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FEATURE: Making Central America’s food systems more climate-resilient

Miren Gutierrez investigates how a CDKN-supported project in Central America has produced tools to help communities assess the climate risks to their food supply and to build resilience.  

A report published by Oxfam in 2014 says that “climate change will strongly affect the production of food and the life conditions of the farming and indigenous families in Central America. The increase in temperatures and the modification of the rainfall cycles will impact the availability of water for the food production and for the populations.”

This summer, the so-called Dry Corridor – a subtropical highland area stretching from Guatemala to Costa Rica — was hit by the most severe drought in more than four decades. “Not a drop of rain has fallen there between July and September. In Guatemala alone, some 300,000 farming families have lost 70-100 percent of their crops. In El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, the production of corn, a staple product, has fallen by over 10%. All in all, an estimated 3 million Central Americans are struggling to feed themselves,” says Jan-Albert Hootsen in a recent report for the World Politics Review.

The accumulated effects of climate change are already clear in this region. Since the 1990s, the coastline has receded about 300 metres inland in Southern Honduras, said Danilo Manzanares, member of the CREFSCA technical team, in a report published by CDKN in May 2013. In Honduras, the biggest loss of terrain happened in 1998, when hurricane Mitch touched land. Today, tides are higher and, if this trend continues, many of the black-sanded beaches of that are will be lost, together with hundreds of houses, according to the same report. Most of the affected areas, about 90%, are fishing communities.

“In Latin America and the Caribbean, in the past decade, more than 15 million people were affected by floods while more than 3 million were affected by extreme droughts and almost 5 million by extreme temperatures. Furthermore, according to the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the increase in the number of people at risk from suffering from famine could concern 5 million people by the year 2020, and reach up to 26 million by the year 2050,” says the Oxfam report.

Central America has contributed very little to climate change, but it already endures some of the most negative consequences. That is where projects such as the Climate Resilience and Food Security in Central America (CREFSCA) come into play.

With CDKN’s support, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) launched the CREFSCA project in January 2013 in ten communities in each of the targeted countries: Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

They found that these communities had some shared “commonalities”, namely, they all have assets and linkages to external systems “that are critical to ensure food security in light of disturbances created by climate change. For example, the importance of storage (including refrigerated storage) and supporting energy systems, and access to markets and food prices which are influenced by national and international policies and processes,” says Alicia Natalia Zamudio, Project Officer of IIED’s Resilience Programme.

Using a systemic approach, “we identified that supporting resources, like water and land, are very important; that the accessibility and management systems of those natural resources were key too. We also realised that the capacities of key actors are crucial,” she says. Finally, governance aspects and local participation in decision making processes made a difference to food security in the three countries.

However, even if there are similarities, local context is also important: “Vulnerability to climate change and the differences in its cascading impacts through food systems can have diverse effects according the different exposure and adaptive capacity of people,” explains Ms Zamudio. “Coastal communities, for example, are much more reliant of fishing than inland communities, which rely more on agriculture. Some coastal communities are very isolated, and depend totally on external markets for other kinds of food. Any change in their access to food markets for example through a disruption in roads or transport systems can seriously affect their food security. The system perspective allowed us to identify these commonalities and differences.”

It is now barely a year since the project has ended, and there is evidence of some changes in the way food systems are managed. The project’s main outputs were two decision-making support tools, in the form of two spin-wheels, designed to enable community members and policy-makers to assess vulnerability and resilience of food systems, develop resilience actions and generate indicators to monitor that resilience over time.The tools were developed and tested through an iterative process grounded in practical field applications.

“Food security is looked upon from a systemic perspective where issues like storage, related infrastructure, and other supporting natural and built-in elements are taken into account. The Spin-wheels (which are the conceptual framework) and CRiSTAL Food Security tool were very useful to identify and understand the impacts chains, how the climate impacts cascade through the food system,”says Ms. Zamudio.

“With this systems conceptual approach, we also produced theFIPAT (Food Security Indicator & Policy Analysis Tool) –she adds—which focuses its analysis on the national and subnational levels, including public policies and their capacity to support resilience.”

During the project, local and regional governments have received capacity-building to use these tools in their context, improving knowledge on climate change and understanding of key concepts. “The communities we worked with were empowered by their better understanding of food security issues. They became more aware of some linkages and answers to questions that were not explicit before,” says Zamudio.

For example, users developed indicators to help them measure their resilience to climate change shocks, such as:

  • Percentage of households with family orchards or gardens, which could determine the level of vegetable consumption and the diversity of the food. “Family gardens help diversity income strategies for women, who are most of the times in charge of the household. We have found, for example, that many households that produce vegetables do not eat them (except, for onions),” says Ms Zamudio.
  • Percentage of households with more than one storage facility or percentage of households with refrigerated storage. This is linked to access to electricity and whether you can refrigerate and cook food. Cooking with electricity, instead of wood or charcoal ovens, can benefit human health by reducing indoor air pollution.
  • Percentage of paved roads, which increases access to food, as unpaved roads are even more vulnerable to climate shocks.

The results of using the tools to analyse climate risks to the food system were used to design policies for the Mancomunidad Montaña El Gigante (Guatemala), a rural community that depends almost exclusively on agriculture.

And now, in Honduras, use of the CRiSTAL Food Security Tool has spread beyond the original communities that were part of the project, because it is being used more widely by NGOs. The tools could soon be incorporated in the university curriculum of the Universidad Autonoma de Honduras (UNAH), too.

Two years down the line, the experts participating in this programme found: “[A] resilient food system is a system that is able to withstand shocks and stresses (including climatic shocks), a system that is ultimately able to deliver food security,” says Ms Zamudio. “Climate variability affects food security directly and indirectly. Climate change can directly disrupt food production and generate crop loses through climatic events, for example. Many other impacts are indirect, though. Climate change can disrupt supporting systems, like roads that take food and people to markets, and thus affect access to food.”

Further reading

 Image: Honduran farmer, courtesy CIAT.



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