Covering six countries and stretching for more than 1600 kilometres, the Central American Dry Corridor is one of the world’s harshest climate hotspots. Home to around 11 million people, nearly a decade of drought has fuelled not only poverty and hunger, but is one of the main drivers of migration northwards to the United States.
Central America’s Pacific coast has long been a dry area, but climate change, unpredictable rainfall patterns and more frequent El Niño events have hit farmers hard. The World Bank predicts up to four million climate refugees will flee the area by 2050.
Now, an initiative by the European Union’s DeSIRA programme is bringing hope to more than three thousand small-scale farmers and their families across Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. DeSIRA - which stands for Development Smart Innovation through Research in Agriculture - has put €6 million into the AgroInnova project which aims to help farmers become more resilient to the devastating impacts of climate change.
The two-year project combines agroforestry with crop diversification to show farmers that a sustainable, more productive future is possible. But this is no theoretical exercise - demonstration plots have been established in all six countries so farmers can see for themselves how to grow drought-resistant varieties. At the same time, nurseries are providing seedlings for future tree planting.
“Agroforesty systems combine trees and crops,” explains Cecilia Guerra, a postgraduate student working for the Costa Rica-based Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), one of two partners helping to implement the project. “Today these systems represent a real option for the dry corridor. It’s an innovative solution - in the short term we are growing alternative crops to feed ourselves, and in the long term we have the timber. The trees we grow in the nursery act as a kind of money in the bank for the future.”
The demonstration plots also provide much-needed food for local communities which are still suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic. “We opened food banks to support the most vulnerable people in need,” says Guillermo Destlefsen, an agroforestry systems specialist with CATIE. “The food banks are supplied with fresh produce from the demonstration plots. We just adapted the plots to provide the food that was needed.”
Guillermo highlights the role of demonstration plots in the Turrialba and Coronado districts of Costa Rica, where the food banks supplied corn, beans, cassava, sweet potatoes, plantain, pumpkins and bananas to households with limited access to food. “We are demonstrating social responsibility and solidarity towards the communities near the demonstration plots,” he says. “This diversified agroforestry production model guarantees the production of quality food year-round, whilst providing thousands of producers with training in the use of innovations to improve resilience and sustainable production.”
The pandemic also provided an unexpected opportunity to use tech solutions to help farmers and rural communities. AgroInnova’s other implementation partner, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), developed an app designed to provide up-to-date information on biosafety measures, protect the health of workers in the farming and food supply chain, and ensure food supplies were kept running.
With the AgroInnova project scheduled to end in 2023, results are already looking promising. According to IICA, more than one hundred demonstration plots have been set up covering nearly eighty hectares. In 2021 alone, local farmers made more than three thousand visits to learn from AgroInnova experts how to implement new agricultural technologies and good practices.
“We’re teaching integrated crop management, water capture and irrigation, soil restoration, improving seeds for human and animal food, harnessing service trees and generating bio-inputs,” says Pedro Avendaño Soto, IICA’s project coordinator. “We aim to improve production, increase food security and adapt farming practices in the face of climate change. The focus is on technology transfer, good agricultural practices and innovations in agroforestry systems - including rural women and young people - as well as professional development for agricultural specialists and technicians.”
Innovation and technology transfer are key to the long-term survival of farming communities in the Dry Corridor. A recent workshop organised by IICA and CATIE brought together 44 technical specialists as the first steps to creating an Agroforestry Regional Technical Network to take work forward after the AgroInnova project ends in 2023.
“In agroforestry systems, there are many lessons learned,” CATIE’s Director General Muhammad Ibrahim told the workshop. “Documenting and systematising the experiences that exist in the countries of one of the most resilient systems is what we see as the main focus to optimise production and benefits, including mitigation of and adaptation to climate change and addressing the issue of biodiversity conservation”.
For the millions of hard pressed farmers of the Central American Dry Corridor, that help can’t come soon enough. According to a recent report from the World Food Programme, about two-thirds of the rural population of the Dry Corridor live in poverty, and the average income is just US$177 a month. In addition to the €6 million funding of AgroInnova, the European Commission recently pledged an extra €5 million to help with food assistance and nutrition, health, water and sanitation, and protection in the region.
Despite the challenges, AgroInnova has demonstrated the value of innovative tech combined with traditional local know-how. As IICA Director General Manuel Otero points out, “Without science and technology, it would be very difficult for agriculture to meet the productive, environmental and social challenges it faces. Farming produces food for the world’s population, and it requires all the support it can get to incorporate technological advances."
Photos available from IICA and CATIE.