Tropical Storms and Small Farmers

Small producers in El Salvador are facing a grim agricultural season this summer.  Tropical Storm Agatha started off the rainy season with torrential rains that caused landslides and massive flooding along the coastal river basins.  Last week’s Hurricane Alex brought more rain that further saturated the soil of already vulnerable communities.

The outlook for the rest of the rainy season doesn’t bode well either.  Colorado State University, NOAA, and Climate Prediction Center (CPC) are predicting a very active hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean with an average of 18 tropical storms between June 1st and November 30th.  These storms push ample amounts of rain and wind onto El Salvador, where 95% of the population is vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters.

In a discussion with Voices on the Border’s partner community Octavio Ortiz, in the Lower Lempa, Jiquilisco we can begin to understand what this means for small subsistence farmers.

In Octavio Ortiz 60 of the 97 families farm their own land; an average of 5 acres per family.  Other community members work as day laborers, or in a handful of trade skills.  With the land overly saturated, landowners can’t count on their own harvest for their year’s supply of corn, and the day laborers have been without work.  The average pay is $4.00 for four or five hours of heavy manual labor.

Some families planted corn before Agatha and then lost it.  A few of those families decided to re-plant, only to lose that seed to Alex.  Very few farmers dare to try again, especially with the heaviest rains expected for July, September and October.  After Alex, the community reported a loss of about 66 acres of corn.  680 chickens also died.  No one had risked planting vegetables which are a much more expensive investment, so there was no need to report losses there.  Most of the fruit trees survived the storm, but about 15 families had hoped to plant mango, cocoa, and lemon trees.  They’re having trouble finding land where the young saplings won’t rot before they take hold.

Swampy fields also impact the backbone of the community’s economy – cattle.  Traditionally the rainy season is ideal for abundant pasture and local cows can thrive.  This year’s pastures are either still flooded or have become de facto swamps.  One woman said that before the storms her seven cows were producing 35 bottles of milk every day.  Now they are only able to produce between 10 or 12 bottles.  That means she has gone from earning about $14 dollars a week to just $4 dollars.

Efforts to aid the community have been piecemeal.  The mayor donated small packets of food last month.  This weekend the Red Cross donated more food aid packages that will last families at least a month or two.  Other associations and NGO’s have distributed aid to their corresponding sectors.  The Ministry of Agriculture and Cattle has collected the reported losses from the community and is offering rice and sorghum seeds come August.  They are also selling chickens at very reduced prices ($18 for 50 chicks).

The reality of the situation is that this community and others like it will have to find alternative ways to feed their families for the remainder of the year.  When conditions are favorable, farmers can produce one more harvest after the rainy season thanks to the lingering humidity in the soil.  After that, only those with access to irrigation will be able to produce a harvest during the dry season.

Several local associations such as ACUDESBAL and ADIBAL have begun pilot projects with small groups sharing portable irrigation systems in an effort to confront climate change and create more resilient communities.  However, local farmers are hesitant to try their hand at the new systems.  For many, rain has always determined the growing season, and intensive farming requires a greater commitment in time, energy and maintenance.  Just consider that to buy the few gallons of gasoline that the pump requires per week, the farmer has to travel by bus with his or her gas can to the closest gas station 12 miles away.  Initiatives such as these require time and patience.  The experiences of those participating in the pilot project serve to convince neighbors and friends over time.  Typically, communities begin to reproduce these kinds of initiatives on their own after three years.  But – with weather patterns being anything but typical, farmers could embrace such alternatives more quickly.  It may be the safest card they have left to play.

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