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Volcano, tropical storm wreak havoc in Guatemala

by Tad Thompson | June 01, 2010
Guatemala experienced a major volcanic eruption May 27-28, which killed at least three people, poured ash upon Guatemala City and brought a declared "state of calamity." And on May 29, matters became much worse, as Guatemala and neighboring Honduras and El Salvador were struck by tropical storm Agatha, which caused flooding and mudslides that killed at least 180 people.

Nancy Tucker, vice president of global business development for the Produce Marketing Association, had scheduled a Fresh Connections Central America seminar in Antigua, Guatemala, for June 1. With the Guatemala City airport closed due to the explosion of the Pacaya volcano and the complications caused by Agatha, Ms. Tucker told The Produce News that PMA had no choice but to postpone the event, which had pre-registered 157 attendees. A new date is being discussed.

News reports indicate that Pacaya eruptions are not unusual. Ms. Tucker said that normally when the volcano spews material into the sky, it does not affect Guatemala City, which is only 15 miles away. But because approaching Agatha disrupted normal weather patterns, three inches of sand and ash blew upon Guatemala's capital city.

On May 31, the news source Banana Link quoted Noé Ramirez, general secretary of SITRABI (which is the Del Monte banana workers' union) as saying, "I'm writing to tell you that we're very worried about our future, because Tropical Storm Agatha has caused the River Motagua to burst its banks and nine communities and large swathes of the Bandegua (Del Monte) banana plantations have been completely flooded. At the moment, total chaos reigns as workers and their families were unable to take any of their belongings with them and have lost everything. There are also food shortages and the government is in no position to deal with all those affected because the crisis is right across the country. The water is beginning to go down, but there were still workers on the roofs of their houses this morning. The company has contracted a rescue helicopter. We are still not sure what will happen to our jobs in the plantations, but the farms certainly look badly affected."

According to Banana Link, President Alvaro Colom was quoted as saying that the economic damage caused by Agatha was considerable. In the border region with El Salvador, he said that "at least 80 percent of crops were lost. The crops most affected are oil palm, sugar cane and bananas."

Francisco Viteri, owner of the Guatemala City-based grower-packer-exporter greenhouse vegetable company, Popoyán, told The Produce News June 1 by email from his farm in Nueva Santa Rosa, Guatemala, "At this moment the only problem we have is, Las Cañas bridge, [which has] lost its approaches. It is in the main road of access to the Santa Rosa valley, the main area of tomatoes and peppers in Guatemala. Together, all the tomato growers of Fasagua, Anapi, and coffee growers of the region, Anacafe, and the mayors of the five villages (Santa Rosa de Lima, Nueva Santa Rosa, San Rafael, Casillas and Mataquescuintla) that depend on that road for access, are working together to have the approaches of the bridge fixed. It may take us another three days to have access to the area. Meanwhile we are using alternative dirt roads only using 4x4 vehicles. Our crops are fine, and at this time, volume of production is minimum due to the end of our production cycle."

Ms. Tucker of PMA said that many factors are going into rescheduling the Guatemala meeting. She noted that a similar PMA meeting in Santiago, Chile, scheduled for mid-March, had to be rescheduled to Aug. 26 because of the earthquake this February. Ms. Tucker added that she was traveling in Russia for several weeks ago, when the Iceland volcano disrupted her flight schedules.