Earth’s deterioration condemns residents of El Barrial, like Mateo, to poverty, contemplating migration but limited by the lack of economic resources to relocate. Photo: Carlos Zegarra.
By Daniel Morales, investigative journalist
“Life here is tough, really tough”. This is how Miriam Mateo describes the reality she faces every day in El Barrial, a small village located in the municipality and department of Chiquimula, in the Guatemalan stretch of the Dry Corridor. The area has been the subject of climatic disasters that have made living off agriculture impossible, triggering the gradual exodus of its inhabitants.
All her life, Mateo and her family have dedicated themselves to subsistence agriculture, living in a mud house that they have had to rebuild several times due to torrential rains. Her house is next to a ravine that has been expanding over the years due to frequent landslides.
Miriam Mateo, enduring in El Barrial, Guatemala, where climatic disasters have devastated agriculture and prompted a gradual exodus of its inhabitants, reflects a daily struggle in the challenging Dry Corridor. Photo: Carlos Zegarra.
“We are in danger here. As they say, most people here, everyone is leaving… those who can… There are no hopes here”, laments Mateo.
The life of a person who depends on subsistence agriculture is not easy. At best, it involves long and arduous labor. There is hope for a successful harvest only if Mother Nature cooperates. But what happens when she turns against them? The farmers of the Dry Corridor of Central America know the answer.
The Dry Corridor is a stretch that crosses Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala where increasingly frequent severe drought events and intense rains make farming the land an almost impossible task. It is estimated that more than ten million people live in this semi-arid strip. Many are engaged in agriculture, especially in producing basic grains like beans and corn. 60% live in poverty.
“The land now is not as yielding as before. One is the dryness, there is no water. You plant, it barely grows and then withers. Some seeds sprout and some in which the seed remains buried, and there’s nothing left. And if it doesn’t rain soon, that seed rots”, shares Mateo, who nowadays earns a living selling whatever she can, from animals to food and cleaning items. For each day of work, she earns up to 30 Quetzales, just under four dollars.
Living conditions have gradually worsened in the Dry Corridor. “Before, my father harvested up to 30 or 50 quintals of beans. Today, no lie, maybe not even five”, says Mateo.
El Barrial, a small village located in the municipality and department of Chiquimula in Guatemala. Photo: Carlos Zegarra.
Quantifying the impact of drought is difficult because this environmental phenomenon tends to be a gradual process. However, the United Nations classify 7.5% of the Dry Corridor as an area of “severe” drought, 50.5% as an area of drought with “high effects” and the remaining 42% as an area of drought with “low effects”.
The intensification of extreme drought and flood events in recent decades has been the main cause of the contrast residents of the area make with respect to past crops. The land is no longer as fertile as before, and the rains are more intense. Scientific data point to the strong influence of global warming.
Paris Rivera, a Doctor in Climate Change, explains that in the last 60 years, the temperature in Guatemala has increased by one degree Celsius. It seems insignificant, but this slight variation has had a decisive impact on weather patterns in the Dry Corridor:
“The warming we have experienced in recent years has favored the intensification of certain parts of the hydrological cycle. In this case, convection has theoretically been faster, and therefore these intense rains have possibly occurred in recent years. Likewise, it has been detected that the dry periods associated with drought are becoming more frequent. So, we see on one hand the frequency of drought events and also the frequency of intense rainfall events”.
As expected, the most vulnerable inhabitants are those with limited resources, as they face difficulties in preparing and having essentials, as Dr. Rivera indicates:
“Years ago they were used to living off the land. The land provided them with food, subsistence agriculture, but the latest climatic onslaughts, even those that are not out of the ordinary, are causing them many problems. This is precisely due to this accumulation of climatic and meteorological phenomena that Guatemala has experienced”.
The Guatemalan people have suffered the blow of numerous climatic events in recent times, including Hurricane Mitch (1998), the storms Eta and Iota (2020), and the droughts of 2015 and 2016. All these phenomena have forced part of the population to displace, to leave their homes.
Residents of El Barrial face sharp contrasts in crops due to the intensification of droughts and extreme floods in recent decades. Photo: Carlos Zegarra.
Dr. Rivera agrees with experts who maintain that while migrants move for different reasons, global warming is a triggering factor.
“The population can no longer bear it, and then it has repercussions on their ways of life. They have had to change their place of living. They first go to the capital. Then in the capital, they see that maybe things are not so good and they try to go elsewhere. So it has influenced. It is not the main factor in my opinion because… there are also social, economic, and political aspects that greatly influence. But it is an ingredient that forces people to go elsewhere or seek other ways of life”.
Throughout human history, climate migrations have occurred when residents of an area seek more favorable places for food production.
Currently, and largely due to global warming, the ideal area for agriculture has been concentrating in the northern hemisphere, where the nations with the greatest economic development are located.
This is a factor that determines why many inhabitants of the Dry Corridor set their sights on the United States, a relatively nearby nation rich in opportunities, except in terms of migration.
The women of the village, often left behind, find resilience and seek sustenance while their loved ones migrate, facing a reality of sacrifice and daily survival. Photo: Carlos Zegarra.
“Migrations will always occur, but [it’s important] to take into account that right now with this global system we have, it’s more difficult to do that. It’s more complicated to make these migrations because they encounter worse problems than they could have in their place”, warns Dr. Rivera.
Mateo knows very well what forces the residents of the Dry Corridor to migrate. At 16 years old and without prospects in El Barrial, her eldest son left Guatemala for the United States, crossed the border on foot, and now lives undocumented in California.
“He left out of necessity… He struggles and makes efforts to get his workdays to pay for where he lives, to pay for his phone, his food. It’s little [what he earns]… God willing, we will benefit when he finds a better job”, says Miriam Mateo.
In El Barrial, Mateo has also witnessed the departure of many of her neighbors to other places in search of work that allows them to feed their families.
“They don’t leave because they want to. They don’t leave with the desire to bring back riches. That is already a miracle from God for those who go and bring back their things and manage to do something… But when they leave, they leave with nothing. The family is left with nothing… We women, we stay alone… We look for work. Women who have to raise their children look for a job sometimes in the houses of neighbors who have some resources so that they give them their meals. And they give them their cents for their small expenses at home”.
But in addition to hindering subsistence agriculture, the cruelty of climate change punishes with long-term consequences that doom many residents to extreme poverty and chronic malnutrition, as well as the deterioration of the natural environment.
Many who depend on basic crops have been condemned to famine. Guatemala, for example, has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in Latin America and one of the highest in the world (49%). In some rural areas, like in the Department of Chiquimula, the figure reaches 80%.
Guatemala has high rates of malnutrition, and in rural areas like Chiquimula, they reach up to 80%. Photo: Carlos Zegarra.
Moreover, it is estimated that 43.5% of children in Guatemala have experienced growth delays directly linked to a lack of nutritious food, meaning they have chronic malnutrition. The average in Latin America and the Caribbean is 11.5%.
And while famine affects farmers and their families, biodiversity also suffers. The variety of living beings that exist in the ecosystem of the Dry Corridor has decreased. This is explained by Dr. Rivera:
“Some natural species have been lost… In Guatemala, there have been experiences of reforestation with native species and the native species were the ones that died, the ones that did not withstand. So, we have to also think about nature. We humans depend on nature, therefore… know that nature is what provides us with life and we have to protect it as well. Take great care of the soil, the soil has all that power, those minerals, those nutrients that give us fruits. Let’s not contaminate it”.
The soil is protected by the cover of vegetation, organic matter that, when decomposed, becomes humus, a rich nutrient that favors crops. But when the plants disappear, the land is vulnerable to the action of wind and water that wash away those nutrients. Mateo has witnessed the severe effect of erosion on farmlands:
“The lands wash away over time from being plowed over and over. They wash away. They no longer have fertilizer… The land becomes washed out, with a layer of small stones. What could be a small plant, some leaves, a branch that could be fertilizer for planting is no longer there. Some even burn the small waste. And the land is left with nothing. So, we have to buy chemical fertilizer which we call… A quintal in the warehouses costs 500 Quetzales, 300 Quetzales for the so-so ones. And where are we going to get that from?”
The deterioration of the land has condemned residents of El Barrial like Mateo to poverty. She confesses that she has thought about leaving the community, but for now, it is impossible for her due to a lack of economic resources. She simply does not have the money to build a house in another location.
Earth’s deterioration condemns residents of El Barrial, like Mateo, to poverty, contemplating migration, but limited by the absence of economic resources to relocate. Photo: Carlos Zegarra.
To rehabilitate the lands of the Dry Corridor, there are two key pieces: humans must stop contributing to global warming and undertake local remediation efforts. Through reforestation, for example, it might be possible for soils to recover, although according to scientists like Dr. Rivera, this process can take decades.
But Miriam Mateo cannot wait that long, so she lives with the hope that her son will one day be able to help her financially.
“When I grew up, whatever was planted there grew. You could throw a chili stick in the flowers and there it was. Tons of chayote grew because the land was good… today even a small chayote bush might dry up because the land has no strength. When I grew up everything grew. but now no. You plant a seed, and it dries up… Today there’s not even enough for expenses. Today there’s nothing. We older ones talk because we don’t know how our children who are here and those who are growing up are going to live”, shares Mateo.
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