Climate change will open up a “dry corridor” in Central America that could leave thousands of farmers struggling to produce one of the region’s most important and long-established foods – beans.

The findings are published today by researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), with support from the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Catholic Relief Services and the CGIAR Research Program of Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). They cover the effects of climate change on bean production in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Central America already swings between periods of drought and heavy rain each year, and climate change is expected to exaggerate this seesaw effect, intensifying the hot, dry periods in particular.

According to the newly-published research, it means a 300km stretch of almost continually dry land will appear in the coming decades, reaching from Lake Nicaragua to Yoro department in Central Honduras. This “dry corridor” coincides with the region’s zone for producing dry beans – common beans that are left in the pod to dry prior to harvesting.

It could spell trouble for food security in the region, which has some of the highest per capita rates of bean consumption outside Africa. Beans are a vital source of protein, vitamins and minerals, particularly for low-income families unable to obtain these from other, more expensive sources, such as meat.

Central America is one of the regions on the frontline when it comes to climate change, and that’s why we’re seeing these kinds of results coming in quick succession.

Anton Eitzinger

Climate change scientist, CIAT

The findings represent another threat agriculture in Central America, following a study last year that found that up to 80 per cent of areas producing its lucrative Arabica coffee will become unsuitable by 2035 due to the effects of climate change.

“Central America is one of the regions on the frontline when it comes to climate change, and that’s why we’re seeing these kinds of results coming in quick succession,” said CIAT’s Anton Eitzinger, a climate change scientists and lead author of the latest study.

“Since it’s a relatively narrow stretch of land located between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, it’s particularly exposed to changes in weather systems driven by even small changes in sea temperatures. It means the region’s 42 million people are likely to start feeling the effects of climate change sooner, and more intensely, than other parts of the world.”

The implicit danger for rural households that primarily depend on beans as a source of food and income is that unproductive bean farms can put pressure on farmers and family members to, among other alternatives, leave the countryside in search of work.

Without a clear and effective adaptation strategy, the economic, social and environmental impacts may cause ripples through society, with likely knock-on effects within the country, but also in neighbouring ones.

Byron Reyes

Impact assessment scientist, CIAT Nicaragua

The study identifies three geographic areas where the effects of climate change of dry bean production will be felt differently.

Hotspots are typified by regions in the dry corridor, and are expected to experience severe impacts. Unless drought tolerant bean varieties that are adapted to these areas are introduced, many farmers may need to either abandon bean production and plant other crops, or leave the area altogether. Hotspot areas include the municipalities of Alauca, Orica and Yorito in Honduras, and La Conquista and Totogalpa in Nicaragua.

Farmers in Adaptation spots will have more flexibility: they can continue to grow beans but perhaps a more suitable variety. They will also have to employ different practices, for example, to capture and store rainwater, or improve soil fertility. Here, some farmers might be able to switch growing seasons, from the primera (May-July) to the postrera (September-November). These are in the municipalities of Ipala and Jalapa in Guatemala, Danli in Honduras, San Dionisio in Nicaragua, and Apastepeque, Candelaria, Comasagua and Texistepeque in El Salvador.

Finally, areas described in the report as Pressure spots will be bittersweet: on the one hand, the warmer, drier weather will create new opportunities for bean production. In areas, where bean production is normally undertaken in the Apante season (Dec-Feb) for example, where conditions are currently less extreme than the average, yields could rise by as much as 40%. But some of these areas are forests, providing important ecosystem services such as freshwater; in addition, many lack the necessary infrastructure for them to be habitable.

“What we’re looking at is an almost perfect switch in the suitability of beans from one part of the region to another,” continues Eitzinger. “While that might sound okay in principle, the problem is that in real life this switch won’t be seamless: there are a multitude of reasons as to why farmers can’t change crops, or that prevent them from physically relocating to more suitable areas. These are where the problems could arise.”

In particular, in recent years, tough farming conditions in parts of Central America have been a factor in the migration of farmers to the region’s burgeoning cities. High unemployment and other social problems there have been factors in some of these cities becoming among the most dangerous in the world. The instability has also contributed to an increasing number of economic migrants crossing into Mexico and the United States, often illegally.

Byron Reyes, an impact assessment scientist at CIAT in Managua, Nicaragua, said: “The implicit danger for rural households that primarily depend on beans as a source of food and income is that unproductive bean farms can put pressure on farmers and family members to, among other alternatives, leave the countryside in search of work.

“Without a clear and effective adaptation strategy, the economic, social and environmental impacts may cause ripples through society, with likely knock-on effects within the country, but also in neighbouring ones.”

GET INVOLVED: The next big ideas

1) Prioritise climate-smart agriculture for Bean prbduction to adapt current vulnerable systems to climate change and climate variability. This can involve the introduction of soil conservation methods, agro-forestry systems, better targeted agro-climatic forecasts and better crop selection for different climates and planting seasons.

2) Develop specific adaptation strategies and policy recommendations for areas identified as Hotspots. These could include the development and modeling of local food systems, and options for farmers to diversify their crops.

3) Expand the vulnerability assessment and apply the methodology for more crops and analyze general food availability for households using historical data and future predictions.

4) Undertake studies to establish the agricultural triggers for rural-urban migration, as an entry point for developing local policies to improve the resilience and profitability of agriculture in the region.

 

To find out more, visit CIAT’s Take Action page

The findings published today are the result of an investigation into the effects of climate change on two of the region’s key food security crops, beans and maize, called Tortillas on the Roaster, which concluded in 2012. This research was commissioned by CRS with funding from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. The research was undertaken by CIAT and CIMMYT.

The work resulted in a series of regional awareness-raising events with policymakers to stimulate the development of action plans to respond to climate change. The results helped define three new projects led by the Global Water Initiative and CRS: Cosecha Azul and Agua Verde are water harvesting projects, and ProSuelo focuses on improved soil management as part of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. CIAT is involved with digital soil mapping activities, and is a member of the Soil and Water Alliance established following the 2012 meeting, through which the projects are being implemented.

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