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World Humanitarian Day 2016: Staff profiles

Staff profiles: Alberto - Central America

The El Niño emergency in Central America has left around 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and around 1.6 million people in moderate and severe food insecurity. The El Niño phenomenon has led to one of the strongest droughts ever recorded in the Dry Corridor of Central America where rural households are already very poor, vulnerable and mainly dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods.

ALBERTO BIGI is the emergency and disaster risk management officer for El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, based in Panama. He has been with FAO for six years, and shares some of his experiences about his work in the region.

What is your current role with FAO and what does it involve?
I work as an expert on emergency and disaster risk management (DRM) at the FAO subregional office for Mesoamerica in Panama. I provide technical and operational support to emergency and DRM projects and activities in the subregion.

Describe the location of where you work
I work in Panama with field missions to countries in Mesoamerica or in other countries where emergency experts are needed.

What motivated you to work in the humanitarian field?
I wanted to help people in need; to work and exchange with people from different countries and cultures; to work for a better world; to travel and to know different countries and cultures; and to challenge myself working in difficult situations.

Can you give an overview of the scope of the El Niño emergency and what you’ve seen on field missions throughout the country?
In the field the effects of the drought are visible. All the fields are totally dry and yellow; most of the rivers are dry or strongly reduced; most of the rural communities are populated by only women and children as the men left their home looking for casual labour in other areas of the country or migrating abroad. Because of this, there is also an increase in theft and violence. People are desperate and are asking for help and food. Most of the NGOs and UN agencies have mobilized to provide humanitarian aid.

Can you describe how El Niño has affected food security in the country? And what does that mean for the livelihoods of those that depend on agriculture?
The El Niño emergency in Central America has left around 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and around 1.6 million people in moderate and severe Food Insecurity. The El Niño phenomenon has provoked one of the strongest droughts ever recorded in the Dry Corridor of Central America where rural households are very poor, vulnerable and mainly depend on agriculture for their subsistence (around 60 percent depend just on basic grain production for their livelihoods). When El Niño struck Central America and specifically the Dry Corridor, rural livelihoods were already weakened by previous droughts (2004, 2009 and 2012) and by a mix of other issues: coffee rust outbreak, followed by a reduction of production and workers (-30%); increasing food prices, and the expulsion of minor migrants from the United States. The emergency, however, is not over yet. In some areas of the Dry Corridor the next harvest is not going to be good and strong losses have already been recorded because of the ongoing effects of El Niño and the drought.

How is FAO responding to the El Nino emergency?
FAO is responding in Central America with a Resilience programme in order to provide emergency response but linking it with risk management and development. Specifically we are:
-strengthening the capacities of local, national and regional institutions to manage disaster risks and increase rural resilience;
-improving agro-climatic information and early warning systems at local, national and regional level; and
-promoting practices and technologies to prevent and mitigate the effects of the drought, increasing sustainable and climate smart agricultural production and diversifying family incomes.

What is the current focus of FAO’s emergency response in El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras?
Most of the response activities are over but resilience and mitigation action are still under implementation.

What do farmers in the Dry Corridor-affected countries need most right now in terms of assistance?
In general, Dry Corridor farmers need longer-term programmes and policies focusing on technical assistance, capacity building and organization. The main focus should be to increase the diversification of rural livelihoods, watershed management and protection, and sustainable water management.

What motivates you to work in the agriculture and food security sector?
I have always loved nature and agriculture. I studied Agricultural Engineering Science and then I got a PhD in Sustainable Rural Development. People need to eat to survive and that makes agriculture and food security very interesting, the philosophical and the social side of it.

Can you share your most inspiring moment in humanitarian work? What have you been most proud about?
I am proud when I go to the field and I see people happy about FAO’s activities and above all when these activities are sustainable. The happiness of people when they start to produce good quality food or receive access and availability to water is not possible to explain. Recently I am proud that many other colleagues and institutions have started to get interested about the Dry Corridor and that this will generate investments for the poor people living in this area.

What is it like working in an emergency environment?
To be ready to work long hours and seven days a week; to not have very comfortable living conditions; to push everybody to work fast; to coordinate and to work with many other institutions, NGOs and UN agencies.

What are the biggest challenges for you and how do you cope?
To adapt to emergency response activities and funding to FAO policies and procedures.

What are the biggest challenges facing FAO in the location where you are?
Lack of funding; and often the weak capacity of national and local institutions.

What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do on the job?
To calm a fight between a group of farmers and UN military soldiers in Haiti.