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Early lean season in 2020 despite food access currently improving

  • Food Security Outlook
  • Guatemala
  • October 2019 - May 2020
Early lean season in 2020 despite food access currently improving

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  • Key Messages
  • Key Messages
    • Demand for temporary labor in the main productive sectors began in October and Postrera harvest is expected to be average, bringing an end to the prolonged lean season. Food insecurity in most of the country will remain Minimal (IPC Phase 1), while the poorest households in the Dry Corridor will be classified as Stressed (IPC Phase 2) and in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) until January 2020.

    • Access will temporarily improve but accelerated use of income and high maize prices will affect the poorest households in the Dry Corridor. Their diets will deteriorate as they adjust the quality and quantity of their food and employ negative strategies to fill the consumption gap. These households will be classified in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) until May, marking the early arrival of the lean season.

    • Neutral El Niño conditions are forecast for the start of 2020, so the start and behavior of the rainy season should follow the regular trend. Weather conditions will encourage timely Primera planting and good crop development. This is especially important in areas that are home to the poorest households, whose only option is rainfed agriculture.


    Current situation

    In most of the country, the Primera basic grain harvest (specifically maize and black beans) ended in October. Although some surplus productive areas were affected by rainfall deficits and irregularities during the plant development phase, resulting in losses of approximately 5 percent, national markets are receiving normal grain volumes due to a combination of domestic production and official and informal imports. The Primera maize harvest makes up approximately 60 percent of national production, which means fresh grain from the south coast, the north and the east has a significant impact on prices, which will begin to fall. Throughout the year, the maize price has remained above the five-year average. With the start of production in the south and in line with seasonal trends, the price at La Terminal market began to fall from Q 150 per quintal in August to Q 138 per quintal in September. The price of black beans remained well below average throughout the year. It recovered slightly in September and demand for recently harvested beans is expected to keep the price stable, albeit below the five-year average (Q 343 per quintal as of September).

    The second rainy season began in September and rains were better distributed geographically and over time, benefiting Postrera planting. Increased rainfall has allowed crop development, with above-average rainfall, especially in Boca Costa, the southwest and the Northern Transversal Strip. In some areas, high cumulative precipitation and days of continuous rainfall have caused flooding and landslides, affecting homes, planting, paths and roads. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, crop damage was reported in mid-October in localized areas of municipalities in the departments of Chiquimula, Escuintla, Jutiapa, Quetzaltenango and Retalhuleu.

    The main export cash crops, such as coffee, sugar, cardamom, fruit and vegetables, generate the highest annual demand for temporary labor, with activity concentrated from October to March due to harvests. These areas receive the most temporary annual migration from the poorest households. This source of employment is the main source of income for poor and extremely poor households in the country, with income mainly used to purchase food. The coffee harvest begins in October, with production expected to be similar to the previous season (approximately 4.4 million quintals of green coffee), creating around 463,000 temporary jobs. The sugar sector has maintained production volumes over the last few years. Production for 2019–2020 is estimated to be equal to or slightly below the figure of 2.9 million metric tons for 2018–2019. As such, this source of temporary employment is expected to remain stable, with the majority of workers coming from Quiché, Escuintla and Baja Verapaz and migrating to plantations during the employment season. Another source of employment that has recovered in terms of both production volumes and sales prices is cardamom. Production for the 2019–2020 cycle is expected to be approximately 30,000 tons, with demand for labor similar to last year. Also, a normal winter has allowed average production of Postrera basic grains at the national level, the harvest of which will require average levels of labor.

    At the national level, Ministry of Health data for epidemiological week 39 (22–28 September) found national acute malnutrition of 54.7 per 10,000 children under 5 years of age, higher than the 2018 figure of 45.0. While it has not been possible to obtain accurate information on the causes of this increase, the country suffers from high chronic food insecurity: according to the IPC classification for chronic food insecurity (2018), almost all the country is classed as Moderate (IPC level 3) and Severe (IPC Level 4). This reflects the high vulnerability of households, with children under 5 years of age most exposed to recurrent cases of acute malnutrition. The incidence of respiratory diseases also tends to increase at this time of year. Organizations present in the eastern Dry Corridor have identified an increase in infectious diseases, exacerbating the fragile health conditions that could increase the number of malnutrition cases observed so far.

    National assumptions

    • Climate, El Niño conditions and rainy season: According to the early October report produced by the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), neutral El Niño conditions are set to continue throughout the year, meaning average cumulative rainfall is expected during the second rainy season, alongside a normal start to the first rainy season of 2020.
    • Season of cold fronts and frosts: The cold season is expected to start in late October or early November, with the lowest temperatures recorded in the western part of the country and the central plateau.
    • Postrera cycle production: Normal development of basic grain crops in this cycle is expected, with the exception of some areas, where excess humidity could affect yields. However, national production is expected to be in the average range.
    • Start of the 2020 Primera season: Mesoscale forecasting models suggest precipitation will arrive on time during April and May 2020, meaning planting will take place in the traditional planting season between April and May. Areas normally planted between February and March will have enough residual soil moisture from the favorable rainfall in the second rainy season of 2019.
    • Supply and price of maize and black beans: The supply of the national market will be sustained by the national Primera harvests, Postrera harvests (expected to be around average) and formal and informal trade flows from Mexico. Prices are expected to follow their seasonal trend. However, according to FEWS NET forecasts, white maize prices will remain above the five-year average, similar to 2019, while black beans will be slightly below average.
    • Income sources: The demand for casual labor will increase seasonally until March, peaking between November and January. Production of coffee, melons, sugar cane, tobacco, basic grains, cardamom and other crops that require large amounts of temporary labor is expected to be stable and this will be reflected in the number of jobs created.
    • Malnutrition: Malnutrition is not expected to increase beyond the average and expected levels for this season.  
    • Food assistance: At the national level, there is no significant planned food or cash assistance. However, during the last months of the year, Trócaire, Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) will provide assistance in six municipalities in Quiché, covering 4,000 families, while CRS and the World Food Programme (WFP) will provide support to 5,000 families in 11 municipalities in Chiquimula. Under the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund, WFP will make three cash transfers to 5,500 families in eight municipalities in Alta Verapaz. Transfer amounts range from Q 300 to Q 870, issued in one to four payments, from October to January 2020. Although coverage is not considered to be enough to influence the food insecurity classification, it is nonetheless a significant contribution that helps improve households’ access to food. Specific food assistance in localized areas in the following months is not ruled out, although it is not expected to change the food security phase classification.

    Most likely food security outcomes

    The Primera harvests that allowed basic grain stocks, the availability of income during the peak employment season in the country’s various productive sectors and average Postrera harvest yields will keep the majority of poor households in the country in Minimal food insecurity (IPC Phase 1), with the exception of households in the Dry Corridor that were affected by poor precipitation during the crop development phase.

    These households, which have lost their Primera basic grain production (in the east) and their only harvest (in the west) for the second consecutive year, will not have this source of food, which is usually enough for two to four months of maize consumption. Income from employment during the harvest months of the various cash crops will allow households to purchase the minimum amount of food. However, households have been dependent on the market since the 2018 lean season and income from employment is immediately used to purchase food and pay off debt incurred for household consumption and planting. This situation has prompted a change in the diet of families, which are based on maize and beans, with limited variety, animal protein, fruits and vegetables. Continuous dependency on the market, increasingly limited consumption and use of loans for food purchases means the food security of these households will become Stressed (IPC Phase 2) during the first period of this outlook (October to January). Employment opportunities decline in February and households will need to use negative coping strategies to generate income, such as long-distance migration to carry out different activities, as well as new members of households joining the search for work. The sale of chickens and the collection and sale of wood will also increase, together with reduced spending on agricultural supplies to try to fill the widening food gap. Since the price of maize remains higher than average, the purchasing power of these households will fall, exacerbating the food insecurity of households and pushing them into Crisis (IPC Phase 3).


    Possible events over the next eight months that could change the most-likely scenario.



    Impact on food security outcomes


    A stronger-than-average hurricane season during the second rainy season, in which a hurricane makes landfall and becomes a tropical storm or results in above-average rainfall in areas of bean subsistence production.

    Flooding in low-lying areas and areas surrounding rivers, affecting household livelihoods and transportation for supplying the markets, as well as the flooding of bean crops. Complications in the availability of and access to food for poor households classified as Stressed (IPC Phase 2), causing their food security to deteriorate and pushing them into Crisis (IPC Phase 3).

    Decreased rainfall during the early months of 2020.

    Delays in Primera planting and insufficient cumulative rainfall for the correct development of maize and beans during the Primera season could affect yields. The consequences would be felt from the harvest months (September to October).

    Stockpiling of maize or beans due to lost harvests.

    Limitations on the entry of maize from Mexico.

    Increased demand for basic grain exports to Central American countries to cover domestic consumption due to crop losses.

    This could cause an unusual increase in maize and bean prices, affecting the purchasing power of poor households that are fully dependent on the market to meet their basic food needs during the lean season. This could cause a fall in maize consumption in localized areas, causing food security to worsen and resulting in pockets of the population entering a more critical phase of food insecurity without changing the phase of the area as a whole.

    A fall in coffee production volumes and a sharp fall in the international price.

    This could cause a reduction in temporary employment opportunities, affecting the poorest households, for whom it is the main source of annual income. This could complicate access to food, increasing the food insecurity of households dependent on wages from temporary labor, who would remain in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) for the full period of this outlook, with some pockets facing a more severe outlook.

    Figures Les precipitaciones observadas se encuentran en mayoría al rededor del promedio.

    Figure 1

    Figura 1

    Source: FEWS NET/USGS

    El pronóstico ENSO indica condiciones neutras

    Figure 2

    Figura 2

    Source: IRI

    Los precios del maíz siguen la tendencia estacional pero por arriba del promedio

    Figure 3

    Figura 3

    Source: FEWS NET

    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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