Climate Change in Guatemala

Guatemala is in the news a lot today.  Migration is one of the hottest political issues in the world and the small Central American country has become one of the most relevant players.  In 2011, less than 25,000 Guatemalans were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol as they tried to cross into the U.S. (compared to nearly 300,000 from Mexico in the same year).  Today, almost as many Guatemalans are pushing north as Mexicans.

There are many theories about why so many Central Americans continue to risk their lives to enter the United States.  On the surface, the Trump administration seems harder on migrants than Obama’s was.  So why are more people risking the trip?  For Guatemala, the answer is complicated but one simple force is at the core of it all – the climate of the country has changed dramatically over the past decade.  Like in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, a warmer, drier climate has emerged in Guatemala.

For thousands of years, Guatemala, southern Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador were tremendous places to be human.  Known as the Heart of the Mayan World, Guatemala, in particular, was an idyllic homeland.  Though we are still learning about the heights their civilization reached, it’s safe to say that at their peak, the Mayans were ahead of their time.  Fertile land and a relatively steady year-round climate made it easy for Mayans to establish an incredible network of large cities and towns.  Corn was the foundation of it all.

Even as recently as the early 2000s, corn and other staple crops were easy to grow in Guatemala.  Farmers could survive on subsistence practices.  Starting a decade ago, things began to change.

Today, drought continues to plague Guatemala.  In a country nicknamed the land of eternal springtime, spring hasn’t been the same for a while.  Entire fields rot or die all the time, especially after a short period of rain sparks growth and increased planting.  Things dry up fast.

  • Subsistence farming has been a staple of human civilization since we began to settle in villages instead of roaming as nomads.  It requires intense local knowledge and advanced planning.  To survive on what you grow, you need to be a master of growing.  The margins are really thin.  As the world has changed and technology and money-based economies have infiltrated all of our lives, these margins have become more and more important.  In order to live in our society, subsistence farmers rely on the food they grow to feed themselves AND to earn what little money they can to pay for school, electricity, communication, transportation, etc.  Farmers’ money and yield are drained in more and more ways.
  • Subsistence farmers are skilled laborers but their skills have limited value in today’s globalized economy.  Most farmers are masters of their land and have knowledge that has been amassed in their family for generations.  Watching a successful farming family manage their land is a humbling experience.  But those same skills have little value outside of the family farm.  At best, most farmers can sell their cash crops and work as laborers on other farms when they can spare the time.  Life is good when conditions are right but things can change quickly and there is little opportunity to adapt.
  • The facts are staggering – the drought of the past 7-10 years has had dramatic results.  Corn and bean production are down 80% and 63% respectively.  Millions of people have been thrown into hunger.  The crops they have always grown to eat are simply gone and the price of the same items in the market has gone up exponentially as supplies have dwindled.  There is no good option for more than 250,000 families. (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations)
  • Dry conditions are ideal for certain kinds of plant diseases and causes of death.  Over the past 30 years, Guatemala has become famous for its coffee.  Like many places in the world, its economy has grown as the demand for high-end caffeine has increased.  But the drought is bad for coffee.  “The coffee rust plague affected 70% of the region’s coffee plantations and consequently dramatically reduced the demand for day laborers.”  (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations)  For farmers who are struggling to grow corn in what is now called the “dry corridor,” the loss of so much coffee production has exacerbated the situation.

When we visit Guatemala as a school, the signs of change are evident.  Dry hillsides are everywhere now and the lakes and rivers of the region are drying up.  Lake Atitlan, where we spend at least a few days on each trip, has lost a considerable amount of water.  Docks that were built just a few years ago now tower 10-15 feet above the surface.  It’s a surreal sight.

When we visited IMAP (Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute) during our last trip to Guatemala, we learned about the many forces that are reshaping Guatemala’s growing conditions.  During the Green Revolution, Guatemala went all-in on modified seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides.  When the climate was stable, these new technologies created a tremendous amount of yield.  Everything was channeled into one or two main crops where the farmers used to grow 6-10 per year.  These conditions changed the soil and set the entire system up for failure when the rains and temperatures changed.

The perfect storm of climate-related factors, undergirded to development by changes in agricultural technologies, have left one in ten Guatemalans facing climate-related struggles.  The pressure to find opportunity elsewhere is obvious.

TOday, more than 10% of Guatemala’s economy comes from remitances (money sent back to Guatemala from those working abroad, mostly in the United States).  In small farming communties, where children have gone hungry for nearly a decade now, the visible benefit of these remitances is obvious.  Hungry families are watching their neighbors erect new houses and drive new cars purchased with money from those lucky enough to find work elsewhere.  The reasons to leave and the “promise” of live elsewhere are more tangible now than they ever have been before.

“They risk their lives if they stay – and if they go.” -Rodimiro Lantan, Ch’orti’


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