know that it is a result of human beings' behavior. "We need to raise awareness amongst the people," echo many participants.
Side by side
María Elena Rivas de Palacios is a member of the municipal board of directors in the mayor's office of Jucuarán. She explains that 99.5% of the land in the municipality is agricultural, and that drought has left 90 percent of the farmers having lost 90% of their crops.
"We are completely committed to continuing to accompany any kind of activity and action that will benefit these communities," she states firmly. The municipal government has solicited support and action from the Ministry of Agriculture and central government, pressuring economic programs to support these communities.
OIKOS Solidarity is an organization that works on local issues of citizen participation, food security, and ecological risk management through community organizing and advocacy on local, national, and regional levels.
As a part of the Mesoamerican campaign for Climate Justice, OIKOS wants to bring the voices of these communities to the circles of power where the response to climate change is being negotiated.
One of the core principles behind this campaign is that small-scale agricultural methods are one of the practices that need to be protected through plans and policies for mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The campaign also wants government representatives to take strong positions in the international climate change negotiations to demand that the principal polluting countries make drastic cuts to their emissions.
After the drought last year, El Salvador is currently experiencing the heavy rains that "La Niña" brings. SNET, (National Territorial Study Service), the governmental body that studies, records, and predicts weather patterns, states that since April 2010 rain levels have been above average, and predicts "abundant rains in the coming months, especially in October and November". The winds of October have come and gone, but summer is not here yet.
And here we are, only days before the UNFCC climate change talks, amidst forums, strategy, document drafts, protests, and action. The Mesoamerican Climate Justice campaign is mobilizing with OIKOS and representatives of agricultural communities to fight for representation in the negotiations and the chance to negotiate the future of the planet.
Meanwhile in Jucuarán, community members continue surviving day by day, demonstrating the meaning of the word "Jucuarán", which is "hill of the warrior ants." Time is limited, and the livelihoods of these communities hang in balance as we wait for "them" to negotiate the life of the planet.
Maggie Von Vogt is a Progressio development worker based at UNES in El Salvador. Maggie will travel to the UN talks in Cancun to support Progressio partners bringing a message of change to decision-makers.
Photos: Brenda Platero/ UNES