FAO GLOBAL INFORMATION AND EARLY WARNING SYSTEM ON FOOD AND AGRICULTURE

SPECIAL ALERT

No. 317

(Circulated only for countries where foodcrops or supply situation conditions give rise to concern)

REGION: CENTRAL AMERICA

DATE: 3 September 2001

FOOD SHORTAGES EMERGING IN DROUGHT-AFFECTED AREAS OF CENTRAL AMERICA
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The precarious food situation of rural Central America, due to the lingering effects of Hurricane Mitch in October 1998, a dry spell during last year, earthquakes earlier this year and the loss of employment opportunities following the closure of coffee plantations, has been aggravated by a recent drought. The countries most affected by the drought are El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala, although drought impact is also being felt in Costa Rica and extends as far as coastal areas of the Gulf of Panama. The number of people in need of emergency food aid from all these adverse natural disasters in the region has increased substantially and is currently estimated at 1.6 million.

The rainy season had started with abundant rains in May, and a bumper harvest was needed for the region to recover from the shortfall caused by disasters in recent years. However, the earlier expectations of a 13 percent increase in aggregate cereal output from last year's drought affected crop were dampened by a dry spell in June and July. Current estimates suggest an aggregate cereal output of 2.3 million tonnes for these countries, some 8 percent lower than the last five-year average. All the countries affected are traditionally net importers of maize and beans, and their cereal import requirements, including food aid, are expected to remain at last year's high volume of 2.3 million tonnes. This volume of imports would maintain per capita consumption at last year's level, but additional imports would be needed to improve the nutritional status of the undernourished population.

The dry spell in June affected crops in their early stages of growth, and erratic and unevenly distributed rains of July and August resulted in localized total crop losses throughout the sub-region. The drought severely reduced cereal as well as vegetable crops grown in home gardens and communal plots, which are important sources not only of food but also cash income for the poorest families. Food stocks of farmers who lost their crops are running low and expected to be depleted in the coming weeks. Traditionally, coping strategies by the poorest farmers and the landless rural population include off-farm income earning activities in nearby coffee and banana plantations. However, the closure of many processing plants and plantations due to low yields from the drought and low international prices has triggered a significant migration of people throughout the sub-region in search of alternative employment.

The governments of the region have undertaken, individually and collectively, a number of measures to mitigate the impact of drought. These include, the use of strategic reserves to feed the affected population and the provision of agricultural inputs for planting second season crops. A recent meeting of Ministers of Agriculture in El Salvador also discussed the measures needed to mitigate the effects the present drought and future sub-regional disasters.

The World Food Programme (WFP) and other national and international relief organizations, are already providing food aid to the affected population. However, if the drought continues into the second season or hurricanes destroy crops, there is a serious concern about the food security early next year of those farmers who had gathered a poor harvest of first season crops.

The first season crop harvested in August normally provides small family farms with food until the end of the year, when the second season crop is due to be harvested, as well as seeds for the second season crop. The capacity of the affected farmers to recover from the effects of the drought by increasing the area planted in the second and third planting season is limited due to the lack of seeds. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is collaborating with governments, international and civil society organizations in the provision of agricultural inputs for planting second season crops.


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SITUATION BY COUNTRY

EL SALVADOR

The country was hit by strong earthquakes in January and February, but the damage to crops was minimal because it occurred after the harvest of second season crops was already completed. However, damage to transport infrastructure and housing was severe, which hampered the transport and marketing of produce by the farmers and led to severe resource constraints for the cultivation of third season crops in January and February. FAO, in collaboration with the Government, supplied agricultural inputs for the planting of first season crops in May and June. However, early estimates of a normal crop of maize from the first and most important season crop have been lowered by 18 percent. The international community was already providing food aid to 200 000 victims of the earthquake before the impact of drought. WFP, in collaboration with the Government, is assisting 25 000 drought affected families in 31 districts, while preparations to assist an additional 10 000 families in 29 districts in collaboration with NGO partners is underway.

HONDURAS

Honduras was the country most affected by Hurricane `Mitch' in 1998, and some 250 000 people were still receiving food aid until June this year. The onset of dry spells in June adversely affected crops during the early stages of development. Severe losses are reported for some 28 000 farmers living in central and southern areas of the country. An estimated 42 000 hectares of maize were lost (20 percent of the total planted area), with an expected fall in production of 38 000 tonnes. Additionally, 20 000 hectares of sorghum and 8 000 hectares of beans were lost. The Government used its strategic reserves of maize and beans to improve market supply of basic grains, and the WFP has distributed over 1 000 tonnes of food among the drought affected population.

NICARAGUA

Western parts of Nicaragua, which were affected in October 1998 by Hurricane `Mitch', are also the areas worst affected by the current drought. Some 45 000 farmers have reportedly lost at least 50 percent of their crops in León and Chinandega departments. For the country as a whole, early estimates of a normal maize crop have been revised downwards by 15 percent. The situation is critical also because of the closure of coffee plantations due to low international coffee prices and low expected yields which make production unprofitable. The coping strategies currently used include the temporary migration of women to the cities in search of work for domestic services and of men for self-employment in the informal sector. WFP is providing food aid to 9 000 drought-affected victims, but this number is expected to increase in the next few weeks. FAO, in collaboration with the Government of Nicaragua, is providing 7 000 farmers with agricultural inputs for second season crops currently being planted.

GUATEMALA

Rains in June were 60 percent lower than normal and some 8 percent of the area planted to maize and beans in the eastern and western states of the country was lost. About 12 000 small family farms reportedly suffered at least 80 percent losses of first season crops. Although food prices have shown signs of stabilization with the arrival of first season crops on the market, an increase in the demand for maize and beans from neighbouring El Salvador and Costa Rica could result in price increases before the end of the year.

Although rains have intensified over the past few weeks in many parts of the sub-region, pointing to a normal second season crop, the precarious food situation needs close monitoring in the coming months, specially considering that hurricane activity generally intensifies during September and October.

This report is prepared on the responsibility of the FAO Secretariat with information from official and unofficial sources. Since conditions may change rapidly, please contact Mr. Abdur Rashid, Chief, ESCG, FAO, (Fax: 0039-06-5705-4495, E-Mail (INTERNET): GIEWS1@FAO.ORG ) for further information if required.
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