Oxfam’s Elizabeth Stevens visited villages in El Salvador, where crops have been badly damaged by drought and heavy rains—and where a food voucher program has made a difference.
The roads in the mountains of Usulután, El Salvador, are narrow and twisting. On one side you might see a hillside so steep you’d need all fours to climb it; on the other, a landscape of staggering beauty, traced by graceful raptors gliding across the valleys.
It is lovely to look at, but for the people who live here—farmers trying to grow enough food to survive—this is a harsh place to call home. Natural hazards like earthquakes and hurricanes pose deadly risks, and violence and insecurity take a heavy toll on poor communities. Since 2012, successive years of drought—combined with the spread of a fungus that devastated coffee plantations—have brought the rural economy to its knees, and there have been times when even the most resilient families have faced despair.
The crisis intensified in 2015, when the El Niño weather pattern deepened into one of the strongest in decades. Many farmers lost their crops of corn and beans, which left them without food, cash, or the means to invest in the next growing season. In some cases, they no longer have an affordable source of water.
“Now even if the weather were right,” said farmer José Martínez, “we wouldn’t be able to plant a cornfield because we don’t have the resources.”
Hungry days and sleepless nights
For parents, the struggle to put food on the table has been acutely painful.
Rosa Yaneth Chávez, a mother of six who lives near the Salvadoran town of Berlin, describes the hardship of 2015. “We lost everything,” she said. “Sometimes we ate two meals, sometimes one. We went to bed without eating. You can’t even sleep, thinking about what you are going to give your children. My children got sick from malnutrition.”
América López Henríquez, a widowed mother of three who lives in nearby San Juan Loma Alta is sure her children are struggling with malnutrition, as well. She lifted her son’s shirt revealing large brown spots across his belly. “He’s had headaches and fever and a rash,” she said.
“The crisis has driven mothers to send very young children to school because there is nothing to eat at home,” said Yesenia Guerrero, a health promoter for Oxfam partner PRO-VIDA. There, she said, “they could get a glass of milk and some rice and beans. But the schools ran out of food long before the end of the year.”
By September, the rains had arrived, but they were unusually heavy, and in some areas they badly damaged the second harvest of the year.
Henríquez’s resources were exhausted. “We put in a few beans,” she said, “but there was too much rain, and now they are rotting.”
As the harvest failed, a lifeline
But for a time, Chávez and Henríquez and many mothers like them had a respite from their struggles: Oxfam partner PRO-VIDA launched an emergency voucher program to help 500 acutely vulnerable families in El Salvador purchase food and hygiene essentials. For three consecutive months, they had a chance to buy what they needed at a small local supermarket.
PRO-VIDA program manager Karen Ramírez ran the project, and I joined her when she visited the communities to hear feedback. People had a few suggestions for improvement—that more people have a chance to participate, for example—but the appreciations were strong: “The aid came on time,” said Gregorio Flores, vice president of a local development association. “I think everything about this program was excellent.”
After each gathering, I took a participant aside to hear her story.
Henríquez told me she received vouchers for $78 each month—an amount based on the size of her family—and with them she bought beans, corn, oil, sugar, milk, bread, soap, and toothpaste.
Chávez’s supplies included cereal. “The children have to walk one and half hours to get to school. Before this program, they had to do this without anything in their stomachs.” The vouchers, she said, were a huge help. “We are immensely grateful. All the families are.”
My eyes stung as I wrote down their words and thought about what it would be like to watch my own daughter or anyone else’s child go hungry, even for a day.
Searching for solutions
Funds for the vouchers have run out, and the disappointing second harvest means that for many, the crisis continues. The immediate needs are urgent, but so is the longer-term need to help communities build resilience in the face of climate disruptions.
“Our corn and beans are too delicate. Can someone help us find alternatives?” asked Guerrero.
Without water, there can be no crops or grass, and without grass there can be no livestock, said Flores. “Maybe we should focus on building a reservoir, or on catching rainwater for drip irrigation systems.”
Ramírez listened to all the ideas and thought about which she could help them find funding and support for.
One thing is clear: the communities know best what they are up against, and in the search for solutions, their voices and leadership are critical. But to be effective, they need to work together and learn how to maximize their influence. Before she said farewell on her last visit of the day, Ramírez reminded community members that their power lies in collective action.
“This is not the time to act as individuals,” she said. “This is the time to organize.”
Oxfam aims to assist more than 85,000 people in Central America who are struggling with the El Niño crisis, with programs to reduce malnutrition risks and to help farmers get back on their feet.