by Andrea Basche
Here at Restoration and Resilience, we’re interested in more than just wetlands. We are also involved in efforts to protect Louisiana’s people from the hazards associated with life on the Gulf Coast. Hurricanes and floods are ingrained into the cultural history of the region, and its residents are actively designing strategies and products to mitigate the effects of those natural disasters.
The Pelican State potentially could serve as a model for other parts of the world that deal with periodic storms and deluges. As a hub for consulting, engineering, and planning firms, Louisiana’s coastal zone could one day be the epicenter for idea generation on hazard protection.
We will be exploring this theme in a new series called “Climate and Society Column.” The contributors will be students and graduates of the Climate and Society program at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. They will be sharing their insights on climate-sensitive parts of the world, and the potential opportunities for partnership between those regions and coastal Louisiana.
Our first C&S contributor will be Andrea Basche, a 2010 graduate of the Climate and Society program who focuses on sustainable agriculture in the developing world.
2010 was a year marked by extreme and unpleasant weather around the world. There were many headlines covering the extensive floods in Pakistan, the severe snowstorms in the United States, and the punishing droughts in Russia, but in Guatemala, where I spent several weeks working on rural development, it was a late spring storm and its aftermath that resonated most.
Wacky weather always has affected human societies, but the wild card in our forecasts for the coming decades is climate change. Scientists are researching how global warming will affect the variability of seasonal and inter-annual climate trends. Climate change creates tremendous uncertainty about the projected impacts of hurricanes and other seasonal weather events.
The consequences of this uncertainty are arguably most significant for developing countries. It’s because those nations often depend on agriculture and other economic activities that are extremely sensitive to climate. An unusually heavy rainstorm might cause headaches in Calgary, but it is unlikely to cut off the city’s access to the rest of Canada. By contrast, a heavy downpour in Central America could leave a dirt road impassable for days, making it impossible for rural producers to ship their perishable produce to market. As a result, adaptation and planning for extreme weather events is a critical component of development in the world’s poorer countries.
The people of Guatemala will need tools and training to protect themselves from floods and mudslides when heavy rain events do occur. During the next several decades, they will forge links with companies and organizations to develop the necessary infrastructure for community resilience. The Gulf Coast of the United States, given its own history of hurricanes, can and should be an obvious partner for Guatemala in these efforts.
Sustainable Growth in San Miguel Escobar
Sandwiched between Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, Guatemala is situated between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The Tennessee-sized nation is home to more than 14 million people, making it the largest country by population in Central America.
Agriculture plays an important role in Guatemala’s economy. About half of the country’s 4.3 million workers depend on farming for their livelihoods, but the nation ranks low in food security. While Guatemala is far from the poorest country in Latin America, it ranks high in income inequality and youth malnutrition. To address these challenges, nonprofits like As Green As It Gets (AGAIG), for which I volunteered last summer, have stepped in to work with Guatemala’s rural residents on sustainable agriculture and economic diversification.
As Green As It Gets is based in San Miguel Escobar, a town in the western department of Sacatepéquez. San Miguel Escobar lies in a valley encircled by several mountains. On the steep hillsides surrounding the town, its inhabitants grow coffee for foreign markets, along with maize, wheat, and vegetables for domestic consumption. The workers and volunteers at AGAIG partner with San Miguel Escobar's farmers to improve agricultural yields and increase access to microlending.
As Green As It Gets began its work six years ago by offering small business loans for new entrepreneurial enterprises. These small businesses were entirely overseen by the local community, and they allowed the villagers to try new ventures. The program has been successful, and other side businesses, such as the sale of locally-produced cosmetics, handbags and jewelry, now provide additional income for families in the community. However, it is still the cultivation and export of coffee and others rain-fed crops that dominate the economic life of San Miguel Escobar.
For that reason, a weather event that displaces workers, impedes travel or diminishes agricultural productivity can be disastrous for the town. Unfortunately, a tropical storm last spring accomplished all three of those economic traumas in the space of a few hours.
In the next post of this series, we’ll look back at Tropical Storm Agatha and its effect on San Miguel Escobar and other Guatemalan communities.
Andrea Basche is a researcher and teaching assistant at Columbia University's Earth Institute. She works on projects at the intersection of climate adaptation and agricultural development, with a particular focus on Latin America and Southeast Asia. A graduate of Fordham and Columbia, Ms. Basche has also written posts for the Wall Street Journal's Metropolis blog and the Earth Institute's Climate Matters blog.