In a rural mountain village in El Salvador, Oxfam partners lend a hand to families struggling with El Niño
In early March, I traveled with staff from our partner FUNDESA to the tiny settlement of San Pablo in eastern El Salvador. The road to the village is a treacherous climb—just 12 kilometers from the nearest town, but a full hour’s drive in a 4X4 pickup. It was easy to imagine pitching over the side of the mountain if our tires lost their grip on the dirt and cobbles beneath us, and I didn’t like to think about what it would be like to make this trip in the pouring rain. Still, here in a region known as the dry corridor of Central America, rain would be welcome.
This road has seen its share of disasters. During the war, there were guerrilla camps nearby, and the villages here came under heavy fire. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch triggered landslides that blocked the road with rocks and earth that, according to a community leader, took eight years to clear away. Now, these communities are facing an emergency ushered in by El Niño: drought that has ruined the harvests they depend on.
El Niño is the periodic warming of Pacific water temperatures off the coast of South America that can disrupt weather patterns around the world. It triggers rain in some areas and drought in others. This year’s “super El Niño” has left more than 60 million people around the world facing shortages of food and water. More than three million of them live in Central America. That day we were on our way to visit one struggling community that’s getting some help.
When our truck could get no closer to the village center, we parked it and hiked in along a narrow path that took us through the woods and along the edge of a ravine. Nearly 100 people were there to meet us; most came to receive voucher cards that would enable each family to buy $61.50 worth of food at a supermarket in the town of San Francisco Gotera. The World Food Program (WFP) is working with Oxfam and a team of Salvadoran partners to make this happen. It’s a stopgap measure, but the three voucher distributions planned for the next three months could make a difference to families that have been struggling to feed their children from one disappointing harvest to the next. We hope to reach more than 3,200 families in all.
Relief in sight
After the card distribution, we had a chance to visit one of the participating families. Maria Guzman and Pablo Hernandez have six children, two of whom have been diagnosed with malnutrition. Guzman and Hernandez are devoted and affectionate parents, and they are very worried about their family’s health.
“Hunger is a stress that you’re carrying all the time,” said Hernandez. “You want to give everything to your children.”
“When I take the children to the clinic,” said Guzman, “they tell us to prepare soup for them before they go to school.” But she can’t do it. She and her husband have to pay back the money they borrowed for planting their crops, even though their first harvest last year was very poor. That doesn’t leave them enough extra to supplement their daily diet of corn, beans, and eggs.
They’re relieved that something is about to change. “I’ll give the children rice and vegetables and cereal and milk in the morning,” said Guzman, and she’ll send them off to school with fruit to eat. “We don’t often buy apples,” she said, “but the children love them.”
We said farewell to the family and headed back to San Salvador, stopping briefly at the supermarket where in a week, the participants from San Pedro will trade their vouchers for food. Another community group with WFP vouchers was purchasing food that afternoon, and the mood was festive. Francisca Ramírez of nearby San Simone was one of the participants. She stood on the sidewalk with her neighbors—each with big sack of food—waiting for a truck to take them home. She turned to me and said, “I’m so happy, I want to cry.”