The lush, green mountainside views and softly singing birds which Elvira Díaz enjoys each day as she cradles her young suckling child are enviable. But the stunning vistas and rural tranquility mask a harsh reality this indigenous Guatemalan mother faces: She’s worried her children may starve to death.
In years past, Díaz has grown enough fresh produce in the small family farm — called a milpa — to feed her children. She harvested enough even to cook and store for rainy months when the milpa is too soggy to produce. She is Mayan, from the Mam people of Guatemala, and her elders taught her to till her land based on a very precise knowledge of the weather. This subsistence indigenous community has survived like this going back as far as anyone can remember.
But in recent years that traditional knowledge has proved useless: The climate is dramatically changing, and for mothers like Díaz, her milpa had become an unproductive, festering sore.
Millions of people around the world don’t have a market nearby and subsist mostly on what they can grow themselves. Now, in these times when the weather is so much more variable and even extreme, subsistence farming isn’t providing enough to feed the family and chronic malnutrition is a grave risk for small children.
That’s the case in a region of Guatemala called Comitancillo, where the indigenous Mam people live. Díaz, dressed in her traditional Mam skirt and top, said she has faced tremendous difficulty keeping her six children healthy. This last year has been the hardest. All her children, but particularly her youngest, age 2, are malnourished. She has taken a lot of trips down the mountain to find a doctor.
There are no markets in Díaz’s town, San Luis. The family’s daily meals come straight from the milpa. It’s very green, but it’s also in shambles — it’s been destroyed by a massive hailstorm, she said.
The hail wasn’t the only weird weather recently.
“The past few months it has begun raining heavily at 10 a.m.,” she said. “The soil is too soft. It’s not normal.”
This worries her deeply because she hasn’t been able to properly feed her children. “If I can’t feed them anything nutritious, I’m afraid they will die of hunger,” she said.
It’s a story I heard all over this part of Guatemala.
Helio López teaches at a primary school in a nearby village. He said learning is a real challenge because many of his littlest students are malnourished.
“Their minds are focused on the hunger they feel, and they can’t concentrate on learning,” he said.
This teacher of slight build grew up here. Yet, he said, he’s now watching families struggle in ways that didn’t used happen.
“Before, our grandparents had an exact day on which they would plant and cultivate the land,” López said. “But if we follow the calendar they have always used, we won’t grow anything anymore.”
Midwife María Miranda Berduo said she sees the impact on children in her village. “Today there is so much sickness,” she said. “I think it’s because our weather is different. When it rains now, it’s really heavy. But it wasn’t like this before.”
Some in the community believe that the nonstop rain in the mountains of Comitancillo is making up for the previous years, when suddenly the annual rainy season didn’t come at all.
Edwin Castellanos, who runs the Center for the Study of the Environment and Biodiversity at the University of the Valley of Guatemala, in Guatemala City, says that’s not far from the reality.
“The last four years, not including the current year, have been extremely dry,” Castellanos says.
He says what the Mam elders notice as unusual weather is related to the El Niño cycle. That’s a natural phenomenon that causes swings between wetter and drier periods. But the latest was an unusually extreme swing between the two.
Scientists can’t yet say how much that kind of stronger El Niño cycle might be linked to climate change, but they do know that, in general, we’re seeing more extreme weather events around the world as the planet warms up.
And that means more and more people — and especially children — will suffer the consequences.
Castellano, who is Guatemala’s leading expert on climate change, says weather all over the country is already changing, and that the long-term projection is for less rainfall overall.
But, he warns, that too could have dire consequences unless communities find ways to adapt — which is what people in Comitancillio are trying to do.
Hiking up a mountain in this rural area, a little child dashes out and hands me a peach. He proudly points to some trees where it grew. Not long ago that would have been next to impossible in these cold mountains. But Estuardo Aguilón, of the Maya Mam Research and Development Association (AMMID, in its Spanish acronym) said the region is warming up.
“At this time of year it would be between 10 and 15 degrees centigrade (50 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit), now it gets up to 16 degrees (about 61 degrees Fahrenheit). It might not seem like much, but even half a degree hotter has generated so many changes,” Aguilón said.
Those changes are not all bad, Aguilón added. Warmer weather means better conditions for growing fruit. His job is to help people learn how to do it. AMMID is also helping introduce new crops like cauliflower and beets.
“These new crops contribute to the family’s vegetable gardens and to a more nutritious diet,” said Erwin Orozco, also from AMMID.
Orozco is helping families here set up new water capture systems to take advantage of the new torrential downpours.
“With climate change, families need to find ways to capture and save rainwater, and then reuse it to water their small plots of produce.”
At the top of the mountain, I reach a small home where I can see one of those new systems in action. A group of mothers and daughters are washing dishes and as they rinse the plates, the water from the sink goes to a holding tank for watering their milpa.
Near the mudbrick hut, Orozco takes a tarp off a full tank of rainwater. It’s part of a simple yet intricate system of gutters and pipes that he says can help families keep their milpa’s growing when it doesn’t rain.
But adaptation strategies like these are all works in progress, and elders here say it hasn’t been easy. They cost money and involve big changes to traditional ways. It’s one thing to grow new crops — but then how to cook them? And will kids actually eat them?
The family of a boy named Darwin has been giving some of these new adaptation strategies a try.
Darwin is a strapping little toddler. He lost his mother right after he was born so his grandmother, Ofelia Miranda Miranda, is raising him.
Miranda said Darwin was healthy when he was born. But he quickly lost weight when he got sick, and Miranda didn’t know what to do. She sought help from a community health worker.
First, Miranda said, she had to plant different crops. Then she learned she was cooking them all wrong, and losing all the nutrients. And worse still, Darwin didn’t want to eat what she cooked. Marroquín guided her through some new cooking techniques and even different ways to make the vegetables tasty for Darwin.
In her dark, mudbrick kitchen, Miranda blows on the coals of a small open fire which she is cooking on.
Darwin looks on eagerly as his grandmother stirs a pot of bubbling peach atol — a new twist on the traditional corn-based porridge, using stewed peaches from Miranda’s tree as a natural sweetener.
Miranda smiles, contended, as Darwin tucks into his bowl of atol. She comments on how much her grandson likes to eat now, how much healthier he is.
It’s a small sign that here in the mountains of Guatemala, where so many kids have been battered by extreme weather and the changing climate, that efforts to adapt to the changes might be helping.
Miranda also wants to know when she might get help building a water catchment system. She’s heard they work, and she’d like one. Marroquín dutifully notes the request and promises to add Miranda to the list.
The reporting for this story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.