Will climate change hasten Central American migration to US?

Drought in Honduras

COPECO

The growing number of unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border might portend a larger crush of Central American migrants heading north in the months to come.

Hundreds of thousands of subsistence farmers in Central America have been pushed to the brink of hunger by a relentless drought that has ruined planting cycles and shriveled harvests across the region. Food prices have spiked by as much as 40 percent for basic staples such as corn and beans.

The governments of Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica have each declared states of emergency and allocated millions of dollars in relief funding. Nicaragua is considering a similar measure.

Emergency food supplies at a government warehouse in Honduras (photo/ COPECO)

Though droughts in Central America’s so-called “dry corridor” are not uncommon during the El Niño weather cycle, experts say the dry spells are intensifying due to climate change.

Government efforts to dole out emergency food packages to woebegone farmers living on dust-covered fields are a temporary fix. If the rains don’t come soon, the withering countryside will expel many hungry families, analysts warn.

“If the drought is not over in two months, there will be famine and people will leave for the U.S.,” predicts Guatemalan agricultural engineer Bayron Medina, of the Inter-American Institute of Agricultural Cooperation.

Guatemala City is no longer seen as a viable option for migration because gangs control the misery belts surround the capital, Medina says. So when farmers pack their rucksacks and say goodbye to home, they’re most likely heading north.

“There are 1 million Guatemalans already living in the United States, so everyone has a cousin or family member there,” Medina told Fusion in a phone interview. “Here in the countryside there’s no food, and in Guatemala City there’s the problem of gangs. So the only option left is to migrate to the U.S.”

The Guatemalan government estimates that 168,000 families have lost their livelihoods by planting seeds before the rains came. Most subsistence farmers don’t have a seed bank, so one failed harvest can be the difference between subsistence and hunger. The economic loss from this year’s drought is estimated to surpass $57 million in Guatemala alone, according to government calculations.

The situation is equally grim in neighboring Honduras, where the government on Wednesday announced an ambitious emergency-relief plan to deliver food and water to 114,000 families affected by the drought.

“In July, we started out by giving relief aid to 27,000 families, but now we’re increasing that effort to cover everyone affected by the drought,” said José Antonio Velásquez, director of international cooperation for Honduras’s emergency-relief agency COPECO.

Velásquez says he hopes the rains will return before the money runs out, but the forecast isn’t promising.

“We need $14 million to keep this program running through October, but right now we only have $5 million,” Velásquez told Fusion in a phone interview from Tegucigalpa. If the money runs out too soon, Hondurans will pack their bags and leave. “If there is no production or way to earn a living in the countryside, people will leave to look for work,” Velásquez said.

The drought is also punishing impoverished Nicaraguans living in the far north of the country, where a fine line separates hunger and famine. Even the Sandinista government, which routinely hides unpleasant facts that don’t jibe with their revolutionary triumphalism, acknowledged on Wednesday that it is delivering emergency food supplies to 80,000 hungry families and attending to children suffering from malnutrition.

“The good news is we’ve only found a few kids who are malnourished,” said First Lady and government spokeswoman Rosario Murillo.

Perhaps Murillo hasn’t looked hard enough. The opposition daily La Prensa has been reporting for weeks from rural communities that are suffering from extreme hunger without any government presence.

‘The poor can’t migrate’

Not everyone agrees that the drought will lead to a flood of poor emigrants fleeing crop failure. Manuel Orozco, of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue, says the drought in Central America could spark a slight increase in immigration, but the exodus will consist of “only those who can afford to get out.”

Orozco says farmers with some savings might decide to cash out, pay a coyote (a human-smuggler) and migrate to the U.S. But those who loose everything will most likely remain behind. “The poor can’t migrate,” he said. “That’s not how migration works. People who migrate are those who can afford to get out.”

Still, in countries such as Guatemala, Orozco says emigration is mostly a byproduct of natural disasters and problems caused by climate change, including a regional “coffee rust” disease that is wiping out coffee harvests across the region and is expected to trigger job losses exceeding 500,000 in the coming years, according to USAID.

The Coffee Rust disease has cost the region hundreds of millions of dollars in lost coffee crops in past years, and is expected to trigger job losses exceeding 500,000 in Latin America in the coming years, according to USAID. (hoto/Tim Rogers)

“Over the past 10 years, we have seen a strong relation between natural disasters and immigration,” Orozco said.

Central America’s vulnerability to climate change

“Thirty years ago, the dry corridor of Honduras was limited to the extreme south of the country, near the Nicaraguan border,” says COPECO’s Velazquez. “It’s since tripled in size, expanding toward the center of the country. The dry corridor now covers almost 45 percent of national territory.”

In Nicaragua, government officials claim the country’s average temperature has increased by three degrees centigrade over the past 50 years, affecting rain cycles and cost the government an estimated $200 million per annum in lost agricultural production, according to presidential advisor Paul Oquist, Nicaragua’s representative to world climate change forums.

In Guatemala, droughts have been “intensifying and accelerating” over the past decade, Medina says.

“The solution is we need to invest more in rural areas for irrigation and watershed management,” Medina said. “If the government can spend $300 million on hydroelectric dams, why can’t we spend the same amount on irrigation and management of natural resources?

Drought is a recurring problem in Central America's "dry corridor." Campesino picks through a field in northern Nicaragua during a 2010 drought (Tim Rogers/archive)

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