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JOCOTAN, Guatemala (Reuters) – The back-to-back hurricanes destroyed a small patch of corn that helped Tomasa Mendoza feed her five children in a tiny hamlet nestled in the impoverished mountains of eastern Guatemala.
Even before the storms buried her crop in mud last month, Mrs. Mendoza’s husband had not worked for months after day-laboring coffee plantation jobs dried up during the coronavirus pandemic.
With food increasingly scarce, the children cry from hunger and are losing weight. One has a cough that will not go away.
To survive, Mrs. Mendoza is selling her chickens to buy grains of corn. She only has five hens left. Each will fetch $4.
“When they are gone, I’ll have nothing,” said Mrs. Mendoza, a thin 34-year-old who lives in the El Naranjo hamlet in Jocotan municipality, bordering Honduras.
Jocotan sits in a Latin American region known as the Dry Corridor, which runs from southern Mexico and down to Panama, crossing parts of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua along the way. It includes some of the areas that are most vulnerable to food shortages in the Western Hemisphere, pounded by year-after-year of crop-destroying droughts.
On an October visit by Reuters to Jocotan, families said they had already reduced their diet to a few tortillas, wild weeds and herbs, and occasionally beans or an egg.
Worried parents described days without food and taking on debt to buy even staples of the Guatemalan diet as small government and charity handouts were running low.
Then in the first half of November, Hurricanes Eta and Iota brought weeks of incessant rain, washing out bridges, toppling power lines and wrecking crops in Jocotan and across a wide swath of Central America.
The pandemic has compounded the problems. With measures to contain the coronavirus cutting off supplementary income for many, the number of people who suffer from severe food shortages has sharply increased across rural areas of Guatemala and Honduras.
In Guatemala, the problem is particularly severe. Even before the storms hit, some 3.7 million people—or more than a fifth of the population—were already suffering high levels of acute food insecurity, according to a report prepared for a United Nations hunger tracking body by the government’s Food and Nutritional Security Secretariat. The UN defines acute food insecurity as food shortages that put people’s lives or livelihoods in immediate danger. Nearly half a million of those people were considered to be in a situation of emergency, the report said.
The report forecast a reduction in levels of hunger by early 2021, but it has not yet been updated to reflect the storms, which have been estimated as causing $5.5 billion of losses in Central America.
Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei, overwhelmed by the scale of the damage, urged Washington in November to exempt Guatemalans arriving in the United States from deportation.
The droughts were a contributing factor to the mass migrations north in the past few years, and as Iota bore-down on the region on November 16, Mr. Giammattei reminded wealthy nations that if they do not step up to help Central America’s economies recover from the storms, they would face “hordes” of new migrants.
The number of U.S. migrants from Central America is already ticking up to pre-pandemic levels.
But for most in Jocotan, moving to the United States is not an option: the journey’s typical cost of up to $14,000 is simply too expensive. Instead, they are trapped in cut-off villages, with little government aid, and diminishing supplies of food.
“We can’t migrate, because that requires money,” said Mrs. Mendoza, speaking outside a modest home built of mud and sticks.
The effects are also felt in other countries through which the Dry Corridor runs, including in Honduras, which had 1.65 million people suffering high levels of acute food insecurity, or food shortages, according to a report prepared by the Honduran government using the same UN classification of hunger.
With large parts of Central America reeling from storm damage, coronavirus outbreaks and the fallout of years of drought, aid agencies seemed daunted by the scale of the task to keep people from tipping into extreme poverty.
“The combination of emergencies makes the emergency quadruple,” said Felipe Del Cid, operations manager for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, based in Panama. “The recovery could take years.”
The United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) forecasts that the fallout from coronavirus could push the number of people going hungry globally to 270 million by the end of the year—up 82 percent from before the pandemic. Latin America is the hardest hit region, the WFP said, reporting an almost three-fold rise in the number of people requiring food assistance.
The wider province that includes Jocotan is one of the worst affected in Guatemala, with four times the number of people suffering from severe food insecurity in May 2020 compared to a year earlier, according to data collected by international aid agency Oxfam.
The lessons of those who have tried to move away are chastening. The Ramirez family, in neighboring La Palmilla sold part of their land two years ago to pay for a trip to the United States. They were deported, and now cannot grow enough to eat on their remaining plot.
La Palmilla is now cut off from the rest of Jocotan after a bridge collapsed in the storms.
For many families in the area, children were already classified as malnourished after almost a decade of drought—some were even hospitalized for treatment. When the pandemic hit, even households that used to scrape by began skipping meals, seven families interviewed by Reuters said.
Guatemala’s informal economy, where 70 percent of the population works, has practically collapsed. Even before the pandemic struck, some 69 percent of the population lived in poverty, government data shows, with the share in rural areas as high as 80 percent.