The northern part of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – is the other major source of migrants seeking opportunity and safety in the United States. Like Mexicans, they have long sought employment in the United States, although over the past decade an increasing number of people are traveling as families, and not just as single working-age men. The impending catastrophe of climate change is now exacerbating the region’s chronic struggles with poverty and insecurity.
USIP’s Mary Speck spoke with Sarah Bermeo, Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University, about how natural disasters interact with and intensify other root causes of migration in Central America.
Speck: How does climate change increase the pressure to emigrate from Central America? And which communities are most impacted?
Bermeo: Climate change is affecting migration from Central America in two main ways: increased storm intensity and changes in precipitation patterns that have negatively affected agricultural production. Two Category 4 hurricanes, Eta and Iota – among the strongest storms to ever hit the region – made landfall in November 2020, a year the International Red Cross estimates disasters displaced at least 1.5 million of Central Americans. Many houses and crops have been destroyed and food insecurity has increased sharply. Almost two years later, many families have not been able to return to normal. Climate change is leading to warming oceans, which means high-intensity storms are likely to become more frequent.
Central American farmers have experienced multiple droughts since 2014, causing crop losses of 70% or more in some harvests and often affecting consecutive growing seasons. There were also occasional periods of intense rains which inflicted severe crop damage. When crops fail, subsistence farmers cannot grow the food they need to feed their families, and those who farm for a living lose their livelihoods. Changes in precipitation patterns, including prolonged dry spells and periods of intense rainfall, will continue as the impacts of climate change intensify.
Storms and crop failures pushed already poor families even further into poverty. Droughts were likely a key factor in the sharp increase in family migration from Honduras and Guatemala to the United States in 2018 and 2019. Many of those who arrived in the United States during this period came from rural areas, including the highlands of Guatemala where indigenous communities make up a large part of the population. They left their farms because they could no longer feed their families if they stayed.
Dot: you have written that “the negative impacts of climate and violence are mutually reinforcing, increasing external migration”. Can you explain the relationship between rural food insecurity, urban violence and external migration?
Bermeo: Globally, most climate-related migration occurs within countries: people who can no longer support themselves at home migrate to a new home in their own country. In northern Central America, that’s not what we see. People displaced by climate change, often facing severe food insecurity, are resettling in southern Costa Rica or northern Mexico, Canada and the United States.
This appears to result from the lack of viable internal migration options. Gangs control many urban neighborhoods, making it difficult for people to move around. Homicide, gang recruitment, and extortion rates are high in urban areas, and criminals generally operate with impunity. When farmers are displaced by storms or can no longer produce enough to meet their basic needs, they must find new places to live. If they do not find suitable places internally, they will migrate abroad. Climate change forces people to leave their homes, then high levels of violence force them to leave their countries. These migrants then mingle with other migrants – those fleeing violence or seeking better economic opportunities – to create flows of migrants who leave for a variety of reasons that are not easy to disentangle.
Speck: Some studies show that households with more resources are more likely to leave, given the high cost of emigration. According to a investigation published by MIT academics in 2021 Central Americans spend $2.2 billion a year trying to migrate and hiring a smuggler to enter the US costs about $7,500, more than double the average per capita income in northern Central America. Is foreign aid likely to increase incomes and thus further stimulate emigration?
Bermeo: To understand the link between income and migration in a given situation, it is important to examine the underlying drivers of migration. When households or individuals save to migrate, it is likely that increasing their income (including through foreign aid) could help them achieve this result more quickly.
Those who migrate because of climate-related impacts are not in this situation. They migrate because their incomes and assets are diminishing. In some cases, families affected by climate change may decide to sell their few assets to finance migration rather than selling them to buy agricultural inputs or to meet their immediate needs. They are at a tipping point: migrate today or perhaps lose the financial ability to afford the migration. In many of these cases, people would prefer to stay, but they no longer have the option.
Foreign aid can reduce migration if it improves Central Americans’ expectations that they can support themselves without leaving their homes. At some point, there were people who could afford to migrate but chose not to. Climate-related shocks may cause them to reconsider this decision and leave. The sheer scale of the migration suggests that foreign aid is unlikely to make it worse: more than seven percent of the total population in some departments of Honduras and Guatemala have come to the US border traveling in family units in recent years. The total number of emigrants is even higher, as some do not arrive in the United States. These families travel with children in extremely harsh and dangerous conditions. Many would choose to avoid this trip if they had any hope of lasting results at home.
Speck: Central America suffers not only from poverty and violence, but also from weak governance. Surveys show that support for democratic institutions has declined over the past decade while perceptions of corruption are high. Given weak government institutions, how and where should the United States channel aid to increase the region’s resilience to climate change?
Bermeo: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras score poorly on measures of corruption; in recent years it seems to be going in the wrong direction, with governments refusing to cooperate with international bodies that had been set up to help fight corruption. My strong recommendation would be that aid agencies consider channeling more of their aid directly to local groups, bypassing both country governments and international for-profit organizations.
Working directly with local groups achieves several goals. Local people understand both the needs of their communities and the challenges of implementation. The elimination of for-profit “intermediary” organizations allows a greater proportion of funding to be used directly for programming.
There is another consideration that is rarely discussed by foreign aid decision-makers: working directly with local communities helps build government capacity from scratch. In countries where corruption is high, governments are likely to view foreign aid “governance” programs with skepticism. When local people come together to make decisions and implement programs, they build community and leaders emerge even without programs that specifically target governance.
Speck: Are there any encouraging trends in the region? Or examples of local adaptations to climate change that show signs of providing the kind of hope for the future that might lessen the pressure to migrate?
Bermeo: There are promising opportunities for climate adaptation in the region, particularly in the area of agriculture and smallholder farmers. The Water Smart Agriculture project that Catholic Relief Services piloted in the region is showing impressive initial results. Farmers receive information about soil quality and farming techniques so they can make decisions about their own farms that make them more resilient to climate change. The project encourages farmers to participate in all stages of the program and train other farmers.
Other promising techniques include early warning systems that allow farmers to adapt their crops or farming techniques to changing weather conditions. We have the data, but communicating it broadly and in real time remains a challenge. Building resilience to storms and improving disaster response capacity are also essential, but more challenging given the need for competent governance to implement them at scale.
Even with adaptations, climate change is likely to render some areas unviable. Displaced people will always need safer destinations within the country and legal pathways for external migration. Destination communities will need resources to manage the increased demand for services such as health care and education, and to alleviate short-term pressures on housing and infrastructure. Research shows that migrants become productive members of their new communities, contributing to the economy and paying taxes that help support government provision of infrastructure and services. Over time, these benefits are significant, but in the short term the adjustment costs are real and can be daunting for destinations receiving large numbers of migrants over a short period.
Central America’s relatively young population can make important economic contributions at home and abroad, but they need help to overcome the devastating effects of climate change. This will require a multi-pronged approach in the United States and Central America: locally-led adaptation, investment in resilient infrastructure, safer Central American cities to welcome migrants into the country, and access to legal migration pathways abroad. ‘foreign.