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Central America: Climate, Drought, Migration and the Border

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Dry season in Nicaragua, 19 February 2011

By Lieutenant Commander Oliver-Leighton Barrett, US Navy (Ret)

The dominant media narrative that explains the reasons for current Central American migration to the United States centers on the dismal economic and security conditions across source states: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The ‘failing economies’ and ‘corrupt governments’ narratives largely frame our understanding of the near en masse emigration of Central Americans northwards. However, those explanations don’t tell the whole story. The ongoing food security crisis across the region (caused by drought, crop disease, and water shortages) deserves special examination, not only because it might be a leading causal factor for the crisis, but also because it is undoubtedly one of its catalysts. As such, any U.S. policy prescriptions that do not help to address the catastrophic impacts of environmental changes on Central American agriculture, will fail to achieve their objectives.

“Dry Corridor” Drier than Normal

To understand how we got here, we need not look any further than warnings and reports issued back in the summer of 2016 by organizations that keep track of food production and distribution systems across the region. In June of that year, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reported, “The Dry Corridor in Central America, in particular Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador  is experiencing one of the worst droughts of the last ten years with over 3.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance.”

The report further explained, “Small scale producers and rural communities remain the most vulnerable to drought” and reminded readers that droughts in the regions were known to cause “impoverishment and migration.” The cyclical El Niño event, which began in 2015, compounded the atypical regional dryness leading to consecutive years of crop failures. In 2015, the UN estimated that “thousands of cattle had died and up to 75 percent of maize and bean crops in Honduras and Guatemala had been lost in the drought” which began the previous summer.

In 2018, the FAO reported “Recent drought has led to the loss of some 280,000 hectares of beans and maize in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, potentially affecting the food and nutrition situation of more than two million people.” Miguel Barreto, Regional Director for America and the Caribbean for the World Food Program provided context to the dire developments when he explained, “Just when rural communities were recovering from the 2014 drought and the El Niño phenomenon of 2015 – the strongest recorded in recent history – a new drought is affecting the most vulnerable again.” FAO Regional Representative, Julio Berdegué warned that there needed to be concern about the effect of this “new drought on migration, in an international context that restricts the movement of thousands of people who, in their localities, will have great difficulty in securing the livelihood of their families.”

The Drought – Migration Nexus 

Over a decade ago, the Migration Policy Institute explained that an under-recognized “factor influencing rural-to-urban migration is environmental degradation,” and that “declines in small-scale farming also induce peasants to leave the countryside for capital cities. Once in urban areas, research shows higher tendencies for these rural-to-urban people to emigrate, a process referred to as step migration.”

Thought primary migration flows in the regional are internally oriented (i.e. rural to urban), once unemployed farmers and their families arrive in Central American cities, they find little-to-no employment opportunities, as well as warzone-like crime rates. (El Salvador’s murder rate hovers around 81 killings per 100,000, more than ten times the global average.) Not being able to establish themselves in crime-ridden cities compels drought refugees to make the trek north.

The “step migration” staircase often ends at the doorsteps of the United States, where Central American families, and in many cases, unaccompanied minors, show up seeking refuge and a fresh start. Current immigration policies will prevent most immigrants from winning their “fresh start” and many will invariably settle in Mexico or return home.

Out of Focus “Solutions”

Needless to say, the approximately $620 million in gang prevention and other programs that the United States supplies to civil society organizations in the region have not, and will not, do anything to ameliorate crop failures,  water shortages and the emigration flows that they instigate. Even the ambitious “first of its kind” regional multilateral compact that former Department of Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen signed recently with regional leaders in March, 2019, won’t do much to keep people on their unproductive farms since the security cooperation agreement  focuses on insecurity symptoms and not on its root causes.

The compact aims to “bolster border security, prevent the formation of new migrant caravans, and address the root causes.” Unfortunately, improving resiliencies to drought and other damaging environmental trends don’t feature amongst the projects the U.S. administration aims to underwrite in the region. This is unfortunate, as it is consequential, since although trends such as human trafficking and gangs are serious problems that must be addressed, if policies do not address the serious climate change factors at play, they will ultimately not be effective.

To kick-start a reversal of adverse climate-related, human security trends in the region, multi-lateral approaches that focus on the base of Maslow’s hierarchy (i.e. shelter, food, and water security) are needed. Building agricultural resiliencies by helping farmers to “fight for food security by diversifying their crops and engaging in climate smart practices such as agroforestry,” is one example of a grassroots approach that will large security pay big dividends for decades to come.  Other examples include, “supporting governments in setting up systems to monitor the situation of agricultural production and food security,” as well as “mobilizing resources to scale rainwater harvesting and storage systems to reduce the impact of future droughts.”

Without making these types of climate-centric projects a part of the policy solution package, desperate Central Americans will continue to legitimately seek asylum at America’s doorstep for many years to come.


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