Small Farmers in El Salvador and the Recurrent Nightmare of the Rainy Season

Publicado en Future Challenges, portal web del proyecto sobre globalización de la Bertelsmann Stiftung, el 9 de diciembre de 2011.

For us Salvadorans, Durban, South Africa is a long way from home. Many of us could not even locate it on a map. However, as Durban is currently holding the 17th annual meeting of the Conference of Parties, where decisions and resolutions on the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol are being discussed, we should be more aware of Durban and the matters being discussed there, as year after year El Salvador is both a direct witness to, and victim of, the dire consequences of climate change.

But climate change  is not a term we Salvadorans hear all that often. It’s actually just mentioned once a year, right after our rainy season has done its worst. Crops are irreparably damaged, causing millions of dollars in lost revenues, hundreds of houses are destroyed and dozens of people die every single summer, every single year. However, there is usually no mention of why the rainy season seems to be so much heavier on us now than it usually was decades ago.

When the term is brought to public attention, it’s usually by environmental activists in a press conference or speaking on TV about how heavier rainy seasons are caused by climate change and how the government should commit to more strict environmental protection policies. And as they speak, hundreds of people living in the Lempa Delta (the Lempa is the longest river in the country and its delta holds 65% of El Salvador’s cultivable land), are without electricity, their small farms are flooded and they have no food whatsoever. Yet they also have no idea what climate change is,  nor of how it can be prevented and what they can do to avoid being systematically victimized by the rains year after year.

El Salvador is the definition of vulnerability: in spite of being privileged by having 98% of cultivable land, our deforestation level is only topped by that of Haiti. Our very small territory is now full of hills stripped bare of their forest and there is little or no regulation of forest exploitation. Historically, small, poor farmers have settled in the central valleys where they are surrounded by small rivers that help them water their crops. Corn, red beans, sugar cane have always been and still are the average farmer’s  main crops and they’re also the very ones worst affected by the rainy season which goes on from May through to October. However, since these crops are harvested and consumed by farmers’ families themselves and not usually produced for export, governments throughout El Salvador’s history have not been particularly concerned about the conditions in which farmers face the rainy season. Consequently, such families – which make up nearly 30% of the country’s population – frequently lose their harvests which leaves them mired in debt and on the verge of starvation until the new harvest season arrives.

El Salvador’s main crop is coffee. It has been produced by the rich and powerful since 1821, when we first gained independence. Since coffee is usually planted near or on a hill and not in a valley, it is not as vulnerable to the impact of the rains as corn or red beans. However, this October when tropical storm E-12 dropped the amount of rain we normally get in a year in only twelve hours, 60% of the coffee harvest was lost. Its market value: over 22 million dollars. The government was then forced to grant grace periods on farmers’ credits to prevent them from being evicted from their farms by local banks. Even so, not a word has been said so far about new environmental policies or economic aid for small farmers. For now and until next May, the only option open to small farmers is to hope devoutly that the next rainy season won’t be quite as devastating.