Why the Migrant Caravan Story Is a Climate Change Story

Drought, crop failure, storms, and land disputes pit the rich against the poor, and Central America is ground zero for climate change.
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A child sits in an area affected by a drought in the southern outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in 2016. In the same area this September, the Honduran government declared a state of emergency because of drought as 290 municipalities are on the verge of running out of food.

Photo by Orlando Sierra/Stringer/Getty Images

Less than a mile south of the U.S.-Mexico border, in Sasabe, Mexico, a Guatemalan man named Giovanni (whose first name is used to protect his undocumented status) propped up his feet while an EMT applied antibiotic ointment to his feet in the shade of a cottonwood. Giovanni left his home country because of a catastrophic drought and was attempting to unite with his brothers who were already in Dallas. After trying to cross the border into the Arizona desert, his feet were ravaged: discolored, covered in gashes and tender red blisters. One toenail had been ripped off. Across the arroyo, or dry wash, were about 30 more prospective border crossers, primarily Guatemalan, some awaiting a similar medical checkup, others stocking up on water and food.

It was July, and several days before in a 110-degree heat wave, he had crossed the border with a small group of about five other people from Guatemala. After 14 hours, they ran out of water. After 21 hours, Giovanni gave up and turned back alone. He had no water, no food, and quickly lost his orientation, but he made it back to Sasabe.

Giovanni is part of a Central American exodus of people that has been increasing for decades. The recent caravans are the most recent chapter. And while there are complex and compounding reasons for the massive displacements and migrations—especially rising violence (in places like Honduras, for example, after the 2009 military coup) and systemic poverty—there is another driver behind the movement of people seeking refuge in the U.S.: climate change.

“Families and communities have already started to suffer from disasters and the consequences of climate change.”

As the EMT tenderly wrapped an adhesive bandage around Giovanni’s feet, Giovanni told me about the droughts back in his home of San Cristobal Frontera. It hadn’t rained for “40 days and 40 nights,” he said. The crops in the milpas—subsistence farm plots of corn, beans, and squash—were wilting, and the harvests failing. The cattle were skinny and dying of starvation. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador lie in the trajectory of the so-called “dry corridor” of Central America that stretches from Southern Mexico to Panama. This epithet is a recently adopted description of the region, to describe the droughts that have risen in intensity and frequency over the last 10 years.

Most members of the human caravans are from these three “dry corridor” countries.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, “Families and communities have already started to suffer from disasters and the consequences of climate change.” From 2008 to 2015, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported that at least 22.5 million had been displaced per year because of climate-related-events, the equivalent of 62,000 people per day. Over this time, environmental forces uprooted more people than war. And in 2017 alone, disasters displaced 4.5 million people in the Americas.

In September, the World Food Programme essentially confirmed what Giovanni had told me earlier that summer in Sasabe. According to reporting by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the WFP said, “Poor harvests caused by drought in Central America could leave more than two million people hungry” and “climate change was creating drier conditions in the region.” In July, El Salvador declared a red alert as the drought affected 77,000 corn farmers, and Honduras reported that as much as 80 percent of its maize and bean crops were lost. The accumulated losses of these crops exceeded 694,366 acres in Guatemala and El Salvador. This summer’s devastating losses came after other recent, hard-hitting dry spells, particularly from 2014 to 2016, that had already left millions on the brink of hunger.

As climate scientist Chris Castro told me in 2017, Central America is ground zero for climate change in the Americas. Among the thousands of people caravanning north are climate refugees.

Climate change is a force in Central America. As one Honduran subsistence farmer named Guillermo told me in 2015 in an interview published in my book Storming the Wall: The weather is changing. And that is affecting food supply. Guillermo’s first name is used because of safety concerns.

“We used to have a place—a warehouse—to store the community’s food,” Guillermo said. But now, he said, that storage house was empty, and he described how the first rains of the season—which used to be so reliable—had become unpredictable.

People would be forced to cross in places so desolate and dangerous that the environment itself became a weapon.

Guillermo’s small coastal community of Vallecito is one of about 46 Garífuna communities in Honduras. The Garífuna people are descendants of Caribbean Native Arawak as well as Central and Western African people forcibly brought to this hemisphere by White enslavers. Coastal Garífuna communities are subject to storm surges and hurricanes (such as Hurricane Mitch, which killed more than 7,000 people in Honduras in 1998) and are at the center of land disputes over ever-expanding African Palm plantations, tourism, and other development projects, some U.S.-backed, which Garífuna community members have called a “systematic eviction” from their land by corporate and state forces.

Drought, crop failure, storms, and land disputes pit the rich versus the poor: All of these things have displaced people in Vallecito and other north coast communities, some of whom have moved to increasingly volatile cities—like San Pedro Sula, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world—in search of work.

According to the 2017 Global Climate Risk Index, both Guatemala and Honduras are among the countries most affected by climate change. From 1996 to 2015, Honduras had 61 extreme climate events and an average of 301 climate related deaths per year. Guatemala had 75 events and an average 97 deaths per year. According to the report, over the last couple decades, Central America has experienced a temperature rise between 0.7 and 1 degree Celsius.

Meanwhile, there are increased and increasing border controls in Central America, Mexico, and, of course, the United States. In April 2016, Miriam Miranda, the coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, a Garífuna rights organization, told teleSUR English that rather than truly address global warming, world leaders were instead “preparing to avoid and control human displacement as a result of catastrophes” through “ramped-up militarization and the so-called war on drugs in indigenous territories.”

According to the border strategy known as Prevention Through Deterrence, by effectively making the urban borderlands impassable, people would be forced to cross in places such as Sasabe, areas so desolate and dangerous that the environment itself became a weapon.

This was what Giovanni experienced when he had to turn back to Sasabe, Mexico. Indeed when Giovanni turned around to try to get back to Sasabe, he was walking through a place where thousands of bodies of other crossers have been found in one of the least discussed humanitarian crises in the United States.

The harshest impacts of climate change are reserved specifically for people like Giovanni: the poor, the marginalized, the displaced, and in this case, the unauthorized.

Historically, U.S. foreign policy has often contributed to increased Central American displacement. When tens of thousands of Guatemalans and Salvadorans crossed into the United States in the 1980s, they were fleeing wars by military dictatorships financed, armed, and trained by the United States. These are the same places where U.S.-based corporate oligarchies—such as the United Fruit Company—have profited at the expense of locals living in poverty or extreme poverty.

And now there’s climate change. The United States leads in greenhouse gas emissions, having produced 27 percent of the world’s emissions since 1850. The European Union follows with 25 percent, China 11 percent, Russia 8 percent. And U.S. emissions (314,772.1 millions of metric tons of CO2) dwarf those of Guatemala (213.4), Honduras (115.5), and El Salvador (135.2). In other words, the U.S. has contaminated the atmosphere with 678 times more CO2 than the three countries whose people are in the caravan.

The harshest impacts of climate change are reserved specifically for the poor, the marginalized, the displaced, and in this case, the unauthorized.

Countries, like the U.S., that have emitted the most CO2 are fortifying their borders against people from countries who have emitted the least. And these are countries where people, like Giovanni and Guillermo, are feeling the effects of climate change. In the future, projections for climate displacement are staggering, and range from 25 million to 1 billion by 2050. One estimate from the World Bank says that climate change will displace 17 million Latin Americans by 2050. Another forecast projects that one in 10 Mexicans between 15 and 65 will be displaced.

Yet, instead of any sort of reckoning with the human displacement caused by climate change, Washington only deploys more armed agents, builds more walls, and deploys active duty troops authorized to use lethal force to stop caravans of refugees. Among these are refugees who recently tried to cross the border from Tijuana and were held back with tear gas fired by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. These border crossers were primarily from Honduras; it’s likely some were from communities like Guillermo’s. And elsewhere, it’s almost certain that Giovanni—or people from his community—are among those arriving at the border every day.