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Missions take stock of damage caused by Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and Nicaragua

Hurricane Mitch wiped out a third of Honduras' staple cereal and bean crops, and about 40 percent of its plantain and cooking banana harvests, according to an FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission. Hundreds of thousands of the country's poorest people are in need of food aid, having lost about 30 percent of their household farm production and many of their jobs in the export sector. The mission's report was issued on 29 January.

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Vital cash crops such as banana, coffee and sugar cane were hard hit, and production losses in 1998, together with anticipated losses in 1999, for all export crops are valued at US$480 million. Damage to infrastructure for cash crops is estimated at US$210 million and the livestock sector suffered losses of more than US$100 million. The report stresses that, "These estimates do not include the major damage caused to agricultural land resulting from the overflowing of the rivers, which rose to unprecedented levels and covered substantial areas of farm land with thick layers of sand, silt and rocks."

The report highlights the need for assistance to the affected rural population, for the planting of the 1999 first season foodcrops, and for the rehabilitation of the major agricultural export crops. The latter is required because it generates much needed employment.

"Salaried employment and casual labour in various sectors (banana, coffee, sugar cane, melon, shrimp, etc.) are indispensable sources of income for small producers that do not have sufficient land to live from their own agricultural production", the report says. More than 100 000 people have lost their jobs in this sector.

The mission has estimated that 570 000 tonnes of cereals and pulses will need to be imported in the 1998/99 marketing season (which ends August 1999) if "normal levels of food consumption are to be kept up". Most of these imports will be maize, the main food staple.

Less than half the necessary food aid is pledged so far

However, the loss of nearly half a billion dollars in export earnings means that the country's ability to import commercially is seriously reduced. The mission estimated the food aid requirement at some 276 000 tonnes, of which 236 000 tonnes would be maize and the rest rice and beans.

According to the report, less than half the necessary food aid has arrived or is pledged so far. "So far food aid received and firm pledges for delivery by August 1999 total 85 000 tonnes for all major foods combined, leaving a food aid gap of some 191 000 tonnes to be provided in the next few months". The mission found "strong evidence that between January to September 1999 food insecurity will progressively increase particularly at the level of rural households living in the traditional food deficit areas."

An estimated 810 000 people in rural areas qualify for emergency free distribution of food. A majority of 78 percent of Honduras' poorest families are rural. Typically, they lease less than 4 ha of land, paying high costs in cash or produce, and have few opportunities to earn money off the farm. Rural households headed by women are common among the poorest.

According to the report, "The vast majority of needy households were very food insecure even before the disaster. Most of them had to deploy coping mechanisms which were environmentally as well as socially destructive". For this reason, "it will be difficult to distinguish between rehabilitation and normal development needs".

Government controls keep basic food prices down

To try and prevent food shortages leading to rising prices, the Government of Honduras has established price controls for basic grains and other products that make up a "food basket" composed of 14 items. The assessment mission found that even markets in remote areas were well supplied with basic grains. Prices of some fruits and vegetables that are not covered by the government price controls have risen as much as 20 percent.

However, the main problem, according to the report, faces "farmers in isolated areas who, because of the extensive damage to infrastructure, particularly to main and inland roads and bridges inflicted by the hurricane and the ensuing high transportation costs, cannot compete with producing areas located closer to cities and large towns." Olancho, a major maize-growing area in the northeast that has been virtually cut off from the rest of the country, is cited as an example of this.

How to help farmers get back to normal

The mission looked at measures to help farmers resume normal production as soon as possible. These include providing tools and inputs for the main farming season that starts in April/May, increasing the area cultivated, increasing availability of vegetative material for plantain production, replacing small livestock and supporting livestock production through supplementary feeding. Eleven project proposals with a total value of more than US$8.5 million have been prepared by FAO in cooperation with the government and other organizations. "These proposals would cover minimum short term needs to pave the way for medium term rehabilitation of the agriculture sector," according to the report. "Reconstruction will, however, require major and continuous investment in the coming years."


A Special Report issued following a post-Mitch mission to Nicaragua paints a similar picture of devastation, although "prospects for food supplies until the next harvest becomes available in the second half of 1999 are more favourable than earlier expected", according to the report. "This reflects the measures taken by the government to boost production of the 'apante' [third, minor season] crop and the prompt response by donors with the supply of food aid to cover most of the deficit."

Cereal and pulse import requirements for 1998/99 are estimated at 193 000 tonnes. Maize and beans, which make up 65 000 tonnes of this, are likely to be supplied as food aid. Nearly half of the 102 000 tonnes of wheat required will also be food aid.

Losses to the export sector are estimated at more than US$37 million, 13 percent of the expected value of bananas, coffee and sugar before the hurricane. The livestock sector was also hard hit. Official estimates put losses to the livestock sector at US$14 million. Some 77 000 cattle, 22 000 horses, 97 000 pigs and 222 000 hens and chickens were lost during the hurricane. Cattle feed was also washed away or spoilt, causing a severe feed shortage in affected areas. "The Mission considers the amount of the losses as underestimated", according to the report.

The mission has proposed an agriculture relief and emergency intervention programme including six projects for a total of US$13.9 million.


9 February 1999


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