At sunrise, the misty fields around the village of Guior are already dotted with men, women and children sowing maize after an overnight rainstorm.
After several years of drought, the downpour brought some hope of relief to the subsistence farmers in this part of eastern Guatemala.
But as Esteban Gutiérrez, 30, takes a break from his work, he explains why he is still willing to incur crippling debts – and risk his life – to migrate to the United States.
“My children have gone to bed hungry for the past three years. Our crops failed and the coffee farms have cut wages to $4 a day,” he says, playing nervously with the white maize kernels in a plastic trough strapped to his waist.
“We hope the harvest will be good, but until then we have only one quintal [46kg] of maize left – which is barely enough for a month. I have to find a way to travel north, or else my children will suffer even more.”
Central America remains one of the world’s most dangerous regions outside a warzone, where a toxic mix of violence, poverty and corruption has forced millions to flee their homes and head north in search of security.
But amid a deepening global climate crisis, drought, famine and the battle for dwindling natural resources are increasingly being recognized as major factors in the exodus.
Camotán is a collection of rural communities in the eastern department of Chiquimula, which lies in the rain shadow of the imposing Sierra de las Minas. It forms part of Central America’s dry corridor: a belt stretching south through Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, that receives little rain and is particularly susceptible to droughts and extreme weather.
In theory, the rainy season here should last from late April to October, with a drier period in July and August known as the canícula – a regional peculiarity that requires two short harvests.
But the past decade has seen frequent, intense droughts and late rains due to unusually hot and dry canículas and prolonged years of El Niño – the warm phase of a complex weather cycle caused by increased Pacific surface temperatures.
“Over the past six years, the lack of rainfall has been our biggest problem, causing crops to fail and widespread famine,” said the climate scientist Edwin Castellanos, the dean of the research institute at Guatemala’s Universidad del Valle.
The current run of hot, dry years follows a decade or so of unusually prolonged rains and flooding due to the other phase of the cycle known as La Niña, caused by colder Pacific waters.
“Normal, predictable weather years are getting rarer,” added Castellanos.
On the ground, the impact has been devastating. In 2018, drought-related crop failures directly affected one in 10 Guatemalans, and caused extreme food shortages for almost 840,000 people, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
As a result, entire families have been migrating in record numbers: since October 2018, more than 167,000 Guatemalans travelling in family groups have been apprehended at the US border, compared with 23,000 in 2016.
Those who remain, often depend on money sent home by emigres, especially in rural areas, which received more than half the $9.2bn of remittances sent to Guatemala in 2018.
Despite the rainshowers in Camotán, el niño is back and the outlook for 2019 is grim: about 2 million people in the dry corridor will need urgent food aid, according Ricardo Rapallo, the head of food security at the FAO.
“Without doubt climate and environmental changes impact food security. For those who depend on agriculture the situation is very precarious, they are very vulnerable,” said Rapallo.
Local political factors are also important. Water shortages and poverty are causally linked to the country’s skewed land distribution: roughly 2% of the population control 70% of all productive farmland. In Chiquimula, 71% of people live in poverty, and 40% in extreme poverty.
Forests mitigate climate change, but Guatemala has lost half its woodlands in the past 40 years – and deforestation rates are rising, in turn causing floods, landslides and erosion of farmland.
In the peasant farming communities around Camotán, water storage is scarce, and the Maya Ch’orti’ people who live here mostly rely on rainfall to irrigate their crops. Most houses have no toilets, and low water reserves mean most families drink and cook with contaminated stream water.
“We waste and contaminate most of our water through mismanagement. We’re not prepared for climate changes,” said the climate scientist Castellanos.
The region’s main cash crop is coffee, and for decades, many campesinos relied on seasonal work at commercial plantations to supplement their subsistence lifestyle.
But a global price crash and the deadly rust fungus known locally as la rolla – which thrives in hot and humid conditions exacerbated by the climate crisis – have wiped out about 80% of the region’s coffee in the past five years.
This has led to less work, lower pay and more hunger.
Gutiérrez lives in a half-finished palm-roofed adobe house with his wife Miriam Ávalos, 22, and their five children aged between seven months and nine years.
All of the children are small for their age. For breakfast, they have half a corn tortilla each. At school, they sometimes receive noodles and a high-calorie supplement drink, courtesy of a government programme. Dinner is another tortilla or two with salt or herbs – but no beans as the drought destroyed last year’s entire crop.
The family’s chickens died a few months back from a mystery illness, so there are no eggs, and meat and dairy are unaffordable. The adults eat once or twice a day.
Guatemala has the sixth-highest malnutrition rate in the world with at least 47% of children suffering chronic malnourishment. Malnutrition rates are even higher among the country’s 24 indigenous communities, rising to over 60% in Camotán.
Since 2016, at least 800 children under the age of five in Camotán and the neighbouring municipality Jocotán have been diagnosed with acute malnourishment, according to health centre officials. (Underreporting means the real number is likely to be significantly higher.)
“The government strategy [to tackle malnutrition] has good elements, but in practice it has been limited to putting out fires, dealing with emergencies, not tackling structural problems or corruption in public administration,” said Paola Cano, a nutritionist and public policy analyst. “Without international aid, even more people would be dying.”
Ávalos was 13 when she had her first child. She weighs 90lb and is breastfeeding her seven-month old daughter who weighs just nine pounds. The two-year-old girl weighs 18lbs; her cheeks and stomach are distended, and her hair is falling out – classic symptoms of acute malnutrition. The five-year-old girl is just recovering from sudden weight loss. Sometimes they wake up at night, crying from hunger.
“We’re desperate,” said Ávalos, who looks and sounds exhausted. “There’s no money and no food.”
Ávalos’s niece died in 2016 at the age of three months. Her mother was unable to produce enough breast milk, and the family couldn’t afford formula.
“This isn’t poverty – or even extreme poverty: this is a famine, and people are dying,” said Rodimiro Lantán from Comundich, a grassroots Ch’orti’ organisation helping communities reforest ancestral lands in an effort to prevent forced migration.
Families face an impossible choice: stay and risk starvation, or gamble everything on the perilous migrant trail. “They risk their lives if they stay – and if they go,” said Lantán.
One local who took that chance was Juan de Léon Gutiérrez, a 16-year old boy from a nearby village. In April, he died at a Texas children’s hospital just days after he was taken into US immigration custody – one of at least eight Guatemalan children to have died shortly after crossing the US border since May 2018.
Juan de Léon was not related to Esteban, but such deaths are deeply felt in these rural communities where would be migrants are well aware of the dangers they will face.
Esteban is in tears as he leaves the family home to meet a local people smuggler, or coyote, who may be able to guide him north. He has no savings, but, his godfather has offered the coyote the title to 3.5 acres of land as a guarantee.
If Esteban makes it to the US, he’ll pay the $5,000 fee; if he doesn’t, the coyote will keep the land. “Banks don’t help people like us,” he says, through tears.
He has been told that families have a better chance at the border, so he is considering taking his scrawny nine-year-old son, Wilson, with him. He knows that taking a chronically malnourished child on a 2,000-mile journey will be tough – but he cannot afford to wait: the food is running out.
In these parts, the period between harvests, June to August, has always been hard. But the current crisis is different, said Gutiérrez’s mother Isigra Martínez, 58, as she heated leftover tortillas for lunch.
“We grew up hungry, but the past four years have been very hard,” she said. “I don’t want my son to go to America, and it will be terribly hard on Wilson.”
“I’ve heard people have died on the journey. But maybe there’s no other way.”