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Bolivia: Farmers Abandon Land As Drought Spreads Hunger

Water has become extremely scarce in the El Chaco region of Bolivia, where small farmers have found themselves in competition for resources. Copyright: WFP/Ximena Loza

A long dry spell in the El Chaco region of southern Bolivia has decimated maize harvests, threatening an entire culture of indigenous corn growers with destitution. As thousands sell their land and move to the cities, WFP is helping to make staying on their farms a real option.

EL CHACO – Simon Torrez is the leader of an indigenous Weenhayek community whose ancestors have been raising corn and cattle in southern Bolivia for centuries.

But after months of drought and crop failures, he says his people are starting to wonder if Mother Nature has abandoned them. “We can’t grow anything and the forest empty, which forces us to compete for food and water with the big cattle farms nearby,” he said.

“The climate’s changing and now we, the poorest of the poor, are paying the consequences.”

Under the weather

Torrez says that sporadic wildfires that sweep across once verdant terrain, terrorizing farmers already on the brink of ruin, are another sign of the drying climate.

The fertile El Chaco lowlands are home to a predominately indigenous population of corn farmers accustomed to weathering the occasional dry spell. This one, however, has gone on for months with rainfall an estimated 40 percent below the yearly average.

The drought in this area has slashed corn crops by 80 percent or more in seven out 16 municipalities, with several declaring a 100 percent failed harvest. Farmers of cash crops like sesame, peanuts and beans have fared no better, dealing a serious blow to the local economy.

Already, families have begun selling off their land and animals, while countless others flock to the city in search of work. As the price of food soars and the value of their assets falls, families throughout El Chaco are struggling to stay fed.

Aid and assistance

According to a recent report by the Bolivian government, over 19,500 families in Bolivia – some 100,000 people – will require food assistance this year as a result of the drought. WFP estimates that around 60,000 people have already exhausted their food supplies and are in urgent need of help.

WFP is responding with a range of different initiatives, including Food for Work programmes that provide unemployed men and women with food and cash for their families, in exchange for work on projects that benefit their communities.

Another scheme are schools meals programmes, that provide over 80,000 children across Bolivia with regular, nutritious meals while giving them an added incentive to get an education.

In times of crisis, however, school meals can make the difference between health and hunger. According to Ruth Rivera, a school teacher in the town of Cuevo, many children there are getting their only meal of the day in the classroom.

“We’re trying to rescue these children, because many families have started to migrate and want to take them out of school,” she said. “These meals give them a reason to stay, and have hope that things will get better.”