Driven away from home by climate change
Looking around, the landscape is a variation on yellow and brown. The land is parched and on the corn plants, tiny cobs are withering without having fully developed.
This is the Dry Corridor, a region that spans the length of Central America, from southern Mexico all the way down to Panama.
Here, corn means life to farmers. But this crop, just like the region’s other staple, beans, depends heavily on rain, and in the past few years it just hasn’t rained enough.
Here, what Sir David Attenborough described, in this week’s address to COP 24, as the world’s “biggest threat in thousands of years” is already all too real.
With the complicity of the El Niño weather phenomenon, dry spells that would normally not exceed 20 days are now lasting up to 50. In 2018, lower than average rainfall during June and July led to losses of 280,000 hectares of beans and maize, affecting more than 2 million people, in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
“Prolonged drought can lead to losses of up to 100 percent,” explains Marco Antonio Mérida, Field Monitor with the World Food Programme (WFP) in the area.
As if the drought was not enough, deadly flooding and landslides from tropical storms followed in October.
Climate change, with more frequent and intense extreme weather events as well as slower-onset effects such as land degradation and pests infestations, is making life even harder for rural communities in the Dry Corridor that were already barely subsisting. Unable to put enough food on the table for their families, many are driven away from their lands.
“We have no choice: we need to earn our daily bread.”
A 2017 study published by WFP analyzed data about migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who were turned back by Mexican migration authorities as they tried to reach the US. The study found that 50 percent of them had been working in the agricultural sector before leaving. Contrary to the common perception that migration from these countries is mainly driven by violence and insecurity, 65 percent cited unemployment or economic hardship, and 19 percent low income and poor working conditions, as reasons for leaving.
While much focus has been placed on flows from Central America to the US — most recently when thousands of people set off in a caravan in pursuit of their American dream — migration within the region is also rife.
29-year-old Moisés Rivera, from an indigenous Lenca community in Honduras, spent three years doing working spells in neighbouring El Salvador, his casual labourer’s wages sometimes stolen from him at the border as he returned home. “I had to go as I had no job here,” he says.
Héctor Ramírez, a 50-year-old farmer from Huité municipality in eastern Guatemala, has a similar story to tell. “When I lost my harvest, I had to leave my home and look for casual jobs in the north of the country,” says. “It is sad to leave behind your children, your wife, but we have no choice: we need to earn our daily bread.”
Negotiations taking place at COP24 are of critical importance for communities across the globe that, like those in the Dry Corridor, are affected by the increasing uncertainty in the weather that allows them to produce the food they need to survive. Delegates in Poland are tasked with setting the guidelines for translating the landmark Paris Agreement established at COP21 into actions that combat climate change.
With climate models indicating that weather conditions will not get any better, finding ways to adapt to the new context has become a necessity for people in the Dry Corridor. To thrive in the face of increasingly adverse weather, communities must learn to harvest and store water, so as not to depend too heavily on increasingly erratic rains, plant trees to combat soil erosion, shift cultivation to more diverse and nutritious crops and learn new skills to create employment opportunities outside agriculture. Climate finance will need to flow to these communities to help them adapt to a warmer world and transform their future.
Enabling people to continue to produce food and to diversify their sources of income — through activities that range from beekeeping to pottery and chicken farms — is helping them cope with the changing environment and will contribute to stemming the migration flow.
Back in Honduras, Moisés Rivera has found a new way to provide for himself and his family: pottery — a business that is proving much more lucrative than working as farm labour in El Salvador. “We no longer need to leave,” he says. “We can stay and earn our living here now.”
With the support of the European Union and in collaboration with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, WFP is helping communities become more resilient to climate change through the creation and rehabilitation of assets and the diversification of crops and sources of income.
See here a map of resilience projects across the Dry Corridor
Story written with contributions from Michael Goode, Norha Restrepo and Elio Rujano