Guatemala: Hope between hurricanes and drought
People in the departments of Huehuetenango and San Marcos in the northwest of Guatemala rely on farming for their living. Over hundreds of years, a mixed cropping system of maize, beans and squash emerged there: known as milpa, this locally adapted cultivation method used to guarantee food security. But increasing climatic risks and rising temperatures are forcing indigenous, small-scale farm families to adapt. This adjustment process is complicated by the destruction of mountain forests, the expansion of cropland, high population growth, the fragmentation of fields and overuse of the soil. Many families grow crops on land less than half the size of a football field.
One consequence of these trends is that the soil has lost organic matter, meaning it cannot hold as much rainwater as before. That causes springs to shrink or dry up completely, in turn causing problems for residents of lower-lying areas. At the same time, the risk of floods, mudslides and landslides during the rainy season has risen, especially during intense storms such as hurricane Stan in 2005 or tropical storm Agatha in 2010. Climate change is expected to worsen the situation, especially in dry areas and mountainous regions such as San Marcos and Huehuetenango.
Traditional strategies for adapting to climate change
As the example of Guatemala shows, it is necessary to protect soil, water, animals and plants. The use of them in a more sustainable was could help to maintain this vital natural resources in the long term. Farmers become an important role; they have to adjust their traditional agricultural system to the new situation. With the support of the German development cooperation residents of 30 villages of the departments of Huehuetenango and San Marcos have already successfully transformed their agriculture in a more sustainable way.
The mountainous region can be split in three different agro-ecological zones that dominate agriculture. Each zone has its own typical farming system. In the cool, high-altitude zone (3,000-3,600m), potatoes and maize are the main crops, while sheep and a few cattle graze the pastures. The milpa maizebeanssquash combination is typical of the temperate middle zone (2,400-3,000), supplemented by potatoes and vegetables. Some larger farms in this zone have small timber or coffee plantings. In the hot, low-lying zone, the milpa is accompanied by groundnuts and vegetables. Farmers here also plant fruit trees and coffee as cash crops.
To adapt to climate change and minimize their risks, some farmers exploit the potential offered by agrobiodiversity. They increase the diversity of crop species and varieties, and make use of the available agro-ecological niches. Furthermore there is a significant exchange of seeds between farmers from different regions and altitude zones, which multiply various local varieties. These approaches combine to reduce the farmers’ vulnerability to climate risks
Developing and adapting tried-and-tested approaches
To adapt agriculture to climate change there are three aspects to work on: Promotion of agrobiodiversity, soil conservation and erosion control, improved planning and protection through risk analysis.
It is important to keep the still big tange of crop species and varieties, which some families in Huehuetenango and San Marcos maintain. To protect fields from erosion and landslides, farmers have now started building terraces and planted them with fast-growing forage grasses. On steeper slopes, farmers strengthened the terraces with stones, fruit and timber trees or fast-growing bushes. Traditional tillage methods using hand hoes, machetes and planting sticks were retained because they protect the soil. These improvements in cultivation went hand-in-hand with a comprehensive risk assessment. This enabled hazard areas to be mapped and appropriate land uses to be planned. For residents of areas that are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters the participatory climate risk analysis is important, as it enables them to assess potential future threats and risks, and take appropriate measures to mitigate them.
References: von Lossau, Annette (2011): Climate change and agriculture: Examples from the work of GIZ - Guatemala