Mesoamerican ‘climate refugees’ on the rise


Many traditional smallholder farmers throughout Mesoamerica have noticed that climate change is affecting the productivity of their agroecosystems.

by Tomasz B. Falkowski, Ph.D.
for the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

Adolfo Chankin, an indigenous Maya farmer, manages the same land in Chiapas, Mexico as his father before him. In this region, heavier rains tend to fall between May and September, but Adolfo notes that, “It has been dry for the rainy season.” He breaks apart a clod of soil from his garden between his fingers. It crumbles into a fine dust and falls to the ground.

Many smallholder farmers throughout Mesoamerica have echoed this observation. For these farmers, whose livelihoods are bound to the local environment, the effects of climate change are no longer some distant concern but a present reality. Some regions have already experienced severe and long-lasting drought conditions that have significantly decreased crop yields. No longer able to survive on their land, families find themselves forced to make a harrowing journey fraught with dangers, including human traffickers, cartel violence, and unreliable access to food and shelter, in the hopes of finding asylum in the United States.

Poverty, violence, and political upheavals are unquestionably important. These are immediate reasons for migrants’ unenviable choice to leave the security of their homes to face an uncertain future. However, climate change must also be recognized as an underlying cause for current migration trends, particularly given its effects on traditional smallholder agriculture.

This past June, delegates from around the world met in response to the surge in the number of people displaced by conflict and persecution. The summit ended with the drafting of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, which was formally adopted by the United Nations Intergovernmental Conference in December.

Although this agreement offers an improved framework for addressing international migration, it did not consider the status of “climate refugees.” This term is commonly used to describe people displaced due to sea level rise and weather-related disasters, such as storms and droughts. However, it lacks a generally accepted legal definition, presenting a challenge for migrants to claim refugee status on the basis of escaping the ravages of climate change. This is a troubling oversight. An average of 22 million people have been displaced every year since 2008 as a result of catastrophic weather events, and this number is expected to rise. Reports project that up to 143 million people could be displaced by climate change in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America by 2050.

In fact, these estimates may be conservative in light of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Published this past October, the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees describes that the effects of climate change are far more imminent and dire than previously anticipated. In contrast to the 2014 IPCC report’s moderate forecasts, current data are closely tracking the most extreme and least-optimistic climate change models. The new report argues that pervasive, systemic, and radical actions must be taken at a global scale to avoid the 2°C increase in mean annual atmospheric temperature that is seen as the last major threshold before significant and permanent environmental changes.

Current migration trends may be an indicator of future changes in climate and human movement patterns. Most Mesoamerican migrants currently traveling to the United States border are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, as illustrated by the caravans of asylum seekers currently moving en-masse through Mexico. Unsurprisingly, the most up-to-date and accurate climate change models expect these very regions to experience sharp drops in rainfall and rises in temperature by 2020. The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as flooding and droughts, are also expected to increase in Mesoamerica. For example, extreme weather has caused an annual average of 302 climate-related deaths in Honduras alone. We can expect the number of asylum seekers from Mesoamerica to increase as the effects of climate change there become more drastic.

Precipitation trends in Mesoamerica have been mixed. Some regions have received above-average rainfall in recent years, while precipitation declined in others. As a result, current climate data do not indicate a significant change in annual precipitation in Mesoamerica as a whole. However, precipitation has become more erratic. It rains more intensely during brief periods followed by long stretches of drought. However, precipitation is not the only factor that impacts water availability. Mean annual temperature has increased by an average of 0.1 to 0.3°C throughout Mesoamerica from 1961 to 2003. This increase may appear to be a modest change, but it has already increased plants’ and animals’ water demand, worsening drought conditions associated with low precipitation.

The effects of climate change have been and will increasingly become pervasive with regards to the smallholder agriculture, which accounts for the livelihoods of some 2.3 million households in Mesoamerica. The productivity of smallholder farms is already declining, and these agroecosystems can no longer ensure food security in the regions worst affected by climate change.

This is particularly unsettling because these same smallholder Mesoamerican agroecosystems have successfully adapted to dramatic climatic shifts in the past, suggesting current changes are all the more rapid. Higher temperatures stress and reduce the productivity of livestock and crops. More frequent and intense storms increase erosion, reducing soil fertility. Long periods of below-average rainfall reduce the water availability for irrigation and human consumption. The yields of many staple crops, including corn, rice, and beans, are expected to continue to decline, threatening the viability of an already overextended food system. In addition to these impacts on agriculture, future climate change is projected to increase the prevalence of diseases, as well as the infrastructure damage and fatalities caused by storms.

Unfortunately, impoverished and marginalized communities who have contributed the least to climate change will bear the first and worst of its impacts because they lack financial resources or political power to protect themselves. The residents of the 48 poorest countries, which collectively account for only 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, are five times more likely to die from climate-related disasters than the rest of the global population. In the context of agriculture, while large-scale industrial farms may be able to withstand some of the immediate challenges of climate change through extensive use of fertilizer and irrigation, smallholders who rely on the environment to maintain their agroecosystems generally lack the means to purchase additional resources and technology.

Similarly, smallholders often can’t pay for medical services and live in remote rural areas with limited access to infrastructure, making them particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In a final cruel irony, it is likely that climate change will worsen the inequalities that drive migration. First, it will further limit access to the crucial environmental resources and services available to socioeconomically marginalized populations as a result of reduced availability and/or increased prices. Additionally, the desperation of asylum-seekers makes them easily exploitable by the very companies that helped displace them as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions and lobbying for neoliberal economic policy.

In recent years, the United States government’s response to these trends in migration has consistently been to further militarize the border with Mexico, as illustrated by President Trump’s November decision to mobilize additional security forces in response to Central American migrant caravans. The military-corporate security complex has long acknowledged that climate change may increase socioeconomic volatility, bemoaning that climate change may threaten its access to resources.

However, migration crises, including those driven by climate change, have undoubtedly been a boon to those very same companies and agencies. The United States Border Patrol budget has increased more than tenfold to $3.8 billion since 1993, while the border security market has grown at an average rate of approximately 8 percent in recent years. These figures are only expected to increase under President Trump. However, this emphasis on border security is ultimately a response to a non-existent threat.  Not one terrorist came from Mexico or Central America in any visa category during the past 43 years, and violent crime tends to decrease in communities with a higher percentage of residents with undocumented immigration status.

As such, the militarization of the border actively undermines meaningful adaptation to climate change. By shifting resources away from real solutions, it helps maintain a status quo that is fundamentally incompatible with the reality of environmental change. It not only bolsters the divide between countries, but between those who are environmentally secure and those who are not: a line that runs parallel to that dividing the rich and poor.

Not enough emphasis has been placed on the United States’ responsibility to assist and welcome Mesoamerican asylum seekers given the violence our government has fomented via political, military, and economic interventions throughout Latin America. The United States is also the second biggest (and the highest per capita) source of greenhouse emissions.

As a nation, we will do well to recognize our proportionate responsibility for global climate change fundamentally caused by our neoliberal economic policies and consumption patterns.  We are also partially guilty for the pressures it has disproportionately placed on disenfranchised and impoverished Mesoamerican migrants.  The nexus between climate change and the global expansion in migration underscores the need for integrative policies that meaningfully address both issues, such as collaborating internationally to restructure water management policy in a way that ensures equal access to water and reduces pressures on water resources.

The migration and climate crises we face as a nation and members of a global community are ultimately of our own creation. These issues are not symptoms of broken economic and immigration systems.  These systems are sustained by exploiting both people and nature.  The humanitarian and ecological catastrophes we face are their inevitable products.

We have reached the point where half-measures will not suffice. Fundamental changes are necessary. We must transition towards an economic system that asks how much we can give rather than how much we can take, towards an immigration system that elevates and celebrates human dignity rather than debases it.

Tomasz B. Falkowski, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University. He is part of CUSLAR’s working group on Mexico and migrations.

3 responses to “Mesoamerican ‘climate refugees’ on the rise

  1. Pingback: ‘Lines that unite’: CUSLAR highlights borders, climate change, political shifts | Committee on U.S./Latin American Relations·

  2. Pingback: Exodus and Central America | Committee on U.S./Latin American Relations·

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