Santa Cruz del Quiché, GUATEMALA—For many, the term “climate change” brings to mind the image of a polar bear on a shrinking sheet of ice somewhere far off in the Arctic.
Consider another image: A tired farmer looks out fearfully over a craggy field and wonders how he’ll grow the crops to keep his family fed.
Pedro Esteban is that farmer, and to him, climate change is no abstraction.
His family has farmed the Guatemalan highlands for generations, and climate change is the phenomenon that yearly forces his kin to cut production as the water sorely needed to irrigate their fields comes up short time and again.
Unlike large-scale agribusiness, Esteban farms for his own sustenance and sells whatever is left over, so any reduction in cultivation cuts quickly into his family’s well-being. “It’s really tough,” he says, alternating between Spanish and the indigenous K’iche’. He estimates that his family used to grow twice as much as it now can.
Guatemala is hardly the only place where small-scale farmers are confronting climate change. Worldwide, an estimated 2.5 billion people depend on small-scale farming, which the United Nations says is particularly vulnerable to changes in the environment.
But a novel project here called MásRiego (“more irrigation”) has put the Guatemalan highlands on the map as the epicenter of the struggle to protect the livelihoods of farmers like Esteban.
The idea is simple: Water is what farmers are running out of, so the solution is to stretch available water resources as far as possible.
Essentially an array of hoses punctured at intervals with tiny holes and set along the bed of a garden or field, drip irrigation systems are designed to pinpoint and apply water precisely where it’s needed for a crop to grow best.
Over the next three years, MásRiego aims to distribute 3,000 drip irrigation systems to farmers across the Guatemalan highlands and to train them to use and maintain the systems on their own.
It’s a tall order in a region of the country only now recovering from the decades-long civil war that decimated people and infrastructure, but if it succeeds, MásRiego could become a major model for farmers struggling against climate change the world over.
The Guatemalan highlands, or “altos,” are ground zero in the battle against the effects of climate change on small-scale farmers. Here, where more than three-quarters of the population lives below the poverty line, major players in international development and agricultural innovation are working to adapt small-scale farming to increasingly volatile and ultimately arid weather, the inescapable hallmarks of climate change in the 21st century.
Guatemala is among the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change—and it can do little to stop the phenomenon. The country contributes only 0.5 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Bank. Almost half its population of 16 million lives in rural areas like the altos, and for the agricultural producers like Pedro Esteban (pictured) who farm both for subsistence and to earn a livelihood, access to water is an issue of survival.
To be able to farm the rocky soil, Esteban and his family worked incredibly hard to bring in water from elsewhere. Through thin hoses stretching across craggy countryside, they transport water to their farm from a river more than six miles away using only the power of gravity.
In the altos, rainfall has always been inconsistent, but on top of this perennial concern, farmers in the region say they are already witnessing the effects of climate change, making their access to water more unpredictable. Even under the most optimistic projections, the World Bank suggests that “the expansion of semi-arid areas” and “an intensification of the heat wave period” will have “serious implications for agriculture” in the highlands, making it more difficult for farmers like Esteban to eke out a livelihood from the land.
Project manager Meagan Terry (left) and coordinator José García inspect a model garden for MásRiego. “Shorter rainy seasons and when it comes, rainfall so intense that it sometimes comes all at once and has disastrous effects on cultivation, these types of changes that are caused by climate change force farmers to find ways to adapt,” says García. “Our idea is to teach farmers to use water as efficiently as possible to achieve the best yield possible.”
Over three years, MásRiego will work to deploy 3,000 new drip irrigation systems in the Guatemalan altos and train farmers to use them. Compared with sprinkling or other more traditional forms of irrigation, experts say that a well-run drip irrigation system can ensure that up to 90 percent of the water applied to a crop is consumed by the intended plants and only those plants (up from 50 to 75 percent in traditional irrigation techniques). Coming out of President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative and led by the Horticulture Innovation Lab at the University of California, Davis, and a host of additional partners, MásRiego is hoping to marshal resources and collective know-how to come up with an answer for how small-scale farmers globally can survive in the face of climate change.
Beyond drip irrigation and water management, the project aims to introduce other techniques for sustainable agriculture. “A lot of MásRiego’s work is aimed at developing holistic systems,” says Terry. “That includes conservation agriculture and using different techniques that allow us to capture natural resources that are typically thought of as waste, like fertilizer from goats, or using mulch or leaves from the forest as cover for the garden bed.”
Complicating the issue, for 36 years the Guatemalan civil war decimated the population, economy, and infrastructure of the altos. From 1960 to 1996, war raged across the region between a U.S.-backed military regime and leftist rebel groups made up primarily of the indigenous Maya population and the rural poor more generally.
In 1980, the Guatemalan army undertook “Operation Sophia,” which aimed to eliminate the rural civilian support for the leftists. The program targeted the Mayan population, and in the ensuing years, the army destroyed more than 600 villages, killed or “disappeared” more than 200,000 people, and displaced an additional 1.5 million, according to a United Nations–sponsored report.
María Luiz Tiña (above) lives in the capital city of the Quiché department, where the Maya represent almost 90 percent of the population. “We all farm during the rainy season,” Tiña says. “I grow corn and beans, but when the rain ends, I don’t have any other way to get water. If I tried to grow, everything would die. So I do this.” Tiña and her daughter Anita rent land during the rainy season to grow corn and beans for their subsistence, selling what they don’t eat. The rest of the year she works reselling produce from elsewhere in the city market and struggling to make ends meet.
MásRiego will step in where Tiña needs a hand: by helping farmers in the region stretch water resources as far as possible, making it more feasible to cultivate year-round and increasing yields. Here, MásRiego coordinator García (right) discusses cultivation techniques with José María Reyes, a farmer in the remote community of Palquí.
“We have a very serious problem here,” said Reyes. “The water has a high salt content, so over time it clogs the little hoses.” Reyes has been part of other projects like MásRiego in the past—that’s how he already has his own drip irrigation system. In the early aughts, another development project went around the altos giving away drip irrigation systems, and for the first few years, it worked great, Reyes says. Since then, an unknown saline compound has been building up in the hoses, drastically reducing the amount of water they allow through.
“When we’re talking about technology adoption, one of the things that we’re always concerned about is, once the project is finished, will the farmers still have access to those technologies?” says Daniel Bailey, agriculture development officer at USAID and one of the designers of the MásRiego project. For MásRiego, “I wanted to focus more on connecting the suppliers more directly with the farmers so that when the project was finished, there would be a lasting connection,” he says. To that end, the MásRiego project involves training youths from across the altos to act as intermediaries to connect farmers with the drip irrigation hardware suppliers.
Everyone agrees: If all goes as planned, countries around the world facing the imminent shock of climate change stand to gain from their own MásRiego. Only time will tell. And time and the scarcity of water that it brings are what the farmers in the altos are running out of.