CIAT in Central America
The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has been working in Central America since the 1970s, building together with partners and collaborators a research agenda that can help Central American countries transition from being a victim of climate variability to strategically coping with the effects of climate change, from non-inclusive markets to more equitable value chains, and from natural resource degradation to ecosystem restoration and sustainable production systems.
Our cutting-edge science helps policy makers, private sector, scientists, civil society, and farmers respond to the most pressing challenges of our time. Our research draws on international expertise in various disciplines. Using the world’s largest collections of beans, cassava, and livestock forages, we work to tackle poverty, food insecurity, gender inequality, malnutrition, climate change, and land and environmental degradation, contributing towards seven of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Improving food security and nutrition
In 2012, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that 14.2% of the population in Central America suffered from malnutrition, almost 6 million people. Some of the most severe levels of malnutrition globally and moderate and severe chronic malnutrition in children under age 5 are observed in Guatemala.
The diet of Central Americans is made up of foods with high energy density but low nutritional density. The contribution of carbohydrates to food energy supply varies between 64% in Panama and 70% in Guatemala. Proteins only provide 11% of the calories, much less than the recommended 15%.
Through HarvestPlus (www.harvestplus.org), CIAT helps tackle malnutrition in Central America and the world through the development, distribution, and promotion of crops biofortified with micronutrients such as iron (beans), zinc (rice and maize), and pro-vitamin A (cassava and sweet potato), to prevent anemia, growth stunting, blindness, and even premature death.
Making livestock systems more productive and sustainable
Livestock production represents a very important land use in Central America, occupying up to 50% of arable land in some countries (Nicaragua). Livestock contributes significantly to national economies and food security, and to reducing the vulnerability of smallholders to income deprivation. However, the effects of climate change (increased drought especially) and widespread pasture degradation, combined with the lack of infrastructure and access to markets, have caused poor livestock productivity and product quality, as well as high levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Over the past 15 years, CIAT and its partners have identified and developed production systems based on more productive forages, offering alternatives to adapt to adverse conditions and mitigate land degradation and GHG emissions.
LivestockPlus, a CIAT initiative, promotes the sustainable intensification of livestock production through the implementation of sustainable systems based on the use of improved forages and on-farm forest conservation. The initiative aims to increase productivity, reduce the environmental footprint of livestock production, and restore ecosystem services. This approach has been adopted in El Salvador and Nicaragua, with the aim of promoting sustainable livestock production systems and value chains across Central America.
Turning climate change into an opportunity
Central America is a region highly vulnerable to climate change. Its agricultural sector shows high sensitivity to climate variability, particularly along the Dry Corridor, which encompasses parts of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, and where nearly 10 million people face long drought spells and increased occurrence of pest and disease outbreaks. Climate variability not only threatens farmers and their food security and livelihoods, but also the entire food system.
CIAT works within the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), focusing on three thematic areas:
- Identification and testing of climate-smart agricultural practices in three climate-smart villages in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala with local, regional, and national stakeholders, as well as policy makers to build evidence of the effectiveness of climate-smart agriculture (CSA).
- Creation and strengthening of climate information systems and protection networks, including the establishment of local agro-climatic committees currently functioning in 11 locations in Honduras and Nicaragua as well as building capacity of meteorological services in climate and crop modeling.
- Identification of low-emission agricultural development options to inform governments and policy makers (Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua) for developing sectoral (coffee, livestock), national, and even regional strategies, such as Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), and a Central American Climate-Smart Agriculture Strategy led by the Central American Agricultural Council (CAC).
Restoring soils, landscapes and ecosystem services
It is estimated that nearly 75% of the region’s crop and pasture land shows some level of degradation, resulting in low productivity of agricultural systems and loss of ecosystem services. This in turn aggravates the vulnerability of rural people to the impacts of climate variability and climate change. Deforestation, slash-and-burn practices, and grazing on steep hillsides are major factors that have resulted in land degradation and loss of soil fertility and water productivity.
Developing and stimulating adoption of agro-ecological practices and agroforestry systems that help restore soil fertility, improve the efficient use of water and nutrients, help conserve biodiversity, reduce pest problems, and contribute to soil and landscape restoration, are essential to increase resilience in production systems in the face of climate change. This should go hand in hand with novel mechanisms to reward the contribution of smallholder farmers to the provision and protection of ecosystem services.
For example, important progress has been made with the adaptation and dissemination of improved Quesungual agroforestry systems for basic grain crops as an alternative to slash-and-burn practices in the Dry Corridor with significant potential for landscape restoration. The Quesungual agroforestry system, studied and disseminated by CIAT since the 1990s, has helped restore soil moisture, prevent erosion, reduce deforestation, and mitigate climate impacts in countries such as Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, by replacing slash-and-burn practices with “slash-and-mulch” methods, which restore soil fertility, carbon, and other ecosystem services.
Sustainable food systems
CIAT engages in market systems critical to smallholder producers and poor consumers to improve equity, resilience, and nutritional outcomes. To that end, we focus on the following strategic lines of work:CIAT engages in market systems critical to smallholder producers and poor consumers to improve equity, resilience, and nutritional outcomes. To that end, we focus on the following strategic lines of work:
- Smallholder inclusion and rural poverty reduction through value chain upgrading strategies and inclusive business models in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, including assessment of certification models, such as fair trade.
- Climate-smart value chains through climate risk mapping and development of CSA strategies in dual-purpose livestock, coffee, cocoa, and crops for local consumption.
- Characterization of the local basic food basket to understand how traditional agri-food systems work, and improve their efficiency, equity, and resilience through public policy or collective action among the market actors.
Gender and impact assessment
Our work in gender seeks to bring into sharp focus constraints, needs, and effects of the existing dynamics between women and men in smallholder households. A key focus has been on identifying mechanisms to foster women’s empowerment, especially in light of regional climate change vulnerability that disproportionately affects women. In Nicaragua, for example, we are exploring women’s and men’s perceptions of household decisions and their roles in decision making about agricultural practices. This research will inform development projects seeking to promote the adoption of practices for climate change mitigation and adaptation. We are also working with partners to strengthen the participation of rural women and youth in value chains in the Dry Corridor. In Guatemala, we are researching the role of gender in household food choices and nutrition outcomes.
Our research in impact assessment seeks to improve understanding of the effects of specific agricultural interventions to inform the design of development policies and programs. Using baseline and endline surveys of beneficiaries of development projects as well as household surveys, we have measured the impact of biofortified crop varieties on nutrition outcomes in Guatemala; the impact of improved varieties on productivity; the effect of climate change on farmer land use and agricultural practices; the impact of digital technologies on cocoa farmers; have designed evaluation models for the impact of water harvesting technologies on farmers’ incomes; in addition to traditional strengths in adoption and acceptability studies of agricultural technologies.
Nicaragua, a hub of the CGIAR System in Central America
Nicaragua, together with Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Vietnam, is one of the six countries defined by the CGIAR System as a site integration country for the CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs), during their second phase 2017–2022, and the national research agendas.
Seven of the current 15 CRPs converge in Nicaragua: Integrated Systems for the Humid Tropics; Policies, Institutions and Markets; Forests, Trees and Agroforestry; Water, Land and Ecosystems; Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security; Livestock and Fish; and Agriculture for Nutrition and Health.
What we have accomplished together
Thanks to a joint effort with regional partners, CIAT has achieved remarkable scientific impacts, including the development of 16 grass cultivars and 10 legume cultivars between 1983 and 2005, released in Central America and Mexico. The 22 rice varieties released by the genetic improvement program, led by the Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice (FLAR), account for 60% of the area sown to rice in Costa Rica and 44% in Panama; and ANAR 2006 is the second rice variety most cultivated in Nicaragua – to mention a few examples of what can be achieved working as a team with partners in the region.