SANTA MARIA CHIQUIMULA, Guatemala (Reuters) - After a U.S.-funded program gave Guatemalan farmer Rigoberto Leon and his neighbors tools to plant new crops like tomatoes and chili peppers, many of them stayed to live off their drought-prone lands even as droves of villagers left for the United States.
More programs like the climate change adaptation scheme backed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that helped Leon are in jeopardy after U.S. President Donald Trump said he will end Washington’s aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He has accused the Central American countries of failing to halt an influx of migrants to the United States.
Leon fears an aid cutoff would make it harder for farmers to survive in villages around the small indigenous Mayan town of Santa Maria Chiquimula, in Guatemala’s western highlands, which is suffering deforestation and low rainfall.
“Here, there’s no money to invest in materials, in what’s needed,” he said. “If there were more opportunities for work here, there would be no need to go to the United States.”
For decades, hundreds of programs throughout Central America have worked to slow the steady outflow of men - and increasingly, children and entire families - through efforts such as assisting farmers, educating teens, improving police and strengthening governance.
While these programs have not stopped the overall rise of migration, proponents of international aid say the situation would be worse without them and that the United States should invest more, not less.
U.S. assistance expanded under former President Barack Obama, whose administration sought to tackle root causes of immigration. In his last full fiscal year in office, funds appropriated for Central America hit a high of $754 million.
That aid has steadily decreased under Trump, however, to $700 million the first year and to $627 million in 2018.
Leon, who grows hundreds of pine tree seedlings in a greenhouse equipped with a sprinkler-based irrigation system, both donated by USAID, said the number of families he knew living off the dry hillside more than doubled to 40 as a result of the program, which ran from 2014 to 2017.
Local project organizers say they still receive bare-bones U.S. funding to organize training, but are lobbying for more in order to buy storage tanks and tubing to bring water from a nearby river.
The Mayan people suffer some of the highest poverty rates in Latin America. Guatemala’s paltry tax take and low public investment have contributed to worsening social indicators.
Sebastian Charchalac, an agricultural engineer who helped lead the climate change program, lamented that its funding evaporated after Trump took office, saying it could have been extended to additional locations.
“The results are still very good, because they rooted people to their communities,” he said.
While data is not clear on which projects have been affected by the change in government, the Trump administration has signaled a desire to shift funding away from economic aid and climate change-oriented programs, in favor of security and policing.
USAID did not respond to a question about why funding was reduced for the Santa Maria program. Instead, it said it was evaluating the impact of Trump’s directive to end fiscal year 2017 foreign assistance funding.
Approximately $450 million in 2018 funds would be affected, they said.
It is also unclear how much funding Trump can cut off without the support of Congress.
Rachael Shenyo, a former USAID coordinator in Guatemala who now runs climate change programs funded by non-profit groups and the private sector, said further reductions in U.S. assistance would create an opportunity for China.
Since 2017, El Salvador, Panama and the Dominican Republic have all forged closer ties with Beijing, Washington’s strategic rival.
“China has been increasing its presence more or less across Latin America. You’re going to see a lot more investment,” Shenyo said.
Critics of foreign aid say it is not always effective, or helps only small numbers of people, while sometimes acting as a political tool and forcing an underdeveloped country to become dependent on a stronger one.
In El Salvador, where migration has been shrinking along with the homicide rate, President-Elect Nayib Bukele said he welcomes funding, but that he wants the country to ultimately stop relying on outside help.
“We Salvadorans should be self-sufficient,” he told reporters this week. “It’s somewhat a sense of low self-esteem to think that we can’t get ahead without humanitarian aid.”
U.S. help in El Salvador includes training police and developing strategy. Ever Manzano, the country’s police spokesman, said he did not think Trump’s vow to cut aid would materialize.
“They have a lot of interest and have had a big presence, substantial investment, and excellent relations with the police force,” he said.
U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said ending aid would make it harder for Trump to crack down on gangs and crime.
During a visit last week to El Salvador, he visited a program that teaches software coding to teens to steer them from crime, and an FBI-backed anti-gang project.
“We’re cutting off our nose to spite our face. The very things (Trump’s) complaining about, will make it tougher for us to do,” said Engel.
Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; additional reporting by Milton Castillo in Santa Maria Chiquimula, Guatemala, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador, Patricia Zengerle, Richard Cowan and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; writing by Daina Beth Solomon; editing by G Crosse