Forced to diversify, Guatemalan farmers plant climate-hardy beans

As climate change causes more frequent and severe droughts, farmers are struggling to cope with dwindling crop yields that mean less food to eat, and in the worst cases, hunger

Anastasia MoloneyThomson Reuters Foundation
Published : 1 Nov 2023, 08:56 AM
Updated : 1 Nov 2023, 08:56 AM

On a steep terraced slope in the mountains of eastern Guatemala, Gloria Diaz and a group of fellow farmers punch holes in the soil with wooden spades to plant bean seeds that they pray will yield a bumper harvest.

Sufficient production of beans, which most Guatemalan villagers eat daily, is no longer guaranteed in Chiquimula, a poor rural province in the drought-prone Dry Corridor - a belt of land stretching across Central America.

"You just can't rely on the rain coming when you need it, and for beans you don't want too much rain," community leader Diaz said, standing beneath a cloudless sky in the town of Ipala about 200 km (124 miles) east of the capital, Guatemala City.

  • As climate change hits crops, villagers start to diversify

  • Farmers try new activities and plant hardier varieties

  • Biofortified beans used to combat malnutrition and drought

As climate change causes more frequent and severe droughts, as well as torrential and erratic rains, farmers are struggling to cope with dwindling crop yields that mean less food to eat, and in the worst cases, hunger.

In Chiquimula and other areas, they are turning to drought-resistant bean varieties bred to contain more zinc and iron to stem malnutrition, and are learning to grow other vegetables, raising chickens and pigs, and even becoming fish farmers and beekeepers to have alternative sources of food and income.

Two years ago, Diaz switched to a new bean variety, known as Chorti, which is touted for its drought and pest resilience. Chorti is named after one of the Indigenous Mayan peoples in the region.

"This bean can tolerate many days of no rain. Last year, it didn't rain for 24 days straight and the seedlings survived," said Diaz, who heads Amuprocaj, an association of 234 small-scale women farmers in Ipala.

"Chorti beans grow quicker than traditional beans ... and they taste good," said Diaz, as women beat dry weeds with sticks to turn them into an organic fertiliser left in the soil alongside trees planted to provide shade from the dry heat.

Due to its increased content of micronutrients, the Chorti bean is also being promoted as a way to help tackle high rates of anaemia and malnutrition among Guatemalan women and children.

In Guatemala, rates of stunted growth in children aged from 6 months to 59 months caused by chronic malnutrition are among the world's highest, according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP).


Through a crop breeding process called biofortification, micronutrient-enriched crops contain higher amounts of iron, zinc, and vitamin A that help to tackle malnutrition caused by a lack of vitamins and minerals in the diet.

US-based HarvestPlus, part of CGIAR, a global group of agriculture research centres that works to scale up the production and consumption of biofortified staple crops, has released 77 varieties of iron-rich beans across Africa and Latin America, including in Guatemala since 2016.

From high-iron beans in Rwanda to vitamin A-rich maize in Zambia and iron-rich pearl millet in India, research shows that biofortified crops are a "cost-effective and scalable innovation" to improve nutrition and health outcomes among poor farming communities, according to HarvestPlus.

So far, HarvestPlus says all its biofortified crops have been developed with conventional breeding, not genetic modification (GM). It says, however, that GM has "strong potential" for improving crops.

In Guatemala, numerous UN and international aid agencies, some funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the European Union, donate biofortified seeds to bean farmers, who usually also grow maize crops in rotation.

New biofortified varieties of bean, maize and potato are continuously being developed, first requiring testing and certification by Guatemala's national agricultural research institute (ICTA) before they can be released on the market.

But a backlog of approvals exists and the government needs to ramp up efforts to roll out the Chorti bean to more farmers, said Herlindo Morales, a Guatemalan agricultural engineer.

"Better coordination is needed nationwide to introduce biofortified seeds across the country so that all farmers can get access to them. There isn't a government policy on biofortified crops," said Morales, who works at the International Centre of Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), a CGIAR research centre, which helped develop the Chorti bean.

CIAT provides technical support and training to Ramirez's group and about 7,000 other farmers across the Dry Corridor.

"It's still a drop in the ocean," he added.

It can also be difficult to convince farmers to switch from seeds used by their ancestors to new biofortified varieties that often require different growing techniques.

"The biggest problem is cultural, getting people to accept a fortified product particularly if it looks different and has a different taste and texture," said Guatemalan Edwin Castellanos, science director at the Uruguay-based Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI).


Diaz's group sell their beans to seven local schools, along with cherry tomatoes and coriander grown on a communal patch of land, as part of a government school meals program introduced in 2017.

It aims to ensure more school children eat nutritious meals and requires at least 50% of food on school menus, including beans, to be purchased from local farmers at a fixed price.

Despite the difficulty in getting farmers connected to schools and other administrative challenges, along with high transport costs paid by farmers to move their produce, schools provide a crucial market and source of income for farmers.

"In our group, we don't have a child with malnutrition," said Maria Mendez, an Amuprocaj member.

"You can see the difference in children's eyes, their skin colour. They are more active, they have more energy," she said.

Ultimately, the success of farmer associations depends on community willingness and committed leadership backed by long-term technical and financial assistance that is largely coming from UN agencies, USAID and international aid groups.

"You need a community that wants to participate and learn, a leader who cares and is responsible, and who wants to develop their community. Not all do," said Diaz, who receives support from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and CIAT but says she has received no government help.


An hour's drive away, along unpaved narrow mountain roads overlooked by a volcano, Amilcar Ramirez grows Chortí beans alongside maize crops with his wife and teenage son, selling seeds to local farmers and in markets.

Like many small-scale farmers, the Ramirez family do not own the land they work on. Farmers usually rent land or work on plots owned by big landowners as payment-in-kind.

Despite belonging to ADEGO, a local farmer association, which provides technical assistance and buys the bean seeds farmers produce, the family's profits are being squeezed.

The increased cost of fertiliser and day labourers, caused by a shortage of labour as rising numbers of young men migrate from rural areas to the United States, is hitting yields.

"It's harder to find labourers to help with the harvest, and because the price of fertiliser has doubled in the past year, we're using less fertiliser and producing less," said Ramirez.

Across Guatemala, one of the world's poorest and most unequal countries with jarring contrasts of wealth, tens of thousands of small-scale farmers struggle to subsist without support from farming cooperatives or the government.

Two thirds of Guatemala's population of 17 million live on less than $2 a day, with Indigenous rural communities the poorest, according to the WFP.

"One poor harvest can push people towards a tipping point. Many live in survival mode, on top of the impact of climate change. More people need to be reached," said Castellanos.

Despite recurring severe droughts, rainwater collection and drip irrigation systems are a rare sight in Chiquimula.

"Many small-scale farmers don't have water irrigation systems and depend on erratic rainfall to harvest crops," he added.


To become more resilient to climate shocks by having a back-up plan, bean farmers are having to grow other food crops to have new sources of income and food as relying on just two bean harvests a year is no longer viable due to extreme weather.

In Chiquimula's Camotan municipality, about 30 women are learning how to grow herbs, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers, and other vegetables using organic fertiliser at a community farm school.

"You can no longer just be a bean farmer. You have to look for new options," said Olga Villeda, who attends the farm school set up three years ago with funds from the WFP and EU.

"We never imagined anything could grow here on these dry steep slopes. It was hard at first. We've learnt new ways to take care of our crops," she said.

At the farm school's plot of land used as a teaching tool, neat rows of vegetable crops are protected from pests and diseases by white sheeting.

Terraces, stones and tall lemon grass plants act as barriers to stop rain washing away soil, and a small pond surrounded by recycled tires has been built to store rainwater.

Farmers are given tools, seeds and apply the skills learnt on their own small plots of land at home.

The project, which includes 50 farms schools set up in three provinces helping 6,000 families, allows participants to earn extra income by selling the vegetables produced, with some farmers earning about 1,200 quetzals ($153) a year.

"Before we only ate beans, now I can give my children more variety. I can buy eggs," said Francisca Aldana, a mother-of-seven, who supplements her income by selling hand-made hammocks.

In another part of Chiquimula in the hamlet of Marimba, bean and maize farmer Irma Janeth Raymundo is now raising chickens to earn cash after her harvests and some farmland were destroyed last year by landslides caused by heavy rains.

"You have to have the will and love for animals to look after chickens. This isn't for everyone ... but I know that in about six weeks' time they'll be fat enough to sell," said Raymundo, who built a pen in a spare room housing 40 chicks with the help of aid group Oxfam.

She will use the proceeds to feed her family and pay for her daughter to travel to school an hour away.

"Farmers have to keep learning and changing, if not we won't eat," Raymundo said.