Sergio Isaula Castillo peels the coffee cherry with his nail. Out pops a shrivelled bean. “That’s because of a lack of water,” he sighs. “It’s climate change that’s to blame.” The 55-year-old Honduran farmer has seen a 40 per cent drop in his yield over the last couple of years – and coffee is the Central American country’s biggest agricultural export. Honduras
Sergio Isaula Castillo, a coffee farmer, says he will leave for the US in February: 'There’s no other option in Honduras' © Adam Rosenberg

Sergio Isaula Castillo peels the coffee cherry with his nail. Out pops a shrivelled bean.

“That’s because of a lack of water,” the 55-year-old Honduran farmer sighs. “It’s climate change that’s to blame.” 

Coffee is the Central American country’s biggest agricultural export, and Mr Isaula said he has seen a 40 per cent drop in his yield over the past couple of years. “Every year it goes down. The plantations are drying out. The rainfall is erratic.” 

Compared with some Honduran farmers in other parts of the “dry corridor” in the south and west of the country, Mr Isaula is lucky — he has not lost everything. But with production steadily worsening, compounded by financial despair, he and other farmers in Tepanguare, in the western La Paz department, are preparing to play the only card they have left: migration to the US

“We’re already getting ready — there’s a group of about 50 of us, we’re going to go in February,” he said, standing in his fields down a bumpy dirt track deep in the hills. “It’s my first time. But I have no choice. There’s no other option in Honduras.” 

Many of the thousands of Hondurans who have joined migrant caravans this year are stuck in a camp on the Mexican border city of Tijuana. They are fleeing poverty, violence and extortion in one of the region’s poorest, most dangerous and gang-ridden countries. 

It is climate change, however, that is propelling farmers such as Mr Isaula and many caravan members from a country where half the population of 9m lives in rural areas. More than 60 per cent of the rural population lives in poverty, and nearly one in four living in the countryside gets by on less than $1 a day, according to official data

Because the fickle rainfall has slashed his yields, Mr Isaula said he could not meet loan repayments of 81,000 Lempiras ($3,300) due in January. It is harvest time, but the price of his crop has already plunged 13 per cent this month. To make matters worse, he was put on a credit blacklist at the start of the year, so even trying to plug the financial hole with another loan or a mortgage is futile. “The only way out is to pay,” he said. And he cannot. 

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Honduras is one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change. Some 40 per cent of the population works in agriculture, and farming supplies as much as 45 per cent of gross domestic product, including all related goods and services. But a double weather whammy is forecast to reduce rainfall by as much as 14 per cent by 2050 and lead to longer, hotter droughts. 

The Honduran government has already declared an emergency in the dry corridor, where subsistence crops such as corn and beans have been devastated. 

For cash crops, climate change is particularly perilous because it makes outbreaks of disease more likely. Honduras is the world’s fifth-biggest coffee producer, but coffee rust — a devastating fungus — ravaged harvests and slashed production by a fifth five years ago.

The US Department of Agriculture noted that four new strains of rust were detected this year, and “producers are still repaying government loans from the 2012 rust outbreak that need to be repaid by 2019”. 

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While the average price was $140 per bag (60kg) in the 2016-17 season, according to the USDA, Mr Isaula said it had dropped to $118 per quintal (100kg) earlier this month and then to $104. 

“The price has never been this bad,” he said. After official deductions, “the state makes more than we do”, he added. 

“Most farmers don’t have irrigation . . . this year it’s been worrying because the rain has been really irregular,” said David Pineda, a technical co-ordinator at the Luis Landa agricultural college in Nacaome in the dry corridor. 

“In the countryside, we’re not seeing profits, we’re not seeing income, so people are abandoning the land and going to [the capital] Tegucigalpa or [Honduras’ second-biggest city] San Pedro Sula,” he said. “And from there, most end up migrating to the US.” 

Mr Isaula, a father of three, has no desire to live long-term in the US. “I’m only going to go and see if I can manage to pay my debts,” he said. His appeals for “a little pause to see if I can pay” have fallen on deaf ears, and the interest due is escalating. 

The largest caravan of migrants set off from San Pedro Sula in October. Migrants have adopted the caravan method to seek safety in numbers: “I wouldn’t go on my own,” said Mr Isaula. 

Mauricio Pacheco, 17, who has been picking coffee for about $7 a day, is also keen. “There’s less work here than before, because of climate change,” he said. 

US President Donald Trump has said he wants to keep migrants from crossing illegally into the US, and that people such as Mr Isaula would not qualify for political asylum.

“The reality with Donald Trump is that things are bad because he doesn’t want migrants . . . But we’re not going to cause trouble or to freeload. We’re doing this out of necessity,” Mr Isaula said.

“We know it won’t be easy,” he added. “But here all we do is work, work, work for no return.”

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