Central America's Silent Killer - The Man-Made Causes of Drought and Famine

| September 10, 2001

Central America's Silent Killer -The Man-Made Causes of Drought and Famine

Ten years ago, when European bankers financed many Third World coffee-growing projects, they helped set off a chain of events that continues to drive small farmers in Central America out of business--and, this year, to the brink of starvation.

In previous years droughts caused hardships, but this year famine has struck, reports Paul Jeffrey in Pacific News Service. Some 725,000 acres of rice, corn, and beans have been lost in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala because of the drought; Honduras has lost 80 percent of its grain crop. But the weather is not the chief culprit. 'The tragedy that has brought tens of thousands of Central America's poor almost to the point of having to choose between death or emigration could have been foreseen,' Jeffrey writes. 'It is not simply lack of rain that has caused the suffering.'

Decade-old policies encouraging subsistence farmers to plant coffee to supplement their income have backfired in recent years, as the worldwide glut of coffee supply has driven prices down. Worse, as coffee prices plummet and harvests dwindle, more and more farmers are cutting down hillside trees to expand their subsistence farms. The newly deforested hillsides, Jeffrey explains, increased the likelihood of flooding when the rains did come and exacerbated the effect of the dry spells.

To combat the famine, local charities are helping to organize local communities rather than petition the government for aid. The groups will then be able to pressure officials to take action, says Alejandro Mendoza, director of a Catholic ministry in Honduras. 'We're placing all our bets on the process of local organizing. In the long run, that's going to make the most difference.'
--Sara V. Buckwitz
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