Climate change in Central America is severely affecting the lives of people in different ways, and is pushing many of them to leave their homes. These countries are being deeply affected by both sudden-onset and gradual disasters, as the region is among the most vulnerable to climate change in the world – despite producing less than 1% of the global carbon emissions. Here’s how climate change is affecting Central American countries, the role it plays around the migration crisis in Central America, and what we can do about it. 

How Is Climate Change Affecting Central America? 

Central America exhibits various characteristics of high vulnerability to climate change. As mentioned above, it is affected by both gradual and sudden-onset disasters. Slow-onset disasters refer to droughts or sea-level rise (these develop more gradually and do not emerge from a single event, as explained by The Climate Reality Project); while sudden-onset disasters include wildfires, floods, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, among others.

When it comes to gradual processes such as rising sea levels, Central America is particularly vulnerable as it is a narrow strip of land with sea on either side and bridges two continents together (North and South America). Having  coastlines with  lowland areas means that any small increase of sea levels can have detrimental effects such as flooding, destructive erosion, agricultural contamination with salt, and lost coastal habitats. These circumstances also threaten services such as internet access. 

The region is also exposed to hurricanes. While these are provoked by a natural increase of temperature  in the oceans (which is not directly related to climate change), studies have found that hurricanes and cyclones are in fact becoming more intense and destructive due to the climate crisis. In November 2020, hurricanes Eta and Iota caused extensive damage in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama. These disasters were only  two weeks apart from each other.

On the other hand, droughts and heavy rain can destroy farmers’ crops, which are dependent on seasonal rainfall to grow. This particularly affects the Central American Dry Corridor, a tropical dry forest region that earned its name long ago, despite the droughts having only become more severe in the past few decades. It extends along the Pacific Coast from southern Mexico through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama; and most of the population’s livelihood and ability to feed their families depends on grain crops. This is problematic, as when the rain comes it is heavier than ever and runs right off the parched soil without being absorbed, creating a vicious cycle of extremes that threatens the people who live there. 

In April 2019, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) warned that “prolonged droughts and heavy rain have destroyed more than half of the maize and bean crops of the subsistence farmers along the Central American Dry Corridor, leaving them without food reserves and affecting their food security.” Central American governments estimated that 2.2 million people suffered crop losses, and 1.4 million people were left without an adequate amount of food.

migration crisis central americaFeatured image: fundacionaquae.org

As noted by the International Organization for Migration, natural hazards turn into disasters when individuals and communities lack the resilience to withstand the impacts. All of the above is made even more acute by the fact that as of January 2020, according to IndexMundi statistics, the percentage of people living in poverty was 59% in Guatemala, 33% in El Salvador, 30% in Nicaragua and Honduras, 23% in Panama and 22% in Costa Rica (it is worth mentioning that this information was based on surveys, and the definition of poverty can vary from nation to nation). 

In a general sense, however, because of poor governance and corruption, there is little funding for relief whenever a natural disaster or crisis strikes Central America. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the worsening of these circumstances, pushing another 2 million people below the poverty line. By May of 2021, close to 8 million people were in urgent need of food assistance because of drought and COVID-19 shocks (World Food Program USA compiled the stories of some of these people, which can be found here).

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The Migration Crisis in Central America

As circumstances worsen, the impact of climate change in Central America is driving people away from their homes. Sudden-onset disasters such as wildfires, floods or hurricanes mostly lead to internal migration, which can be temporary. This is because sometimes, as mentioned by Ileana-Sînziana Pușcaș from the International Organization for Migration, relocating is the only way for people to put distance between themselves and the (perhaps anticipated) catastrophes. Meanwhile, slow-onset disasters lead to cross-border movement that is more permanent, with the main destination countries being Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama, as stated by the Migration Data Portal. The migration crisis in Central America also saw many people head north towards the United States, as was the case of the migrant caravan in 2018

migration crisis central americaA Honduran caravan leaving the country. Image by: Wikimedia Commons

In these cases, as mentioned by Robert Albro, researcher at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, the focus on violence eclipses the big picture: people are relocating because of food insecurity. “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 the main reason they are moving is because they don’t have anything to eat.”

Of course, food insecurity does add onto other prevailing factors such as extreme poverty, gang violence and insufficient government support, among others. As a result, given their already vulnerable and precarious conditions, people are more likely to consider relocating, even if it entails risking their lives. In this way, migration becomes an attempt to adapt to a new situation. 

In September and October 2020, there were around 500,000 people from the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) seeking asylum in the United States, and around 300,000 were internally displaced. Since 2014, about 75% of people trying to cross the southern border of the US are Central Americans: many of them are families with children or unaccompanied minors. 

What We Can Do 

First of all, recognising climate change as a crucial factor to the migration crisis in Central America is of the utmost importance. Rules surrounding the rights of refugees were created in the aftermath of World War II, and their original purpose was to protect people who were facing prosecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or social group. Therefore, those relocating because of climate change are not included, and because of this they have barely any chance to qualify as refugees. In order for this to change, we must recognise that people are moving away from climate-affected areas to survive, not because they want to.

In this way, human mobility and migration can be regarded as an adaptation strategy to new circumstances, meaning that it is also crucial to observe climate patterns to be prepared and to create relocation plans when necessary. Nevertheless, root causes must also be addressed so that people can keep their homes and land. 

The Biden Administration issued an executive order to address the causes of migration and to “provide safe and orderly processing of asylum seekers at the United States border”. The United Nations has also developed an Environment Programme that aims to make use of the existing ecosystems in an area to solve its own social and environmental problems. This entails, for instance, the restoration of forests (so that water can be absorbed better) and the optimisation of water systems to make them more efficient and sustainable.  Other solutions proposed include the creation of forest nurseries and the promotion of renewable energies to help mitigate the effects of climate change. These solutions need to be promoted among local governments, and farmers must receive wider access to financial support. Additionally, local programmes that tackle food insecurity could aid local groups. 

Initiatives like these can indeed take years to show results, but they are fortunately underway. One thing, however, is for sure: international help is needed, and a crucial step to solving the climate crisis is to address inequality across the world – this is the only way to successfully strive for the necessary global response. If you wish to help refugee families from Central America, for example, you can donate here to The UN Refugee Agency.