Trump Freezes Aid To Guatemala, Ending Programs That Help Farmers Face Climate Change : Goats and Soda Last spring, Trump froze almost $500 million in funding to three Central American countries to pressure them to stop the flow of migrants. The impact on farmers could end up increasing migration.

In Guatemala, A Bad Year For Corn — And For U.S. Aid

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Last spring, President Trump froze almost $500 million in funding to the U.S. Agency International Development programs to Central America to pressure those countries to stop the flow of migrants. Experts have warned those same cuts could actually backfire and increase migration. So what happens when one of those programs shuts down? Reporter Alissa Escarce travelled to Quilinco, a village in Guatemala's western highlands.

ALISSA ESCARCE, BYLINE: To get to Quilinco, I took a five-hour bus from Guatemala City. Then I got a ride up a dusty dirt road that winds up the mountains through pine trees and little fields of corn and broccoli. In Quilinco, I find farmer Jesus Garcia Ramos in the field behind his house. He's hacking down dried-out yellow corn stalks with a machete. In a good year, Garcia says he can feed his family all year on the corn that he harvests. But this was not a good year.

JESUS GARCIA RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: He says his yields will be about half what he'd normally expect this year or maybe less. He planted the corn in March, but then it didn't rain in June or July, the crucial months when kernels form on the cob.

GARCIA RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: He says he doesn't feel bad, though, because they're used to it. Farmers and scientists say climate change has been making it harder and harder to get by here. Not only drought; storms have been getting stronger as well. Two years ago, they got a rare spring hailstorm.

GARCIA RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: Garcia says the hail shredded his corn plants, and everything died. But he's always been able to plant again. That's because he stores a bucket of seeds in the town's community seed reserve. It's a project that's been supported by USAID, the U.S. development agency that provides aid around the world. Esvin Lopez oversees the reserve. Lopez leads me into the seed bank.

ESVIN LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: A sign on the wall outside says it's a measure to adapt to climate change. Inside, it's a small one-room building with green and red buckets stacked on shelves.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) It's a form of relief because it allows us to safeguard each farmer's most important seeds.

ESCARCE: This reserve has been part of a project called Buena Milpa, which means good cornfield. But it lost its funding in June after Trump announced he'd freeze the aid to punish Central American countries for not stopping migration. But here's the catch - food insecurity is one of the things that's pushing people to migrate, and climate change is making it worse. Could Trump's cuts actually cause more farmers here to head for the U.S. border?

Lopez estimates that almost half of the town's 600 residents have spent time in the U.S. He isn't one of them, though as a teenager he assumed he would be. But then a crop scientist working for an international aid project invited him to participate in an agronomy course.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) They had a plan to discover young talent.

ESCARCE: And he specialized in doing research on local corn seeds.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) I loved it, and I thought this will be my opportunity, and I liked being a leader.

ESCARCE: Lopez helped set up seed banks like this one throughout the western highlands, and he started crossing the seeds they collected to create new varieties that would be more resistant to climate change.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) Here's one we've been working on. It's a variety we call Population One.

ESCARCE: Lopez pulls out a little paper bag filled with translucent corn seeds. These seeds were created by crossing corn from Quilinco with a variety from another region where corn plants are shorter. The result is a plant that's adapted to Quilinco's climate but doesn't topple over as easily during storms. Other varieties he's developed are more resistant to pests and drought. We leave the seed reserve, and Lopez takes me to visit Jose Maria Garcia Funes, who's growing the drought-resistant variety this year.


JOSE MARIA GARCIA FUNES: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: Garcia Funes lives at the bottom of a steep hill that's thick with trees.

GARCIA FUNES: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: He leads us to his cornfields, opening a path through the trees with a machete.

Oh, wow. (Speaking Spanish).

These cornstalks are green and healthy with fat, nearly ripe ears of corn. Garcia Funes got involved with Buena Milpa four years ago. He'd just gotten back from working in a factory in Chicago, where he made spice mixes for fast-food chains. Be a loose do business.

GARCIA FUNES: (Through interpreter) I saw that the neighbor's corn wasn't growing as tall as mine, and the wind didn't knock it over as easily. So I decided to get involved.

ESCARCE: The USAID program also trained Garcia Funes on the latest growing techniques. Now he's been harvesting almost twice as much corn as he used to. Several farmers in Quilinco told me the project helped their corn yields. One guy's been growing six times more than before. Garcia Funes was so enthusiastic that he's now the president of the seed reserve's farmer committee. But if not for migration, Garcia Funes says he wouldn't have been able to grow much corn at all.

GARCIA FUNES: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA FUNES: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: This land where he's growing the corn, he bought it with money he earned in the U.S., and now his sons are following in his footsteps. One of them just came home after a few years in Oregon, and another left for Washington state last spring. And they're not the only ones. Jesus Garcia, who you heard at the beginning, was able to buy food after losing his crops with money his son sends from California. Even Lopez says his work probably hasn't made migration less appealing.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: He says, "Yes, we've improved our yields. But it isn't enough." The Trump administration cut funding to his project in June. The seed bank will remain, but his research on new varieties has ground to a halt, and there won't be any more trainings. When it comes to migration, Lopez says money is the key.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ESCARCE: He says it's almost impossible to buy land to farm on without doing a stint in the U.S. So far, he's survived on his U.S.-funded salary, but it wasn't enough to buy land of his own. When his paychecks stopped coming, he started thinking about heading north himself. Over the summer, he went to his daughter.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) She's 7, and I said, what do you think? Do you want to go with me to the United States? But she said no.

ESCARCE: Lopez wants to stay in Guatemala with his daughter if he can. He's hoping to find a new job doing research on local corn. In the end, the cut in U.S. funding may not affect migration from Quilinco, but this USAID project wasn't designed to stop migration; it was intended to reduce poverty, and cutting it will leave farmers here with one less tool to weather climate change.

Alissa Escarce, NPR News.


INSKEEP: Reporting for this story was supported by the UC Berkeley 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship.

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