Water Harvesting Strengthens Food Security in Central America

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Water & Sanitation

Angélica María Posada, a teacher and school principal in the village of El Guarumal, in eastern El Salvador, poses with primary school students in front of the school where they use purified water collected from rainfall, as part of a project promoted by FAO and Mexican cooperation funds. The initiative is being implemented in the countries of the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Angélica María Posada, a teacher and school principal in the village of El Guarumal, in eastern El Salvador, poses with primary school students in front of the school where they use purified water collected from rainfall, as part of a project promoted by FAO and Mexican cooperation funds. The initiative is being implemented in the countries of the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

SENSEMBRA, El Salvador , Jun 23 2021 (IPS) – At the school in El Guarumal, a remote village in eastern El Salvador, the children no longer have to walk several kilometers along winding paths to fetch water from wells; they now “harvest” it from the rain that falls on the roofs of their classrooms.


“The water is not only for the children and us teachers, but for the whole community,” school principal Angelica Maria Posada told IPS, sitting with some of her young students at the foot of the tank that supplies them with purified water.

The village is located in the municipality of Sensembra, in the eastern department of Morazán, where it forms part of the so-called Central American Dry Corridor, a semi-arid belt that covers 35 percent of Central America and is home to some 11 million people, mostly engaged in subsistence agriculture.

In the Corridor, 1,600 kilometers long, water is always scarce and food production is a challenge, with more than five million people at risk of food insecurity.

In El Guarumal, a dozen peasant families have dug ponds or small reservoirs and use the rainwater collected to irrigate their home gardens and raise tilapia fish as a way to combat drought and produce food.

“We are all very proud of this initiative, because we are the only school in the country that has a (rainwater harvesting) system like this.” — Angélica María Posada

This effort, called the Rainwater Harvesting System (RHS), has not only been made in El Salvador.

Similar initiatives have been promoted in five other Central American countries as part of the Mesoamerica Hunger Free programme, implemented since 2015 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and financed by the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation (Amexcid).

The aim of the RHS was to create the conditions for poor, rural communities in the Dry Corridor to strengthen food security by harvesting water to irrigate their crops and raise fish.

In Guatemala, work has been done to strengthen an ancestral agroforestry system inherited from the Chortí people, called Koxur Rum, which conserves more moisture in the soil and thus improves the production of corn and beans, staples of the Central American diet.

José Evelio Chicas, a teacher at the school in the village of El Guarumal, in El Salvador's eastern department of Morazán, supervises the PVC pipes that carry rainwater collected from the school's roof to an underground tank, from where it is pumped to a filtering and purification station. The initiative is part of a water harvesting project in the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

José Evelio Chicas, a teacher at the school in the village of El Guarumal, in El Salvador’s eastern department of Morazán, supervises the PVC pipes that carry rainwater collected from the school’s roof to an underground tank, from where it is pumped to a filtering and purification station. The initiative is part of a water harvesting project in the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

“The best structure for conserving water is the soil, and that is where we have to work,” Baltazar Moscoso, national coordinator of Mesoamerica Hunger Free, told IPS by telephone from Guatemala City.

Healthy schools in El Salvador

The principal of the El Guarumal school, where 47 girls, 32 boys and several adolescents study, said that since the water collection and purification system has been in place, gastrointestinal ailments have been significantly reduced.

“The children no longer complain about stomachaches, like they used to,” said Posada, 47, a divorced mother of three children: two girls and one boy.

She added, “The water is 100 percent safe.”

Before it is purified, the rainwater that falls on the tin roof is collected by gutters and channeled into an underground tank with a capacity of 105,000 litres.

Farmer Cristino Martínez feeds the tilapia he raises in the pond dug next to his house in the village of El Guarumal in eastern El Salvador. A dozen ponds like this one were created in the village to help poor rural families produce food in the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Farmer Cristino Martínez feeds the tilapia he raises in the pond dug next to his house in the village of El Guarumal in eastern El Salvador. A dozen ponds like this one were created in the village to help poor rural families produce food in the Central American Dry Corridor. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

It is then pumped to a station where it is filtered and purified, before flowing into the tank which supplies students, teachers and the community.

The school reopened for in-person classes in March, following the shutdown declared by the government in 2020 to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are all very proud of this initiative, because we are the only school in the country that has a system like this,” added the principal.

There are 40 families living in El Guarumal, but a total of 150 families benefit from the system installed in the town, because people from other communities also come to get water.

A similar system was installed in 2017 in Cerrito Colorado, a village in the municipality of San Isidro, Choluteca department in southern Honduras, which benefits 80 families, including those from the neighbouring communities of Jicarito and Obrajito.

Rainwater is filtered and purified in a room adjacent to the classrooms of the school in the village of El Guarumal, in the eastern department of Morazán, El Salvador. Gastrointestinal ailments were reduced with the implementation of this project executed by FAO and financed by Mexican cooperation funds. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Rainwater is filtered and purified in a room adjacent to the classrooms of the school in the village of El Guarumal, in the eastern department of Morazán, El Salvador. Gastrointestinal ailments were reduced with the implementation of this project executed by FAO and financed by Mexican cooperation funds. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Vegetable gardens and tilapias boost food security

About 20 minutes from the school in El Guarumal, following a narrow dirt road that winds along the mountainside, you reach the house of Cristino Martínez, who grows tomatoes and raises tilapia in the pond dug next to his home.

The ponds are pits dug in the ground and lined with a polyethylene geomembrane, a waterproof synthetic material. They hold up to 25,000 litres of rainwater.

“The pond has served me well, I have used it for both the tilapia and watering tomatoes, beans and chayote (Sechium edule),” Martínez told IPS, standing at the edge of the pond, while tossing food to the fish.

The cost of the school’s water harvesting system and the 12 ponds totaled 77,000 dollars.

Martínez has not bothered to keep a precise record of how many tilapias he raises, because he does not sell them, he said. The fish feed his large family of 13: he and his wife and their 11 children (seven girls and four boys).

And from time to time he receives guests in his adobe house.

“My sisters come from San Salvador and tell me: ‘Cristino, we want to eat some tilapia,’ and my daughters throw the nets and start catching fish,” said the 50-year-old farmer.

Cristino Martínez and one of his daughters show the tilapia they have just caught in the family pond they have dug in the backyard of their home in the village of El Guarumal in the eastern department of Morazán, El Salvador. The large peasant family raises fish for their own consumption and not for sale. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Cristino Martínez and one of his daughters show the tilapia they have just caught in the family pond they have dug in the backyard of their home in the village of El Guarumal in the eastern department of Morazán, El Salvador. The large peasant family raises fish for their own consumption and not for sale. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

According to FAO estimates, the ponds can provide about 500 fishes two to three times a year.

The ponds are built on the highest part of each farm, and the drip irrigation system uses gravity to water the crops or orchards planted on the slopes.

Tomatoes are Martínez’s main crop. He has 100 seedlings planted, and manages to produce good harvests, marketing his produce in the local community.

“The pond helps me in the summer to water the vegetables I grow downhill,” another beneficiary of the programme, Santos Henríquez, also a native of El Guarumal, told IPS.

Henríquez’s 1.5-hectare plot is one of the most diversified: in addition to tilapias, corn and a type of bean locally called “ejote”, he grows cucumbers, chili peppers, tomatoes, cabbage and various types of fruit, such as mangoes, oranges and lemons.

“We grow a little bit of everything,” Henríquez, 48, said proudly. He sells the surplus produce in the village or at Sensembra.

However, some beneficiary families have underutilised the ponds. They were initially enthusiastic about the effort, but began to let things slide when the project ended in 2018.

A farmer proudly displays some of the tomatoes he has grown in the region known as Mancomunidad Copán Chortí in eastern Guatemala, which includes the municipalities of Camotán, Jocotán, Olopa and San Juan Ermita, in the department of Chiquimula. Water harvesting initiatives have been implemented in the area to improve agricultural production in this region, which is part of the so-called Central American Dry Corridor. The initiative is supported by FAO and Mexican cooperation funds. CREDIT: FAO Guatemala

A farmer proudly displays some of the tomatoes he has grown in the region known as Mancomunidad Copán Chortí in eastern Guatemala, which includes the municipalities of Camotán, Jocotán, Olopa and San Juan Ermita, in the department of Chiquimula. Water harvesting initiatives have been implemented in the area to improve agricultural production in this region, which is part of the so-called Central American Dry Corridor. The initiative is supported by FAO and Mexican cooperation funds. CREDIT: FAO Guatemala

An ageold Chorti technique in Guatemala

In Guatemala, meanwhile, some villages and communities are betting on an agroforestry technique from their ancestral culture: Koxur Rum, which means “wet land” in the language of the Chortí indigenous people, who also live in parts of El Salvador and Honduras.

The system allows corn and bean crops to retain more moisture with the rains by combining them with furrows of shrubs or trees such as madre de cacao or quickstick (Gliricidia sepium), a tree species that helps fix nitrogen in the soil.

By pruning the trees regularly, leaves and crop stubble cover and protect the soil, thereby better retaining moisture and nutrients.

“Quickstick sprouts quickly and gives abundant foliage to incorporate into the soil,” farmer Rigoberto Suchite told IPS in a telephone interview from the village of Minas Abajo, in the municipality of San Juan Ermita, Chiquimula department in eastern Guatemala, also located in the Central American Dry Corridor.

Suchite said the system was revived in his region in 2000, but with the FAO and Amexcid project, it has become more technical.

As part of the programme, some 150 families have received two 1,500-litre tanks and a drip irrigation system, he added.

“Now we are expanding it even more because it has given us good results, it has improved the soil and boosted production,” said Suchite, 55.

In the dry season, farmers collect water from nearby springs in tanks and, using gravity, irrigate their home gardens.

“Many families are managing to have a surplus of vegetables and with the sales, they buy other necessary food,” Suchite said.

The programme is scheduled to end in Guatemala in 2021, and local communities must assume the lessons learned in order to move forward.

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Central America – Fertile Ground for Human Trafficking

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Gender, Gender Violence, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees, Regional Categories, Special Report

Crime & Justice

This is part of a series of features from across the globe on human trafficking. IPS coverage is supported by the Riana Group.

An older woman panhandles on a street in San Salvador. Criminal trafficking groups take advantage of vulnerable people, such as the destitute, to force them to beg. But in Central America, 80 percent of the victims of trafficking are women and girls, for purposes of sexual exploitation. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

An older woman panhandles on a street in San Salvador. Criminal trafficking groups take advantage of vulnerable people, such as the destitute, to force them to beg. But in Central America, 80 percent of the victims of trafficking are women and girls, for purposes of sexual exploitation. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

SAN SALVADOR, Nov 8 2019 (IPS) – Central America is an impoverished region rife with gang violence and human trafficking – the third largest crime industry in the world – as a major source of migrants heading towards the United States.


Human trafficking has had deep roots in Central America, especially in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, for decades, and increasingly requires a concerted law enforcement effort by the region’s governments to dismantle trafficking networks, and to offer support programmes for the victims.

The phenomenon “has become more visible in recent years, but not much progress has been made in the area of more direct attention to victims,” Carmela Jibaja, a Catholic nun with the Ramá Network against Trafficking in Persons, told IPS.

“We know that El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are countries with a heavy flow of undocumented migrants, which puts them at risk of becoming victims of trafficking.” — Carlos Morán

This Central American civil society organisation forms part of the Talita Kum International Network against Trafficking in Persons, based in Rome, which brings together 58 anti-trafficking organisations around the world.

Jibaja pointed out that “the biggest trafficking problem is at the borders, because El Salvador is a country that expels migrants,” as well as in tourism areas. The most recognised form of trafficking in the region is sexual exploitation, whose victims are women.

Carlos Morán, Interpol security officer and a member of the Honduran police Cybercrime Unit, concurs .

“We know that El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are countries with a heavy flow of undocumented migrants, which puts them at risk of becoming victims of trafficking,” Morán told IPS while participating in a regional forum on the issue, hosted Nov. 4-8 by San Salvador.

The “Regional Seminar on Investigation Techniques and Protection of Victims of Trafficking in Persons” brought together officials from the office of the public prosecutor, police officers, legal experts and other key actors and experts from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the countries that make up the so-called Northern Central American Triangle.

The objective is to strengthen capacities and good practices in the investigation of trafficking, especially when the crime is transnational in nature.

Morán and other participants in the meeting declined to talk about figures on the extent of trafficking in the region, due to the lack of reliable data.

Prosecutors, police officers, government officials, experts and representatives of social organisations from Central America are participating in a special seminar on human trafficking Nov. 4-8 to identify and coordinate joint efforts. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Prosecutors, police officers, government officials, experts and representatives of social organisations from Central America are participating in a special seminar on human trafficking Nov. 4-8 to identify and coordinate joint efforts. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Civil society supports victims

In the countries of the Northern Triangle there are government efforts to develop victim care programmes, but they are insufficient and civil society organisations have had to take up the challenge.

Mirna Argueta, executive director of the Association for the Self-Determination of Salvadoran Women (AS Mujeres), told IPS that “the problem is serious, because we are facing networks with great economic and political influence, and victims are not being protected,” and there are very few programmes to help with their reinsertion in society.

Her organisation has been working since 1996 with victims of trafficking, offering psychological and medical support, and is also an important ally of the Attorney-General’s Office in victim protection work.

AS Mujeres collaborates with the police and prosecutors when victims have to be moved from one place to another, in the most secretive way possible, especially when judicial cases against organised crime networks are underway.

In the past it has also offered shelter to women victims of trafficking, but now the prosecutor’s office does, said Argueta, who is also coordinator in El Salvador of the Latin American Observatory on Trafficking in Persons, which brings together 15 countries.

AS Mujeres’ victim care programme includes, in addition to psychological support, medical assistance which incorporates non-traditional techniques such as biomagnetism, performed by a physician specialising in this area, as well as massage and aromatherapy.

“Experience has shown us that with the combination of these three techniques, recovery is more effective, and care is more integral,” said Argueta.

She added that since the programme’s inception in 1996, it has served some 600 trafficking victims.

They currently offer support to five women, who IPS could not speak to because they are under legal protection, and providing their names or a telephone number for them has criminal consequences.

For the same reason, the public prosecutor’s office also vetoed conducting interviews with victims under its protection.

AS Mujeres also promotes a self-care network.

“When the victim has gone through different stages, we integrate her with other women and they can share their experiences, making it less painful, and helping them with their reinsertion in society,” Argueta added.

She said many victims feel they are “damaged,” or worthless, and they turn to prostitution.

Victims can spend anywhere from six months to two and a half years in the programme, depending on the complexity of each case. For example, there are women with acute problems of depression, suicidal thoughts and persecutory delusions.

According to figures from the United Nations office in Honduras, released in July, 80 percent of the victims of human trafficking in Central America are women and girls.

In El Salvador, 90 percent of cases involve sexual exploitation, according to official figures provided by the public prosecutor’s office during the regional forum in San Salvador.

However, other types of trafficking have been detected, such as labour exploitation, forced panhandling and others.

So far this year, the prosecution has reported 800 victims, cases that are still open.

Mirna Argueta (L), executive director of the Association for the Self-Determination of Salvadoran Women, and Catholic nun Carmela Jibaja, of the Central American Network against Trafficking in Persons, are two activists working to provide care for victims of trafficking, who are mostly women. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Mirna Argueta (L), executive director of the Association for the Self-Determination of Salvadoran Women, and Catholic nun Carmela Jibaja, of the Central American Network against Trafficking in Persons, are two activists working to provide care for victims of trafficking, who are mostly women. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

In Guatemala, in 2018, the Public Prosecutor’s Office detected 478 possible victims of human trafficking, four percent more than the previous year. There were 276 reported cases, also an increase of four percent.

Children and adolescents continue to be vulnerable to trafficking, as 132 children and adolescents were detected as possible victims of human trafficking, 28 percent of the total, 111 of whom were rescued.

They were victims of illegal adoptions, labour exploitation, forced marriage, forced panhandling, sexual exploitation and forced labour or services. But the most invisible form of trafficking, according to the prosecutor’s office, is the recruitment of minors into organised crime.

Gangs involved in people trafficking

Experts consulted by IPS point out that many trafficking cases are the product of a relatively new phenomenon: involvement in trafficking by the gangs that are responsible for the crime wave in the three Northern Triangle countries.

The gangs have mutated into bona fide organised crime groups, with tentacles in the illicit drug trade, extortion rackets, “sicariato” or murder for hire and now human trafficking, among other criminal activities.

In El Salvador, it is common to hear stories in neighborhoods and towns controlled by gangs about young girls who gang leaders “ask for”, to be used as sex toys by the leaders and other members of the gang, and the families hand them over because they know that they could be killed if they don’t.

But the gangs go farther than that, forcing their victims to provide sexual services for profit, another aspect of trafficking.

Official figures from the National Council against Trafficking in Persons, which brings together government agencies to combat the phenomenon, indicate that in 2018 there were 46 confirmed victims, 43 police investigations and 38 judicial proceedings.

The trials led to four convictions and two acquittals. The rest are still winding their way through court, according to the Council’s Work Report 2018.

The document also reported that the attention to victims included programmes to help them launch small enterprises, as well as measures of integral reparations for families of children and adolescents in the shelters.

Emergency response teams were also coordinated to provide assistance to victims, whether the women are foreigners or nationals.

El Salvador is part of the Regional Coalition against Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants, along with Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic.

Honduras has also provided support for economic reinsertion, offering seed capital to set up small jewelry businesses, among others, said Interpol’s Morán.

At least 337 people from Honduras have been rescued since 2018, including 13 in Belize and Guatemala, according to a report by the Inter-Institutional Commission Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking in Persons in Honduras.

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