The El Niño harvest

International | Weather disturbance is more than an inconvenience; it places at risk a way of life in Ecuador

Issue: "Charity begins at home," May 16, 1998

(in Quito, Ecuador) - In a flooded field near the tiny village of El Tambo, Ecuador, Patricio slogs through knee-deep water toting a box of rice plants. Throughout the hot, sultry morning, the farmer pokes one after another of the rice plants into muddy holes. Nearby are earlier plantings of rice, standing tall, headed out, and nearly ready for harvest. Here in Manabi Province, up to 75 percent of land is dedicated to agriculture. With 32 to 52 inches of rainfall annually, Manabi leads Ecuador in production of cotton, yucca, coffee, and hard corn. Cacao and bananas are also grown here, in a warm and humid climate that normally includes a dry season. But this year, rice is in. Why? Residents say the 1996 dry season never appeared in this coastal province. The culprit: El Niño, a periodic warming of Pacific Ocean currents that produces flooding and/or drought throughout the world. In late 1997 El Niño washed away statistical averages on Manabi's crops and farming, along with roads, bridges, crops, and the soil itself. Residents-known in Ecuador as Manabitas-say that 18 months of rainy season plus El Niño add up to three lost crops. Some, like Patricio, plant rice in flooded fields where corn, watermelons, cotton, tomatoes, and cacao once grew. Talk of El Niño in Manabi is far removed from the pejorative weather gossip now featured in North American grocery aisles. Here, the weather has thrown residents into a life-and-death struggle no big-city meteorologist can remedy. Late in April, two avalanches struck Manabi within 48 hours. One killed eight people, seven of them children. At least 10 more people were killed the following day, when heavy rains buried a coastal resort city under an avalanche of mud and rock. Torrential rain loosened the side of a hill, which collapsed and buried about 50 houses. Some 20,000 people had to leave their homes. On May 2, a mudslide at the resort city of Bahia de Caraquez covered 150 homes. Since November, at least 240 people have been killed in Ecuador because of flooding and mudslides attributed to El Niño. Across Ecuador, El Niño's flooding has destroyed 300,000 acres of crops. Another half million acres are unusable. Ecuador is the world's leading producer of bananas, but rains have damaged almost one-sixth of Ecuador's banana acreage-62,000 acres. Banana growers predict normal growing conditions again in six months. But near Patricio's rice field in Manabi Province, heaps of sediment-nearly three feet thick in places-blanket the flood plain. Farmer Humberto Calderon says, "The land has been covered with silt or sand. When the water finally goes away, it's not going to be worth anything for crops." Could the news get worse? Local newspapers give banner headlines to predictions of when El Niño will end. The World Meteorological Organization forecasts the prolonged wet season to last until August. Local officials are more optimistic; in the midst of recent avalanches, Civil Defense Col. Gustavo Burbano said he looked for the rains to end sometime in May or June. But the Manabitas are known for hard work and for their pluck in the face of trials. In the wake of these hardships, coastal dwellers set traps for a tasty black fish known as chame. Residents also solicit a small fee for guiding drivers over treacherous sections of flooded highways. The road from El Tambo to nearby Tosagua narrows in places to half its normal width where the remainder of it has collapsed or eroded because of flooding. At one spot, the bridge was washed out by waters rushing through four large concrete culverts. The culverts, each about five feet in diameter, lay strewn about 50 feet away in the adjoining field. Mr. Kurtenbach is news director of HCJB Radio in Quito, Ecuador.

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