The physical transformation of Central America’s vegetation

The following are extracts from an article by Eric Holt Gímenez, Director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First and a regular commentator on development policy in Central America. The article was originally published on the Oxfam Central America website ( soon after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Hurricane Mitch may be the most devastating ecological event to occur in the history of Central America. This is because human impact on the isthmus over the last century transformed the original, heavily forested landscape into a wide patchwork of open fields bordered by groves of trees. Pre-Colombian slash and burn rotational systems were converted from small cultivated plots with extensive areas of forested fallow to intensively farmed, non-rotational systems.

Agriculture reduced the ecological succession of the region from multi-storied, high and medium canopy cover to ecosystems made up of low-lying broadleaf plants, grasses and bare soil. The ecological effect of this transformation was an overwhelming shift in the primary store of nutrients from the biomass (trees) to the soil. This shift in the nutrient store and the corresponding disappearance of the rich litter layer was accompanied by a dramatic reduction in the levels of nutrients held in these ecosystems. … Modern farming has been possible only by the addition of fertilisers.

The change in agroecosystem structure and function from biomass to soil and from nutrient cycling to nutrient addition also removed the protective forest cover, exposing the soil and its reduced nutrient layer to intensive tropical rains. Hurricane Mitch may not have been the first hurricane to dump two metres of rain on the isthmus in less than a week, but it was the first time this large an area of Central American soil had been directly exposed to the intensity of that much rain – ever.

The result was devastating. But the terrible death toll and loss of homes due to mudslides and flooding (now followed by hunger and disease) are only preludes … Mitch was the disaster; the crises are yet to come.