Trouble in the Tropics: Climate Change, COVID-19 and the Relentless Cycle of Hunger

Photo: WFP/Julian Frank
World Food Programme
Published June 29, 2021

The Tropics are home to 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity and by 2050, will host most of the world’s population. However, the region is also witnessing greater loss of biodiversity and higher levels of undernourishment than the rest of the world. 

For International Day of the Tropics, we’re taking a deeper look at how climate presents unique challenges for those living in Central America’s Dry Corridor and how the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is helping to break the cycle of hunger. 

aerial view of Honduras
Photo: WFP/Jonathan Dumont

Five years of consecutive drought in Honduras have left farmlands barren and vulnerable to fires.

Southern Honduras looks shockingly similar to the Niger, Chad or countries in the arid Sahel region of West Africa. Years of drought have left this once productive area scorched and barren.

Then last fall, hurricanes Eta and Iota ripped through Central America. The baked earth, hardened like a ceramic plate, couldn’t absorb the torrential rains. Devastating floods swept away homes and drowned livestock.

The storms were for a huge blow to people already reeling from the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, crime and years of drought.

lines of people walking along street
Photo: WFP/Julian Frank

In March of 2021, about one hundred Guatemalan migrants began their journey on foot to reach the U.S. border. To keep their loads light, families carry small bags with bare minimum supplies: a few clothes, pasta, one bottle of water, medicine and sanitary items.

U.N. World Food Programme data indicates a quadrupling of hunger since 2018 in the so-called dry corridor countries of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua — almost 8 million people don’t have enough to eat. Among them are 1.7 million people in need of emergency food assistance. In January, 15 percent of people surveyed said they were making concrete plans to migrate — that’s double the number two years ago.

Erick Galeas lives about 45 minutes from Choluteca with this wife and their son. Though he has a degree in agronomy, he is unemployed. He had planned to study four more years to get an advanced engineering degree but he can no longer afford to pay for his studies.

We met Erick in San Miguel, a small village near the border of Nicaragua where migrants frequently pass on their way north. Here there is no electricity and people must walk nearly 1 1/2 miles to fetch water.

cows in on dried up farmland
Photo: WFP/Julian Frank

In the drought-stricken land in El Triunfo, in the heart of Central America’s dry corridor, we passed some cows that were all skin and bones.

Erick said the only option left was to migrate to the United States, leaving behind his wife, Brenda, and 1-year-old son, Dilan.

Surrounded by his neighbours, Erick broke down weeping as he talked about having to leave — torn between the fear that if he stayed he’d not be able to offer his son the few options he himself has had, and the risk of his son growing up without a father to guide him.

father holds his young son
Photo: WFP/Julian Frank

Erick, his partner Brenda and their one-year-old son Dilan live in the drought-stricken border community of San Miguel in the heart of the Dry Corridor.

“Suffering in the streets, losing himself in that world of drugs, alcoholism or getting into criminal gangs — that is not the life I want for my son,” said Erick.

Around 7 p.m., a few days later, in the parking lot of San Pedro Sula’s bus station, we met up with a crowd of about 100 people. Illuminated by the red neon glow of a Little Caesar’s Pizzeria sign, a new group of migrants was preparing to begin the month-long, nearly 2,o00 mile journey on foot through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States.

Families with small children and young women nervously clutched small bags containing the bare minimum — a few clothes, pasta, a bottle of water, medicines and sanitary items.

Children at San Pedro Sula’s bus station hugged small teddy bears. Almost everyone seemed scared. Some had made the journey four or five times, only to be turned back after harrowing encounters of attempting kidnappings, extortion, criminal gangs and border patrols.

Stefany was sent back from Guatemala in January but was trying again.

“I only made it to the sixth grade because my parents did not have much,” she said. “They did not have a job. What little they had, they gave to me. Everything is very expensive, food is very expensive. I want to support my mother but there is no job. Every Honduran wants to migrate.”

Travelling legitimately during a pandemic, with constantly changing immigration rules, COVID-19 test requirements and fewer flight connections, requires patience and nerves of steel. Contracting the virus aside, those attempting to migrate illegally with their children risk detention, robbery, kidnap and murder — so it’s truly a last resort.

Still, there is hope for those in the dry corridor who want to stay. U.N. World Food Programme agronomists help communities struggling with the effects of climate change to plant drought-resistant crops, harvest water and use other techniques to grow enough food to feed their families.

mother holding young son in hammock
Photo: WFP/Jonathan Dumont

Erick’s household receives U.N. World Food Programme food rations to help them during the drought. As resilience projects take off, they will become less necessary.

The U.N. World Food Programme provides food and nutrition when needed. In urban areas where there is an upsurge in hunger, school meals and U.N. World Food Programme cash and vouchers give people the option to stay in their communities and helps the local economy.

Back in San Miguel, the U.N. World Food Programme is starting a program to teach new agricultural techniques to grow crops less dependent on water, like cashews and mangoes. There is also a water harvesting and seed nursery project, in addition to emergency meals. It will take time for these programs to bear fruit.

For Erick who is feeling that time is running out, U.N. World Food Programme projects offer a glimmer of hope that he can stay at home with his family.