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How Climate Change is Driving Emigration from Central America

coffee and climate change emigration

Daily Coffee News photo.

Clouds of dust rose behind the wheels of the pickup truck as we hurtled over the back road in Palo Verde, El Salvador. When we got to the stone-paved part of the road, the driver slowed as the truck heaved up and down with the uneven terrain. Riding in the back bed of the truck, Ruben (not his real name) and I talked while we held on tight, sitting on sacks of dried beans that he was taking to market.

“It doesn’t come out right,” he said, “it just doesn’t pay anymore to work the land. I take out a loan for seed, and then I can’t count on making it back to pay off my debt.”

Ruben told me then, for the first time, that he planned to save up his money to migrate out of El Salvador. His story is playing out across Central America among many migrants and would-be migrants.

When I spoke with Ruben, it was 2017, nearly 20 years after I had first spent time in his community, a coffee cooperative in El Salvador’s central highlands founded in the 1990s. Over those two decades, the cooperative’s hopes and dreams of a sustainable livelihood producing coffee for a global market have been dashed.

Rising global temperatures, the spread of crop disease and extreme weather events have made coffee harvests unreliable in places like El Salvador. On top of that, market prices are unpredictable.

In the back of the pickup truck that day, we talked about gangs too. There was increasing criminal activity in the town nearby, and some young people in the town were being harassed and recruited. But this was a relatively new issue for the community, layered on top of the persistent problem of the ecological crisis.

As a cultural anthropologist who studies factors of displacement in El Salvador, I see how Ruben’s situation is reflective of a much broader global phenomenon of people leaving their homes, directly or indirectly due to climate change and the degradation of their local ecosystem. And as environmental conditions are projected to get worse under current trends, this raises unresolved legal questions on the status and security of people like Ruben and his family.

Land and livelihood

Migration from Central America has gotten a lot of attention these days, including the famous migrant caravans. But much of it focuses on the way migrants from this region – especially El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras — are driven out by gang violencecorruption and political upheaval.

These factors are important and require a response from the international community. But displacement driven by climate change is significant, too.

The link between environmental instability and emigration from the region became apparent in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Earthquakes and hurricanes, especially Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and its aftermath, were ravaging parts of Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Many people from El Salvador and Honduras lived in the U.S. at the time, and the Bush administration granted them Temporary Protected Status. In this way, the government of the United States recognized the inhumanity of sending people back to places struggling with ecological disaster.

In the years since those events, both rapid-onset and long-term environmental crises continue to displace people from their homes worldwide. Studies show that displacement often happens indirectly through the impact of climate change on agricultural livelihoods, with some areas pressured more than others. But some are more dramatic: Both Honduras and Nicaragua are among the top 10 countries most impacted by extreme weather events between 1998 and 2017.

Since 2014, a serious drought has decimated crops in Central America’s so-called dry corridor along the Pacific Coast. By impacting smallholder farmers in El SalvadorGuatemala and Honduras, this drought helps to drive higher levels of migration from the region.

Coffee production, a critical support for these countries’ economies, is especially vulnerable and sensitive to weather variations. A recent outbreak of coffee leaf rust in the region was likely exacerbated by climate change.

The fallout from that plague combines with the recent collapse in global coffee prices to spur desperate farmers to give up.

Compounding factor

These trends have led experts at the World Bank to claim that around 2 million people are likely to be displaced from Central America by the year 2050 due to factors related to climate change. Of course, it’s hard to tease out the “push factor” of climate change from all of the other reasons that people need to leave. And unfortunately, these phenomena interact and tend to exacerbate each other.

Scholars are working hard to assess the scale of the problem and study ways people can adapt. But the problem is challenging. The number of displaced could be even higher — up to almost 4 million — if regional development does not shift to more climate-friendly and inclusive models of agriculture.

People who emigrate from Central America may not always fully realize the role climate change plays in their movement, or think of it as the final trigger given all the other reasons they have to flee. But they know that the crops fail too often, and it’s harder to get clean water than it used to be.

Seeking a protected status

Ruben recently contacted me to ask for a reference to a good immigration lawyer. He and his daughter are now in the United States and have an upcoming hearing to determine their status.

Just as he predicted a few years ago, Ruben couldn’t make a living in El Salvador. But he may find it hard to live in the U.S. too, given the mismatch between refugee law and current factors causing displacement.

For several years now, scholars and legal advocates have been asking how to respond to people displaced by environmental conditions. Do existing models of humanitarian response and resettlement work for this new population? Could such persons be recognized as in need of protection under international law, similar to political refugees?

Among the most complicated political questions is who should step up to deal with the harms of climate change, considering that wealthier countries pollute more but are often shielded from the worst effects. How can responsibility be assigned, and more importantly, what is to be done?

In the absence of coordinated action on the part of the global community to mitigate ecological instability and recognize the plight of displaced people, there’s a risk of what some have called “climate apartheid.” In this scenario — climate change combined with closed borders and few migration pathways — millions of people would be forced to choose between increasingly insecure livelihoods and the perils of unauthorized migration.



Gene Ralno

Climate change is poppycock and has been repeatedly and thoroughly debunked by the finest scientists and meteorologists. People in these drug and crime infested nations have survived for thousands of years through the hottest and coldest in their respective histories. Rationalizing a colossal invasion of the U.S. because it’s hotter or drier these days is absurd and ridiculous.


it’s hard to tease out the “push factor” of climate change from all of the other reasons that people need to leave

This sentence is the closest to absolute truth in the entire article.

I personally KNOW people who produce coffee in that region… Guatemala (el Quiché, Cobán), El Salvador (Santa Ana), Nicaragua “Matagalpa” and Honduras (northeast area, can’t recall the name). ALL of these enterprises, some of them in operation for five or six generations, are prospering. They cite the two biggest issues they face as number ONE, the drug/gan infestation. The El Salvador folks have to follow the trucks bearing their coffee in sea cans to the port for export with one, even two, unmarked inudentifiable vehicles carrying multiple armed guards. Even at that, while they’ve not lost a load yet, they are fully cognisant that this could happen any day.
In Nicaragua, the largest factor mitigating against prosperity there is the same one that drove tens of thousands of Nicas, rich, poor, famous, connected, nobodies, from their beloved nation off to live in Miami.. the name of that factor is the same now as it was then… Daniel Ortega. Read your history to learn how this could be. But it is. I spend considerable time in Nicaraga, travelling throughout the whole of the western part of the country, in the aftermath of Mitch. That was a freak event, NO ONE ever would have guessed that monster storm, after charging itself with water for a few weeks over the Gulf, would wander inland a few miles (about sixty), park stationary, maintain its strength, and DUMP eight and a half feet of water over the border sector with Honduras. I saw the high water mark on the Honduran side of the Rio Coco, some `120 feet above river level when I was there, thefollowing January. And the river bed at that point is several miles wide….. ALL of it underwater and racing to the sea. I sw the destruction…. but that is NOT anything to do witih “climate change”. Freak weather events are not climate, which is defined as “weather over a long period of time”.

The second major factor is indeed la roya…… but the producers I know are of the sort that keep themselves informed and alert, they study and learn of threats, then learn HOW to deal with them. The El Salvador producers described to me how they dealt with la roya. First, they keep current on their industry, keeping informd of things, New of la roya WAS “out there”. I had heard of it and I am not a producer, They are, it is their BUSINESS to know about these things, and how to deal with them. Their response was first to learn HOW to tell when it is first infesting a particular area. They learned the early signs if infestation, Then they learned what toDO to prevent damages by taking radical steps early on the moment any sign of it was visible. THEN they trained ALL their full time and many of their seasonal workers to keep their eyes peeled for the early signs. The INSTANT they think they wee evidence that “its here”, immiedately leave what you are doing, come quickly and find one of we managers, and bring us to see what it is you saw. They bring the tools to deal with it when they return to the place it was spotted… within minutes of finding it. They deal with it immediately and decisively. They did lose about 20% of production volume that first year, but maintained their overall very high quality (they are frequently in the COE auctions). Next year volume was back to normal, and quality remained high. They have since purchased two more coffee estates… “problem children” from producers who decided to get out.. those lands are producing very good coffees, and in abundance. .

Your friend “Ruben” can’t live more than abuot 150 Km from my friends in Santa Ana. I have a VERY hard time opening my big mough far enough to swallow that two places that close together, one is prosperting and expaning, the other is falling apart… consistently over many years (remember the definition of “climate”.. one Mitch does not a “coimate change” make.).

My friend in el Quiché bears a similar history. His lands in that region have always produced an abundance of very excellent coffees. He, about 8 years ago, bought a “distressed” finca in Cobán. I had the third year crop from that land, it was decent coffee, a bargain at the low price, and came with the explanation that the land is not yet into full quality production. I had the crop from two years later.. same ground, same trees. WHAT an amazing difference….

I have no idea the background thinking you espose wherin people deciding to leave their homeland because they are not prospering sufficiently (expecially when others within a hundred miles continue to do so) and then expecting some new to them nation to open wide their arms and SUPPORT them.
I am NOT opposed to immigration…. not that many years ago I was an immigrant.. FROM the US to a different nation. It took a year to work through all the paperwork interviews, records, applications, etc, travelled three hundred miles to appear before the consul of my target nation. After all that I was accepted, did in fact emigrate to that country, and lived there, working and prospering, for five years. I was warned during the process: if YUO end up depending on government for your support at any time in the first two years of your residence you WILL receive a hand delivered gift…. a plane ticket back to the country of your origin. They meant it. I knew a couple others who went to that country and gamed the system…. until the ever vigilant government up with them caught, and their prize for their laziness was a one way plane ticket back “home”.

I have many Irishmen in my ancestry, nost of them fled Ireland during the Potato Famine. That was NOT a :climate change” issue as some would have us believe today. No, that was th direct result of British Imperialism which, as has been their wont for at least two centirues, had the bothersome habit of attempting to run the daily lives in great detail of their subject nation/colonies, That one thing is, in fact, the REASON our Colonial forbears refused to lay down their arms at the command of the Brithsh General/Gpvernor. It was that bent to “tell us how we should live” that led directly to monocropping potatoes throughout Ireland. England needed them to feed their vast hordes of soldiers subjugating colonies round the world. It was this monocropping led directly to the rise and rapid spread of a fungal infection.. but not even that was the MAIN driving factor for massive emigration. No, it was the demand of their British overlords, at the point of a gun, that they sign the “conformist oaths”, leading to the decision to flee the tyranny. Were this situation unfolding today I’ve not a nanogramme of doubt that it would be attributed to the potato famine, the direct result of climate change…….

Oh it was “climate change” after all… the political, social, economic, and religious “climate” was rapidly shifting. The Miks had had enough of it, and had done with the English tyranny.

Much the same in Central America…. the political, social, economic, religious “climate” is indeed driving hordes out of Central America… just as Daniel Ortega’s insane and abusive policies drove a few hundred thousand hard working, intelligent, peaceful, prosperous Nicas from Managua to Miami.. I knew quite a few who made that move…. some returned when Ortega was first removed from power (his own pride led to his downfall) Many more remain in Florida forty years on. They are all prospering, hard working family folk.

Climate change, as in how the weather behaves, is NOT behind the “troubles” in Central America.
Data from NOAA, (I mean the original raw un-tweaked, un”corrected” non-massaged data as is presented the general public, (it took a three year battle under FOIA laws to get the original RAW data out of their grimy duplicitous hands) indicates that the toeal deviation in annual averaged surface temperature readings aroind the world from when such data were first collected (I think somewhere in the late 1960’s) to the present.. the largest deviation in average surface temp readings is less than 1.5 degrees C, about two degrees F.

HOW can we have a “climate change crisis” when the maximum variation from the median over all those years is less than two degrees Celcius?
Not happening.

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