Rising numbers of farmers in drought-stricken Honduras could be forced to leave their homes unless support for rural communities is ramped up to help struggling families better cope with extreme weather and climate change, U.N. officials have warned.

Earlier this month, Honduras declared a national emergency due to a severe drought that has decimated staple-crop harvests of beans and maize by up to 80% in some areas of the poor Central American nation, according to government figures.

Nearly half a million Hondurans, many of them small farmers, are struggling to put food on the table, according to two U.N. agencies, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Dennis Latimer, FAO's Honduras representative, said his organisation was "very worried", as a large percentage of farmers had lost their harvest from the first planting season and would struggle to recover during the second.

"We are in a crisis because of climate change," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Patterns are being disturbed, and we have long periods of drought, followed by very intense short periods of rain. So we have to be able to adapt to these new climate patterns."

Climate change has been high on the agenda during this week's gathering of world leaders at the United Nations.

Last Friday, 4 million protestors hit the streets worldwide, joining a call by Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg for immediate action to avoid environmental catastrophe.

But for Honduran farmers, dealing with the impact of climate change-linked droughts has already become the new normal.

Honduras is reeling from five years of consecutive droughts, affecting more people and different parts of the country.

"The main issue is the cumulative impact of the years of drought," said Etienne Labande, WFP's deputy director in Honduras.

"Over time, and with losses of the harvest, the problem is that people ... don't have (food) stocks anymore. So every month, every week, every day, we have more people falling from moderate into severe food insecurity," he said.

Michelle, a migrant from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, protects her tent from rainwater while taking refuge at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 29, 2018.
Michelle, a migrant from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, protects her tent from rainwater while taking refuge at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico November 29, 2018.
Image: REUTERS/Adrees Latif

POSSIBLE TO ADAPT?

Poor crop harvests due to drought are forcing rural families to eat fewer meals a day, sell off land, and take on a spiral of debt, driving them to seek better opportunities, often first in their own countries and then in the United States.

Many farmers seek seasonal work as bean pickers on coffee farms, but this year they have struggled to find it because of low coffee prices, experts said.

"It comes to a point, a threshold, where they can't just take it anymore - and then their only option is to leave, first from rural areas to urban areas ... and then the next step is to try to migrate outside of the country," FAO's Latimer said.

Humanitarian agencies like Catholic Relief Services are concerned that cuts in U.S. aid to Central America, proposed by the Trump administration, mean they are having to scale back some projects to help drought-hit rural communities in the region.

"Turning our backs on them will exacerbate human suffering and contribute to thousands of residents' despair and possible migration north," Rick Jones, a technical advisor for the charity, said in testimony this week to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs.

There is no reliable data on the number of Hondurans who are being forced to migrate because of climate stresses.

U.N. experts say it is hard to single out climate change among other factors pushing people to leave home, like gang violence, a lack of jobs, and wanting to be reunited with relatives already living abroad.

"It's extremely difficult to proportion the weight of each factor in (people's) decision-making," said WFP's Labande.

But experts agree that the impact of climate change on rural communities in Honduras and other parts of Central America will likely drive more and more people to migrate in the future as they can no longer make a decent living from agriculture.

"Whether that push is countered by some adaptation - that's the challenge we have in front of us," said Pablo Escribano, a specialist on climate change and migration in the Americas at the International Organization for Migration.

According to a 2018 World Bank report, between 1.4 million and 2.1 million people in Mexico and Central America could be forced to move inside their own countries to escape climate pressures by 2050 if no action is taken to combat the problem.

Central America's "Dry Corridor" - running through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua - is particularly vulnerable to the El Nino phenomenon, a warming of the Pacific Ocean surface that typically occurs every few years, causing hot and drier conditions.

"It's now almost occurring every year. So let's stop talking about a phenomenon," Latimer said.

"El Nino came and stayed. I think we have to live with this, so we have to be able to adapt to these new climate patterns."

A woman shows a cucumber at her drought-affected plot, in the southern village of San Francisco de Coray, in the department of Valle, Honduras, August 13, 2015. Linked to the El Nino weather phenomenon, this year's drought has hit subsistence farmers living in Central America's
A woman shows a cucumber at her drought-affected plot, in the southern village of San Francisco de Coray, in the department of Valle, Honduras, August 13, 2015. Linked to the El Nino weather phenomenon, this year's drought has hit subsistence farmers living in Central America's
Image: REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

LESS THIRSTY CROPS

Helping farmers grow different crops that need less water, such as sorghum, and planting fruit trees like the dragon fruit cactus, make up one approach to better cope with climate change.

Diversifying means that "a small farming family with five to six mouths to feed isn't just dependent on one or two crops", Latimer said.

U.N. agencies are also helping farmers create vegetable gardens, and conserve water more efficiently by building small irrigation and water harvesting systems on their land.

But such projects take months to get going and need sustained funding over the long term, officials said.

And while early warning systems in Honduras are in place at the national level, they need to be improved and reach local farmers so they can make timely decisions about when to plant.

"We need to start working on making sure that the right people get the information, in the right language ... and with the appropriate recommendations that small farmers can implement and understand," Latimer said.