Over the past three weeks, a migrant group that started with fewer than 200 people grew into thousands as it wound its way through Honduras, Guatemala, and now Mexico, headed for El Norte, the United States. In what has become known as the caravan, the migrants have simultaneously encountered barricades and generosity in their flight from dire situations in their homelands.
The Trump regime and its proxies have greeted the caravan with hostility that has included anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing about who organized it, Islamaphobic nonsense about ISIS terrorists concealed in its numbers, and the usual racist tropes about the alleged evils of brown people. And now the plan is to greet however many of their dwindling and exhausted numbers make it to the border with several thousand well-armed U.S. soldiers.
Most of the people in the caravan, 80 percent according to some reports, come from Honduras. But since 2014, there has been a steady exodus of migrants from Honduras and two other Central American nations—Guatemala and El Salvador—still plagued by the residual impacts of Cold War policies that generated civil war, indigenous genocide, and death squads, while exacerbating the deep poverty that had spurred leftist revolutionaries to topple or try to topple powerful, U.S.-backed leaders.
While guerrilla fighters have surrendered their guns for a more peaceful politics, endemic corruption, and organized crime made worse by the spread of street gangs have replaced internecine wars as the cause of thousands of civilians winding up dead.
Many of the vile social conditions that spurred warfare a few decades ago are worse than ever. Tens of thousands of Central Americans are understandably fleeing. Not usually in caravans but alone, with their immediate family, or in small groups. It’s an incredibly difficult and dangerous trip, even more so for the many thousands of children who head north on their own. It’s not unusual for them to simply disappear along the way, fate unknown.
And there is now a factor at work that is worsening poverty and violence and the desperate behavior they breed: climate change. That could ultimately mean millions will be headed to El Norte.
Oliver Milman, Emily Holden, and David Agren at The Guardian write:
“The focus on violence is eclipsing the big picture – which is that people are saying they are moving because of some version of food insecurity,” said Robert Albro, a researcher at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University.
“The main reason people are moving is because they don’t have anything to eat. This has a strong link to climate change – we are seeing tremendous climate instability that is radically changing food security in the region.”
Migrants don’t often specifically mention “climate change” as a motivating factor for leaving because the concept is so abstract and long-term, Albro said. But people in the region who depend on small farms are painfully aware of changes to weather patterns that can ruin crops and decimate incomes.
Jesús Canan is one of those the reporters talked to. He gave up after two years without rain that meant no corn to harvest. Nothing to eat, nothing to sell, not even any seed corn to replant. He left his family in western Honduras and joined the caravan. “It wasn’t the same before. This is forcing us to emigrate. In past years, it rained on time. My plants produced, but there’s no longer any pattern [to the weather].”
Gena Steffens at the National Geographic also wrote about the devastating impacts of drought in Guatemala where people are literally dying from malnutrition. There in the tropical lowlands of eastern Guatemala, the rain this year was late and sparse and the corn crops of Ch’orti’ Maya Indian Eduardo Méndez López failed:
“This is the worst drought we’ve ever had,” says Eduardo Méndez López, toeing the parched earth with the tip of his boot. “We’ve lost absolutely everything. If things don’t improve, we’ll be forced to migrate somewhere else. We can’t go on like this.”
Guatemala is consistently listed among the world’s 10 most vulnerable nations to the effects of climate change. Increasingly erratic climate patterns have produced year after year of failed harvests and dwindling work opportunities across the country, forcing more and more people like Méndez López to consider migration in a last-ditch effort to escape skyrocketing levels of food insecurity and poverty. [...]
Seeking to understand the upward trend in emigration from this region, a major inter-agency study led by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) interviewed families from key districts in the Dry Corridor about the pressures that are forcing them to leave. The main “push factor” identified was not violence, but drought and its consequences: no food, no money, and no work.
Severe swings in climate have affected Central America and southern Mexico for millennia. Scientists believe that extended drought made intensive crop-growing practices unsustainable 1,200 or so years ago and contributed significantly to the collapse of Mayan civilization.
Today, climatologists see the current drought as a result of the natural cycle of El Niño and La Niña, the warm-then-cooler oscillations of ocean temperature. The unanswered question is whether El Niño and La Niña are becoming more extreme as a consequence of climate change.
Steffens cites Edwin Castellanos, director of the Center for the Study of the Environment and Biodiversity at the Universidad del Valle in Guatemala: “By definition, climate change should usually be modeled in 50-year terms. But what the models are showing should be happening in 2050 is already happening now. So the question is, is this variability higher than usual?” [...] “We still have some ways to go before we can conclude scientifically that what we’re seeing now is outside the normal. But if you go out to the field and ask anybody if this is normal, everybody says no.”
Those Central Americans who flee know that there is a good chance they will not be allowed into the United States—neither international nor U.S. law have provisions for giving climate change refugees asylum—or may make it across the border only to be detained and deported, just as hundreds of thousands have been over the past few years. They come anyway, perceiving life in El Norte as their last hope.
Studies indicate that the world may see 140 million to 200 million climate refugees between now and 2050. And like other climate-related studies, these may be greatly underestimating both the severity and timing of impacts they scrutinize. However many climate refugees eventually make the trek to more favorable climes, millions will flee Central America headed to the United States. Anybody who thinks this can be handled by deploying the Army to the border is as delusional as those in power who still deny that human-caused climate change is even happening.