FILE - A man cycles past a sugar cane field near Amatitlan, Guatemala.
FILE - A man cycles past a sugar cane field near Amatitlan, Guatemala.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - Guatemala's subsistence farmers and indigenous people living in poor rural 
communities are most affected by rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall linked to climate change, a leading researcher said Friday.

Poverty makes the Central American country highly vulnerable to the impact of global warming that damages harvests and causes food shortages, said Edwin Castellanos, lead author of a report by the Guatemalan System of Climate Change Sciences (SGCCC). 

Guatemala could see a rise of 3 to 6 degrees Celsius by 2100 and a drop of 10 to 30 percent in rainfall if countries such as China, India and the United States do not cut greenhouse gas emissions, according to the SGCCC. 

Nearly 200 countries agreed in 2015 to curbing greenhouse emissions enough to keep the global hike in temperatures "well below" 2 C above pre-industrial times while pursuing a tougher 1.5 C ceiling. 

Carbon dioxide and methane are the main greenhouse gases that trap heat and contribute to climate change. 

"Guatemala is very vulnerable due to its high levels of poverty," said Castellanos, who is dean of the Research Institute at Guatemala's Valle University and a leading expert in climate change in Central America. 

"Changes in weather exacerbate and worsen the situation, especially among the poorest populations," he said. 

Chronic malnutrition

Seven in every 10 farming families live in poverty, and nearly half of all children under age 5 have chronic malnutrition, according to a report this week by the SGCCC, a group of universities, researchers and government agencies. 

About half of Guatemala's population of 17 million is indigenous, many of them subsistence bean and maize farmers. 

"It will depend a lot on what developed countries do to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions," Castellanos told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Rainfall in Guatemala is becoming more unpredictable, resulting in crop losses, he said. 

"The rainy season is starting later," he said. "When it does start to rain, the rains are very intense." 

Guatemala is located in a wet, tropical area but poor management has caused major water shortages in many areas, he said. 

Also, over the past four decades, the average temperature in Guatemala has risen already by at least 1 degree Celsius, according to the SGCCC. 

In 2013, Guatemala passed a law requiring all government agencies to draw up plans to combat climate change, but it lacks the resources and funding to effect major change, he said. 

Guatemala's agriculture ministry has started helping small farmers set up irrigation systems to cope with drought, but only about a thousand irrigation systems are being built a year when millions of families are in need, he said.