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Limited food stocks and early market dependence mark the beginning of the lean season

  • Food Security Outlook
  • Guatemala
  • February 2020
Limited food stocks and early market dependence mark the beginning of the lean season

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  • Key Messages
  • Key Messages
    • In most of the country, recent harvests of basic grains and income from the season of peak demand for unskilled labor will allow poor households to build up food stocks and savings to purchase food and supplies for the next planting cycle.

    • For the poorest households in the dry corridor, reduced or non-existent stocks of basic grains, accelerated spending of income and the impossibility of saving money for the lean season will trigger early reliance on food purchases and the adoption of negative coping strategies, leading to Crisis (IPC Phase 3) from May, after a few months of improved food consumption.

    • Neutral El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) conditions and the forecast of a normal (and even early in some areas of the country) start will allow timely Primera planting and adequate crop growth.


    Current situation

    The basic grain harvest in Petén and the Northern Transversal Strip has started, with average production expected. Heavy rains in January caused damage to homes and flooding in areas near the Polochic River in the department of Alta Verapaz, where localized damage to some crops was recorded. Maize and beans produced in these areas will continue to supply domestic markets until April or May. The markets will be supplied with national maize and maize from Mexico in the following months.

    In general, households have maize stocks from their recent Postrera harvest or from their single production cycle. These will last for an average of 3–6 months, depending on the quality and quantity of land available for planting. The exception is households in the Highlands whose crops were damaged by irregular rainfall in 2019 and whose harvests were below average, as well as some households in specific areas of the Eastern and Las Verapaces regions.

    Maize prices have remained at average levels (Q130.00/quintal) and have followed the average seasonal trend, tending to increase in January and stabilize in February as a result of new harvests. Black bean prices remain atypical, with the wholesale price well below the average for last year. Despite recovering at the start of the year, they are following the same pattern (Q350/quintal), due to a surplus of grains in the domestic market. However, this drop in price is not reflected in retail sales, with the price in local stores and markets ranging from Q4.00–5.00/lb.

    The season of peak demand for unskilled labor ends in March. Since October, cash crops that generate the highest demand for day labor (sugar cane, coffee, cardamom, short-cycle vegetables, African palm and some fruit) have resulted in an increase in the number of people hired for harvesting. Those who are able to travel to the production areas do so on a daily basis. However, a large number of households often migrate to areas outside their place of residence, either within the country or to Mexico or Honduras, where coffee production has improved in recent years, increasing the demand for labor. This year, cardamom production has been bolstered by the increase in international prices, resulting in increased employment and higher wages, particularly for households in the production areas of Alta Verapaz (GT05). For the country’s extremely poor and disadvantaged households, the sale of labor is the biggest source of income and purchases are the main source of food, with over 70 percent of food purchased, according to the 2016 Livelihood Profiles document.

    At the national level, the Ministry of Health data for epidemiological week 52 (22–28 December) shows 2019 ending with 66.3 per 10,000 children under 5 years of age suffering from acute malnutrition, higher than the figure of 54.7 for the same epidemiological week of 2018, equivalent to a 21.7 percent increase in cumulative cases. The figure for the end of 2019 is similar to 2014 and 2015 and is still in line with normal and expected levels. For 2020, the last epidemiological week four (19–25 January), the count is reset, with a figure of 3.0 per 10,000 children under 5 years of age for 2020, compared to the figure of 3.9 for 2019.

    Regarding health services, the Ministry does not actively search for cases. Instead, they are detected during monthly growth monitoring or vaccinations, which means there may be gaps in identification. The figure for the department of Alta Verapaz is especially high: the department ended 2019 with a cumulative rate of 78.7 per 10,000 population (epidemiological week 52), compared to the corresponding figure of 62.7 for 2018, almost 15 points higher. This increase meant that coordinated nutritional sweeps took place from late 2019 to 26 January 2020, in the department of Alta Verapaz under the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) managed by the United Nations Emergency Nutrition Cluster, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Ministry of Health. The sweeps focused on the eight municipalities of Panzós, Tucurú, Tamahú, San Cristóbal Verapaz, Senahú, Tactic, Telemán and La Tinta, covering a total of 229 communities. A total of 23,097 children under 5 years of age were assessed and preliminary data from the sweep found 240 cases of acute malnutrition (1.1 percent), with 200 cases (0.9 percent) classed as moderate and 40 cases (0.22 percent) classed as severe.

    National assumptions

    The national outlook between February and September 2020 is based on the following assumptions:

    Climate, El Niño conditions and rainy season: The forecasts in the early February report of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicate continued neutral ENSO conditions through the August–September–October quarter. According to international forecasting models, an early start to the rainy season and average rainfall is expected for the following months. A normal canícula is forecast between July and August, without a significant decrease in rainfall.

    Start of the rainy season and the Primera season for 2020: The residual humidity in the soil left by a second rainy season with above-average rainfall, as well as the forecast of regular rainfall from April, is expected to allow planting as normal for the areas, or early if farmers have the necessary supplies. Similarly, favorable conditions from rainfall in the following months will encourage adequate crop growth.

    Basic grain production from the Primera season and in the Highlands for 2020: Weather forecasts indicate above-average to average rainfall in the central zone and the Dry Corridor during the months of crop growth. A normal canícula is expected between July and August in terms of duration and intensity, which should not have severe negative impacts on crops. Ambient temperatures will also be within average levels. This means that Primera production is expected to be within the normal range for 2020. Harvests will take place between September and October for the Primera cycle and until December for households in the Western Highlands. 

    Supply and prices of basic grains: National basic grain harvests of maize and beans from the north of the country, which are expected between February and April, as well as continuous formal and informal imports from Mexico, would keep the national market supplied. The prices of both white maize and black beans will remain around average levels and will continue to follow the average seasonal trend, tending to fall from March to May, when the national harvests reach the markets, and increasing from June, when the flow of national grain decreases. Based on FEWS NET price projections using the monthly prices reported by the Planning Directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA), maize prices are expected to remain similar to last year, just above the five-year average, ranging from Q135–Q140.00/quintal. While the price of black beans may recover slightly, it will remain below average at Q330–340/quintal.

    Basic grain stocks for self-consumption: At the national level, rural households had average white maize harvests, allowing standard stocks for self-consumption, except for households in the Highlands whose crops were damaged by irregular rainfall in 2019, resulting in below-average harvests, and certain households in localized areas of the Eastern and Las Verapaces regions.

    Sources of income: From March onwards, the demand for unskilled labor falls as work in large commercial crop production areas is reduced, except for vegetable production areas, where work is stable throughout the year. Other non-agricultural activities, such as bricklaying, are expected to remain around average. In the coming months, sources of income are scarce, temporary and sporadic. They include jobs such as cleaning and preparing land, fertilizing and harvesting basic grains, maintaining land for livestock and coffee, and the chopping and fetching of firewood in areas close to people’s place of residence. Wages are expected remain average, at Q40–60/person/day.

    Savings availability: Recent harvests of basic grains and income from the season of peak demand for unskilled labor will provide poor households with savings to purchase food and supplies for the next planting cycle. However, the households that lost half or all of their 2019 maize harvests in areas of the Dry Corridor and were already in debt from previous years will not have these resources, which will be expected to have a negative impact on their access to food and the planting of basic grains.

    Nutritional situation: The Ministry of Health acute malnutrition situation rooms are expected to follow the same trend as 2019, above the last four years, with peaks during the lean season, but still within acceptable ranges. The various causes of acute malnutrition, including the variety and quality of diets, water and sanitation, frequent infections and difficulties accessing quality health services could maintain the level of acute malnutrition cases in children under 5 years of age.

    Emergency assistance: Although the Ministry of Development plans cash transfers similar to 2019, exact data on the households and areas that will be covered, and the frequency and value of the transfers is not yet available.  Similarly, various cooperation agencies and NGOs are seeking funding for cash assistance to families mainly located in the areas of the Dry Corridor.

    Most likely food security outcomes

    Food availability improved in most regions of the country with the Postrera harvests from the east, north and south coast and the annual harvest from the Highlands. These harvests improved food availability in producer households and on the domestic market, stabilizing prices and facilitating access. Maize prices are expected to be average to above average and bean prices are expected to be in the average range and stable throughout the period, which will generally provide adequate access to food. Household incomes that depend on daily wages have been around average, increasing the purchasing power of households. As such, most of the country will be classed as Minimal  (IPC Phase 1) throughout the period. However, with the onset of the lean season, some households in localized areas, including certain municipalities in Alta Verapaz, will limit the quality and quantity of food they consume due to the depletion of basic grain stocks and the debt burden from the accelerated spending of savings. To cover this deficit, they will need to resort to atypical migration, increased livestock sales and borrowing to maintain minimally adequate food consumption and secure the next crop cycle. This means food insecurity will be Stressed (IPC Phase 2) for the second period, which coincides with the lean season. 

    Poor households in the Dry Corridor have repeatedly suffered poor basic grain harvests in recent years, forcing them to rely on market purchases earlier and for longer periods of time. This dependence has forced them to resort to negative coping strategies for almost all of 2019 to meet their basic food needs. Households are in debt and maintaining a limited diet. At the start of 2020, households are experiencing the consequences of the partial or total loss of crops, having been unable to build their food stocks (mainly of maize) and thus secure consumption over the coming months. Income from October to March during the season of peak demand for unskilled labor has reduced the use of strategies for the acquisition of food. Households have allocated part of their income to immediate purchases and another part to the payment of debts. As such, their food insecurity classification is Stressed (IPC Phase 2) for the first period of this outlook (February–May).  Over the following months, as the lean season progresses, there will be changes in the quality and quantity of household diets, causing their food security to worsen. Households will be forced to intensify their use of coping strategies (especially labor migration) and resort to crisis strategies, such as selling breeding stock and reducing investment in the next planting so as to purchase minimum staple foods like maize, beans, sugar and salt, which are the basis of the rural diet. As such, they will be in Crisis (IPC Phase 3).

    Figures Guatemala seasonal calendar

Postera planting is from August until mid-September. Postera planting in the North is from Nov

    Figure 1

    Seasonal calendar for a typical year

    Source: FEWS NET

    La mayor parte de Guatemala indica precipitaciones promedio o levemente superiores al promedio.

    Figure 2

    Figura 1

    Source: CPC/NOAA

    El pronostico ENOS indica condiciones neutras

    Figure 3

    Figura 2

    Source: IRI – ENSO forecast

    Los precios del maiz se proyectan levemente por arriba del promedio

    Figure 4

    Figura 3

    Source: elaboración FEWS NET con datos de DIPLAN-MAGA

    To project food security outcomes, FEWS NET develops a set of assumptions about likely events, their effects, and the probable responses of various actors. FEWS NET analyzes these assumptions in the context of current conditions and local livelihoods to arrive at a most likely scenario for the coming eight months. Learn more here.

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