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Tackling climate change in coastal communities

As the effects of climate change build in Central America, approximately 10 million people who live in coastal areas across the region face an uncertain future.

Central America contributes only about 0.3 percent of world’s annual net carbon emissions, but widespread poverty, lack of infrastructure and high concentrations of people in vulnerable areas like coastlines mean the region stands to suffer disproportionately from the negative effects of global climate chaos.

A new program, Manos a la Costa, developed by the Foundation for Peace and Democracy (Funpadem) and armed with a €700,000 ($866,000) donation from the European Union, aims to help vulnerable coastal communities develop and implement strategies to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

“We have to help [the vulnerable populations of Central America] build up their abilities,” said Milena Berrocal, who presented on climate change and Manos a la Costa at Funpadem’s San José office on Wednesday. “Those abilities include learning how to be less vulnerable to climate change, how to resolve issues without waiting for the government to do it, and how to take action to deal with what will ultimately affect us in our communities.”

A report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean released in March indicates that by the end of this century, average temperatures will increase  between 2.4 and 4 degrees Celsius across the region, affecting agricultural production and rainfall patterns. Some areas, like Costa Rica’s northwestern Guanacaste region, will become hotter and dryer, while the southern Caribbean coast will see receive much more rain, the study found. 

The frequency of hurricanes and tropical storms is expected to increase some 5 to 10 percent across Central America by the end of the century. In 2009, some 700,000 Central Americans were affected by flooding, and that number is expected to increase in coming years.

In coastal areas, Berrocal said, increasing temperatures and rising ocean levels will negatively affect mangroves and coral reefs, which serve as protective barriers to coastal communities.

Mangroves and coral reefs are also crucial habitats for marine life – commercially important fish species reproduce and grow in mangroves, and reefs are hotspots of marine biodiversity.

Small-scale fishermen in vulnerable coastal communities depend on local fisheries, which need reefs and mangroves to regenerate populations. When these areas go, people who depend on them will be left without resources to feed their families. The Manos a la Costa program is targeting these  communities, Berrocal said.

Ten communities across the region have been selected to participate in the program, including Barra del Colorado, a Caribbean coastal fishing village, and Tortuguero, also located on the northeastern coast of Costa Rica. Other sites were selected in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Panama.

“We’ve working with populations that rely on agricultural economies or small-scale fishing,” Berrocal said, “as well as tourism and communities near important ecosystems. … These communities depend on resources from those ecosystems to survive.”

The program is still in its initial phase, explained Cecilia Cortés, executive director of Funpadem. To date, communities have been selected and scientists from the National Biodiversity Institute are analyzing the ecosystems and potential climate-change threats specific to each community. When complete, those studies will be the basis for community-developed plans of action. 

“These action plans are going to focus on mitigation or adaptation,” said Cortés. “Once community members decide on  actions and the type of plan they are going to implement, the program has a fund of €700,000 that is going to be destined to finance small donations to enact the plans.”

José Luis Martínez, business representative for the EU’s delegation to Costa Rica, said community-focused programs like Manos a la Costa have a better shot at becoming sustainable, long-term projects because of community involvement.

“Every project that comes from outside [a community] is going to encounter a lot of difficulties in getting local residents to identify with it,” Martínez said.

Martínez said EU aid to Central America from 2007-2013 will total more than $990 million, with about $148 million  earmarked for environmental initiatives.

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