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Guatemala: Adapting to climate change

GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala is one of the top 10 countries most affected by climate change and one of the most vulnerable to natural disasters, according to the Global Climate Risk Index.

The Central American nation’s geographical position, straddling three tectonic plates and two oceans, leaves it prone to tropical storms, droughts, hurricanes and earthquakes, which have been occurring with increasing frequency over the past decade.

In 2005, Hurricane Stan swept through Guatemala leaving more than 1,500 people dead, 500,000 victims and damages estimated at $989 million.

In 2010, Pacaya Volcano erupted, scattering volcanic ash and debris across Guatemala City, bringing economic life in the capital of 1.5 million residents to a standstill. Two days later, Tropical Storm Agatha hit, leaving an equally expensive cleanup operation.

“[Natural disasters] have had serious consequences for the country: loss of infrastructure due to landslides and floods, loss of harvest causing food shortages and loss of natural space,” said José Luis Rivera, coordinator of Guatemala’s Climate Change Unit, an initiative set up by the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry. “In the last decade we have suffered dry spells and floods that have caused loss of life and severe socioeconomic damage, in addition to putting rural communities, especially women, children and indigenous populations at risk.”

Guatemala rains

Natural disasters like these 2011 floods in the department of Escuintla, 100 km south of Guatemala City, are becoming increasingly common in Guatemala, one of the world’s 10 countries most affected by climate change. Johan Ordóñez/AFP

But it’s not just Guatemala’s geographical location that leaves it susceptible: Poor housing, high malnutrition and unemployment also conspire to make the country’s inhabitants more vulnerable, with indigenous communities and farmers among the most affected.

The effects of climate change are already visible: rainy season (mid-May to mid-October) starts later and finishes earlier, and downpours are concentrated into shorter periods of time, often triggering landslides and flooding of entire towns.

However, despite the extreme weather phenomena, the country generates one of the lowest carbon-emissions rates per capita. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean determined that all Central American countries combined contribute less than 0.5 percent of global greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

In 1998, with help from the World Environment Fund, Guatemala started to look at adaptation and mitigation techniques to minimize the adverse effects of climate change. Three years later it established a Climate Change Unit, which works with various government agencies to strengthen national action plans and implement programs to protect the most vulnerable communities while reducing CO2 emissions.

Guatemala landslide

Five of Angela Saravia’s relatives were buried in a landslide at Boca del Monte, Guatemala, 22 km south of the capital, on Oct. 16, 2011. Experts say Guatemala is one of the countries that will be most affected by climate change, and the poorest of the poor will suffer most. Johan Ordóñez/AFP

Deforestation is one of Guatemala’s main environmental problems. Thirty-four percent of the country is covered with forests, which are difficult to patrol, and since many rural communities rely on wood for cooking, cutting down trees is a profitable business. According to regional data from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, from 1990-2005 Guatemala lost 17.5 percent of its woodland, equivalent to 7.5 percent of the country’s total geographical area.

Over the past few years, the government’s National Council of Protected Areas has implemented a number of projects focused of reducing deforestation to protect biological diversity and different ecosystems. Its latest program, GuateCarbón, in the Biosfera Maya Reserve, which covers approximately 700,000 hectares in the north of the country, aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 30 million tons over the next 30 years.

“[GuateCarbón] will strengthen patrols by contracting more forest rangers, support environmental justice in [the northern department of] Petén and control forest fires,” said Carlos Bonilla, director of Guatemala’s Climate Change Unit. “On the production side, [the program] will work with small and medium-sized businesses that use the forest for products other than wood, such as chewing gum, nuts and pepper.”

In addition to the various national and international projects to conserve biodiversity and protect natural resources, several of the country’s universities recently have started offering climate change courses to equip students with the knowledge needed to tackle climate-related natural disasters. Many nongovernmental organizations also work with rural communities on local projects such as genetically modified crops that can withstand extreme weather, including drought-resistant beans and flood-resistant maize.

“The seeds have been developed by ICTA [The Institute of Science and Agricultural Technology] in coordination with small producers,” said Ana María Palomo González, coordinator of the National Climate Change Forum (Mesa Nacional de Cambio Climático in Spanish). “They’ve recovered and liberated 45 varieties of potato seeds, three varieties of yucca seeds, 18 varieties of bean seeds that are resistant to drought and soil salinity, and 25 varieties of maize. In the past three years there have been fewer crops lost.”

While the Guatemalan government encourages “Producción más limpia” (cleaner-technology production) and is in the process of implementing a low-emissions development strategy, it has yet to establish up-to-date environmental legislation.

In 2009, the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry presented Guatemalan lawmakers with a climate change bill to reduce vulnerability, force adaptation and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. But despite numerous readings of the bill and several rewrites, four years later it still has not become law.

Environmentalists hope new legislation will be passed later this year to encourage a higher level of environmental protection across the board, by holding all Guatemalans accountable for tackling the effects of climate change in their country. 

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