In Guatemala, A Bad Year For Corn — And For U.S. Aid

Sep 30, 2019
Originally published on October 7, 2019 10:48 pm

In a good year, Jesús García Ramos can feed his family all year on the corn that he grows in small fields around his home in the Guatemalan village of Quilinco. But this was not a good year.

On a visit in August, I met García Ramos in the field behind his house, where I found him hacking down dried-out yellow corn stalks with a machete. He had planted the corn in March. But then it didn't rain in June or July, the crucial months when kernels form on the cob. He expected his yields would be about half what he'd expect in a good year, or maybe less.

"We don't feel bad though, because we're used to it," he says.

Quilinco sits deep in Guatemala's western highlands, in an overwhelmingly agrarian region where poverty is high and child malnutrition rates hover around 70%. The region also boasts some of Guatemala's highest migration rates to the United States. Local farmers say climate change is making it increasingly difficult to get by and is one of the factors pushing people to head north.

But Quilinco has also benefited from a U.S.-funded program to help farmers adapt and improve their food security. It's a place where one agricultural aid project's impact — and the stakes of cutting such aid, as the Trump administration did this past spring — can be seen firsthand.

To get there, I rode a bus for five hours from Guatemala City and then got a ride in a pickup truck for another hour. The truck bounced up a dusty dirt road that wound up the mountains, through pine trees and a patchwork of little fields of corn and broccoli.

Virtually everyone in the town makes a living as a farmer, planting corn in the summer for subsistence. In winter, many also plant vegetables such as snow peas and potatoes for export to the United States.

Farmers and scientists say climate change has been making agriculture more difficult. This year, the problem has been drought. Rain patterns have been more unpredictable, and storms have been stronger. Two years ago, a rare spring hailstorm shredded García Ramos' corn plants, and he lost the entire crop. In other years, hurricanes have left him with nothing.

But García Ramos has a safety net. In years that he has lost his crops, he has been able to plant again the next season thanks to a bucket of seeds he stores in Quilinco's community seed reserve. The reserve is part of an approximately $7.5 million project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Called Buena Milpa, the project has worked since 2015 with subsistence farmers throughout the western highlands to improve their corn yields and help them adapt to climate change.

The project, whose name means "good cornfield," supported seed reserves in 15 communities. It also helped farmers diversify the crops they plant to feed their families and taught them soil and water conservation techniques.

The seed reserve in Quilinco is a small one-room building, painted white, that sits in the middle of a cluster of cornfields. A sign outside the building says in Spanish that it's "a measure to adapt to climate change."

"It's a form of relief from climate change because it allows us to safeguard each farmer's most important seeds," says Esvin López, who oversees the reserve. Inside, red and green buckets of seeds are stacked on shelves.

Since 2015, López has been a local project coordinator for Buena Milpa, earning about $500 each month. Then, this past March, President Trump announced he planned to freeze about $450 million in foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for failing to stop their citizens from migrating to the United States. In June, Buena Milpa's coordinators learned that the project's funding would end about six months earlier than expected.

Latin America experts have warned that halting aid might actually spur more Central Americans to leave for the United States. Food insecurity has been one of the primary drivers of migration from Guatemala, and climate change has been making it more difficult for small-scale farmers to feed their families.

López estimates that almost half of Quilinco's 600 residents have spent time in the United States. He isn't one of them, though as a teenager he thought seriously about heading north. Then a crop scientist working for another international aid project came to Quilinco and invited López to participate in an agronomy course, where he specialized in research on local corn seeds.

"I loved it, and I thought, 'This will be my opportunity,' " says López. "And I liked being a leader."

López helped set up seed reserves like the one in Quilinco throughout the western highlands. Then, he and the scientists he works with started crossing the seeds they collected to create new varieties that would be more productive and resistant to storms, pests, drought and other problems exacerbated by climate change.

Inside the Quilinco reserve, López pulls out a small paper bag filled with one of these varieties, labeled "Population One." The translucent white seeds were created by crossing corn from Quilinco with a native variety from another region, where corn plants are shorter. The result is a plant that's adapted to Quilinco's climate but doesn't topple over as easily during storms.

Esvin López oversees the USAID-funded seed reserve in the Guatemalan village of Quilinco. He holds a jar of seeds he's collected for research and a bag of hybrid seeds for cornstalks that can cope with climate-related challenges like windstorms.
Alissa Escarce

José María García Funes, another local farmer, has been growing a drought-resistant variety this year. He lives at the bottom of a steep hill that's thick with trees.

Behind the trees, his corn plants are green and healthy, with fat, nearly ripe ears of corn.

García Funes got involved with Buena Milpa four years ago. He'd just returned from living in Chicago, where he worked in a factory that made spice mixes for fast-food chains.

"I saw that the neighbors' corn wasn't growing as tall as mine, and the wind didn't knock it over as easily," he said. "So I decided to get involved."

The program also trained García Funes in the latest growing techniques, like how to select the best seeds to plant from year to year and how to store seeds by keeping them dry after the harvest. Now he has been harvesting almost twice as much corn as he used to. Several farmers in Quilinco told me that working with Buena Milpa had increased their yields and helped them feed their families. One of them says he has been growing six times more than before.

Still, the improved corn yields haven't kept García Funes' children from migrating. In fact, if not for his own migration, he himself wouldn't have been able to grow much corn at all. He used some of the money he earned in the U.S. to buy the land where he grows this corn. And his sons are following in his footsteps. One of them recently came home after a few years in Oregon and bought fields where he's now growing broccoli. Another left for Washington state last spring.

They're not the only family of farmers to rely on money earned in the U.S. to get by. García Ramos, the farmer who lost his crops to a hailstorm, is able to buy food in bad years with money his son sends from California.

Even López says his work with farmers probably hasn't made migration less appealing in Quilinco.

"Yes, we've improved our yields," he says. "But it isn't enough."

When it comes to migration, he says, money is the key. He says it's almost impossible to buy land to farm on in Quilinco without doing a stint in the United States. So far he has survived on his U.S.-funded salary, but it has never been enough to buy land of his own.

This summer, after learning of the funding cuts, López started thinking about heading north himself. Over the summer he went to his 7-year-old daughter and asked her, "What do you think? Do you want to go with me to the United States?"

She said no — she wanted to stay in school here.

López hopes to stay in Guatemala with his wife and daughter — and to find a new job doing research on local corn.

Beyond López himself, the cut in USAID funding may not affect migration from Quilinco. But the corn project wasn't designed to stop migration. It was intended to reduce poverty and malnutrition.

With the funding gone, Quilinco's seed reserve will remain, although without any staffing. López's research on new varieties has ground to a halt. And farmers won't receive any more training. They'll be left with fewer tools to weather climate change.

Alissa Escarce is a producer at NPR's Latino USA. Reporting for this story was supported by the UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Last spring, President Trump froze almost $500 million in funding to the U.S. Agency International Development programs to Central America to pressure those countries to stop the flow of migrants. Experts have warned those same cuts could actually backfire and increase migration. So what happens when one of those programs shuts down? Reporter Alissa Escarce travelled to Quilinco, a village in Guatemala's western highlands.

ALISSA ESCARCE, BYLINE: To get to Quilinco, I took a five-hour bus from Guatemala City. Then I got a ride up a dusty dirt road that winds up the mountains through pine trees and little fields of corn and broccoli. In Quilinco, I find farmer Jesus Garcia Ramos in the field behind his house. He's hacking down dried-out yellow corn stalks with a machete. In a good year, Garcia says he can feed his family all year on the corn that he harvests. But this was not a good year.

JESUS GARCIA RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: He says his yields will be about half what he'd normally expect this year or maybe less. He planted the corn in March, but then it didn't rain in June or July, the crucial months when kernels form on the cob.

GARCIA RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: He says he doesn't feel bad, though, because they're used to it. Farmers and scientists say climate change has been making it harder and harder to get by here. Not only drought; storms have been getting stronger as well. Two years ago, they got a rare spring hailstorm.

GARCIA RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: Garcia says the hail shredded his corn plants, and everything died. But he's always been able to plant again. That's because he stores a bucket of seeds in the town's community seed reserve. It's a project that's been supported by USAID, the U.S. development agency that provides aid around the world. Esvin Lopez oversees the reserve. Lopez leads me into the seed bank.

ESVIN LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: A sign on the wall outside says it's a measure to adapt to climate change. Inside, it's a small one-room building with green and red buckets stacked on shelves.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) It's a form of relief because it allows us to safeguard each farmer's most important seeds.

ESCARCE: This reserve has been part of a project called Buena Milpa, which means good cornfield. But it lost its funding in June after Trump announced he'd freeze the aid to punish Central American countries for not stopping migration. But here's the catch - food insecurity is one of the things that's pushing people to migrate, and climate change is making it worse. Could Trump's cuts actually cause more farmers here to head for the U.S. border?

Lopez estimates that almost half of the town's 600 residents have spent time in the U.S. He isn't one of them, though as a teenager he assumed he would be. But then a crop scientist working for an international aid project invited him to participate in an agronomy course.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) They had a plan to discover young talent.

ESCARCE: And he specialized in doing research on local corn seeds.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) I loved it, and I thought this will be my opportunity, and I liked being a leader.

ESCARCE: Lopez helped set up seed banks like this one throughout the western highlands, and he started crossing the seeds they collected to create new varieties that would be more resistant to climate change.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) Here's one we've been working on. It's a variety we call Population One.

ESCARCE: Lopez pulls out a little paper bag filled with translucent corn seeds. These seeds were created by crossing corn from Quilinco with a variety from another region where corn plants are shorter. The result is a plant that's adapted to Quilinco's climate but doesn't topple over as easily during storms. Other varieties he's developed are more resistant to pests and drought. We leave the seed reserve, and Lopez takes me to visit Jose Maria Garcia Funes, who's growing the drought-resistant variety this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

JOSE MARIA GARCIA FUNES: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: Garcia Funes lives at the bottom of a steep hill that's thick with trees.

GARCIA FUNES: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: He leads us to his cornfields, opening a path through the trees with a machete.

Oh, wow. (Speaking Spanish).

These cornstalks are green and healthy with fat, nearly ripe ears of corn. Garcia Funes got involved with Buena Milpa four years ago. He'd just gotten back from working in a factory in Chicago, where he made spice mixes for fast-food chains. Be a loose do business.

GARCIA FUNES: (Through interpreter) I saw that the neighbor's corn wasn't growing as tall as mine, and the wind didn't knock it over as easily. So I decided to get involved.

ESCARCE: The USAID program also trained Garcia Funes on the latest growing techniques. Now he's been harvesting almost twice as much corn as he used to. Several farmers in Quilinco told me the project helped their corn yields. One guy's been growing six times more than before. Garcia Funes was so enthusiastic that he's now the president of the seed reserve's farmer committee. But if not for migration, Garcia Funes says he wouldn't have been able to grow much corn at all.

GARCIA FUNES: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA FUNES: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: This land where he's growing the corn, he bought it with money he earned in the U.S., and now his sons are following in his footsteps. One of them just came home after a few years in Oregon, and another left for Washington state last spring. And they're not the only ones. Jesus Garcia, who you heard at the beginning, was able to buy food after losing his crops with money his son sends from California. Even Lopez says his work probably hasn't made migration less appealing.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: He says, "Yes, we've improved our yields. But it isn't enough." The Trump administration cut funding to his project in June. The seed bank will remain, but his research on new varieties has ground to a halt, and there won't be any more trainings. When it comes to migration, Lopez says money is the key.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: He says it's almost impossible to buy land to farm on without doing a stint in the U.S. So far, he's survived on his U.S.-funded salary, but it wasn't enough to buy land of his own. When his paychecks stopped coming, he started thinking about heading north himself. Over the summer, he went to his daughter.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) She's 7, and I said, what do you think? Do you want to go with me to the United States? But she said no.

ESCARCE: Lopez wants to stay in Guatemala with his daughter if he can. He's hoping to find a new job doing research on local corn. In the end, the cut in U.S. funding may not affect migration from Quilinco, but this USAID project wasn't designed to stop migration; it was intended to reduce poverty, and cutting it will leave farmers here with one less tool to weather climate change.

Alissa Escarce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AAIRIAL'S "BIRD TAKING FLIGHT")

INSKEEP: Reporting for this story was supported by the UC Berkeley 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.