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Understanding the Dry Corridor’s challenges is key to supporting smallholder farmers

By William Wallis

July 18, 2022   |   0 comments

To help smallholder farmers in the Dry Corridor expand, development projects must understand the challenges of their context  

Five experts weigh in on what it takes to link low-income subsistence-based farmers with larger, more lucrative markets in Central America’s dry corridor. 

Subsistence-based smallholders from the Northern Triangle region of Central America face many challenges. The dry corridor, a mountainous area that cuts across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, faces severe weather conditions, including drought, which affect the first harvest, or primera. The hurricane season affects the second harvest, the postrera. Farmers in these communities can lose up to 60 percent of their harvest as a result of extreme weather events and climate change. As a result, governments in the region have declared a state of emergency for the past six years, and humanitarian agencies have classified the region as a crisis zone with alarming levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. 

These conditions of food insecurity and hunger are clearly among the key drivers of emigration in the dry corridor. With the right support and the adoption of tried and tested climate smart practices, however, farmers have seen their yields increase, allowing them to feed their families and go to market to make a profit. 

Governments and donors alike are now focused on increasing smallholder farmer resilience to climate shocks in the Dry Corridor. In addition, they are promoting local economic development, food security and livelihoods programs to prevent extremely poor farmers from the region from joining the next migrant caravan. Nonetheless, these programs need to understand how to effectively link smallholder farmers with markets and know the tradeoffs farmers face regarding food security. 

Risk-averse subsistence-level farmers are primarily focused on feeding their families and withstanding shocks such as extreme weather events like drought, hurricanes or the global covid pandemic. Helping farmers under these conditions to thrive and not just survive requires a holistic, pragmatic and realistic approach. 

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Where there are challenges, there is also hope 

We asked experts from Creative Associates International, Heifer International and Mexico’s Sabiduría Rural (Rural Wisdom) to discuss the challenges and opportunities for subsistence-level farmers in the Dry Corridor of Central America to effectively engage with markets. 

All the experts noted that Dry Corridor farmers’ resilience and capacity for adaptation are truly remarkable. With two planting seasons in case one fails, smallholders in the Dry Corridor are intercropping to diversify risk and investing in more lucrative crops. The farmers have also introduced a series of climate-smart techniques to preserve water and improve soil fertility. Some farmers have developed practices to prevent further soil erosion and land degradation in steep hillside plots. 

By facing challenges, we find opportunities. For example, household incomes of farmers in the Dry Corridor of Honduras increase when they selected more profitable and high-value crops. But they haven’t replaced key staple crops such as maize and beans, which are critical to food security with higher value crops. Instead, they are doing both. 

The introduction of okra as an in-demand crop to complement existing maize and bean farming systems in Southern Honduras has given many farmers in the region hope. Smallholder farmers grouped together through the Flor del Campo producer group in the community of El Naranjal are now working with an export company that provides credit, technical assistance and a secured market. The farmers have learned to comply with the buyer’s specifications. Okra needs to be between 3 and 4.5 inches and packaged in 7-kilogram boxes. The group now supplies up to 130 cases a week for a sale price of around $10 each. Despite having a very attractive cash crop, farmers continue to grow maize and beans for home consumption which was critical during the pandemic- when markets were completely disrupted, and farmers could not make an income. They had enough food to get through the lean season.  Thanks to improved yields resulting from adoption of good agricultural practices and especially water made available through rooftop rainwater harvesting systems, farmers in the dry corridor are becoming more resilient to climate change. 

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Below is a selection of answers from five experts about what it takes to link poor subsistence-based farmers with markets amidst the worsening effects of climate change in the Central American Dry Corridor. 
 

Access to markets and human capital in the Dry Corridor  

Francisco Aguirre Pineda and Mauricio Garcia de la Cadena, Sabiduría Rural 

 The challenges faced by small producers in the Central American Dry Corridor require interventions that simultaneously provide them with access to markets and development of human capital and productive assets. The greatest value in agriculture lies in the marketing of products, which is also the weakest link for small producers. Smallholder farmers receive help to improve yields and to plant but once they harvest, they don’t know where or how to sell.   

When there is an opportunity for small producers to access a larger market, they often cannot meet the specifications required by buyers. As a result, farmers sell to intermediaries or local merchants and traders who have that knowledge at the farm gate, and who therefore generate most of the profits. 

One of the greatest challenges in the Dry Corridor is increasing smallholder farmers’ resilience given their low yields. Under rain-fed agriculture, production is variable in quality and quantity because of a lack of humidity in critical periods. There are successful experiences in Central America worth sharing, particularly in regard to strategies for water conservation, rainwater harvesting and irrigation technologies. 

Another major challenge has been the dependence on commodities that are subject to international prices and the over-reliance of smallholder farmers on a single crop, for example, coffee. To meet these challenges, farmers have learned to add value and diversify their crops. Following the coffee rust crisis, Dry Corridor farmers are increasingly adopting agroforestry systems. 

One such example that is being encouraged through south-south cooperation between Mexico and the Dry Corridor countries is the Mexican model of the Milpa Interspersed with Fruit Trees (MIAF). Milpa farming in rural Mexico has been viewed as contrary to more profitable single-crop farming given its smaller volumes and its reliance on an abundance of family labor, which is now less reliable as younger family members migrate in search of better opportunities. However, the MIAF agroforestry systems interspersed with fruit trees, developed more than three decades ago by the Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias and the Colegio de Postgraduados in Agricultural Sciences and based on Maya farming techniques, has many advantages in terms of regenerative agriculture. It relies on agro-biodiversity and the use of live fences formed with fruit trees to reduce soil erosion. Ultimately, its goals are to increase family income and employment. These agroforestry systems are being adopted by farmers who are now sharing real-life experiences about the successes and challenges in conversations with other farmers facing similar threats leading to farmer led communities of practice- and best practices that are specific to the particularities of the ecological landscape.  

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Taking farmers from survival to success
 

 Carlos Roberto Hasbun, Senior Director, and Oscar Castaneda, Senior Vice President of the Americas, Heifer International 

 The challenges surrounding the economic and social development of subsistence farmers and their link with the market must be analyzed from a systemic and historical point of view to better understand the most strategic pathways to have a transformative, and therefore sustainable impact. 

Subsistence farmers live in a precarious world. When climatic and market conditions worsen, this population produces less food, the poverty belts in the cities widen, and the population flees the region. Furthermore, a high percentage of smallholder farmers do not own the land they work, and they have few incentives to increase production, much less to improve or restore the land. Conventional crops grown using traditional farming practices do not provide a necessary profit margin to make a difference or represent a substantial increase in family income. Farmers have little incentive to organize and formalize their operations and without access to low-cost financing to help improve production, introduce new products or access more lucrative markets, they become stuck in a cycle of subsistence farming. Entrepreneurship and technological innovation are largely nonexistent under these circumstances. 

The inhabitants of these hillside slopes in the Dry Corridor are food producers and are the basis of food security in these communities. With moderate but continuous investment, the soil on slopes and in marginal areas can be improved. The investment starts with cover crops, soil improvement and agricultural intensification. For a long time, Honduras has used these technologies and encouraged the farmer-to-farmer horizontal methodology, which represents the best way to promote technology for soil and water conservation in the Dry Corridor. In Honduras, the Quesungual agroforestry system has improved smallholder resilience, improved soil fertility and improved yields for more than 10 years. Evidence is being collected on its advantages as a model for regenerative agriculture. 

There is a short list of critical things that a farmer requires to generate more household income: better financial management techniques; use of basic business models; insights into leveraging remittances; access to credit; and introducing technology and information about markets and prices. As my colleagues also emphasize, successful farmers diversify into products with higher profit margins, which they can take control of the value added and reduce the number of intermediaries in the distribution process.  

 

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Seeing opportunities in Honduras
 

Jorge Lainez, Chief of Party, Honduras Dry Corridor Alliance, Creative Associates International 

 I have been living and working in the Honduran Dry Corridor for a long time, most recently implementing a World Bank-funded program based out of Choluteca. The dedication and determination of smallholder farmers never ceases to impress me, though I feel that they frequently fight an uphill battle to feed their families. 

Most recently, I have been working on a program called ACS-PROSASUR, which was funded by the World Bank and implemented by INVEST-H as part of the broader Dry Corridor Alliance project. The initiative addressed water scarcity, hygiene, child under-nutrition and rural livelihoods, and it aimed to lift 50,000 families out of extreme poverty by improving agricultural practices, offering health education and business support, among other interventions. Creative implemented programs in 12 municipalities in the departments of Choluteca y El Paraíso, working with 6,000 families. 

To learn more about the successes of the program, please see this interactive map. 

The challenges facing farmers in the Honduran Dry Corridor are many and well known. The main ones include: access to assets like land and water; access to agricultural inputs, improved agricultural practices and technologies; access to financial resources; access to markets in an inclusive and win-win commercial relationship, where the private company invests part of its funds in training and technical assistance to the least favored links in the value chain, such as the production link made by small producers; and training in the basics of marketing and business development services. 

Fortunately, farmers in the Dry Corridor are in a good position to grow their businesses, improve household income and improve living conditions in their communities. The area is conducive to crops of high economic value that are ideal for export, such as okra, melon, watermelon, sugar cane, cashew, mango, plum, tilapia and shrimp. The area has consolidated private companies with which public-private alliances can be established and funds leveraged to favor small producers. The area has technical production infrastructure, including the Port of Henecan, which provides access to international markets, and roads that are in relatively good condition, such as the dry canal, which links the southern area with the Atlantic coast of Honduras. Finally, the Dry Corridor borders with Nicaragua and El Salvador, both potential markets for almost all items produced by small holder farmers. 

Finally, the environment in the Dry Corridor is very fragile and it is critical that we keep this in mind. For ACS-PROSASUR, building climate resilience has become a central aspect of all programming. For example, if we worked with irrigation systems, water harvesting and micro irrigation systems, we had to consider the sustainability of those investments. For example, we can have irrigation systems, but we must make sure that the water that we use for the micro-irrigation systems is protected and managed. So, I’m talking about managing natural resources, and mainly water. 

William Wallis is a Senior Project Manager in Creative’s Economic Growth Division. 

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