Climate Refugees

Spotlight: The Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)

The Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA), a region comprising Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, is “ground zero” for global warming’s impact in the Americas.113 Central American migrants, largely asylum seekers, flee their home countries to escape violence, economic instability, and persecution at the hands of their government.114 These factors are further compounded by the overwhelming effects of the global climate crisis on the region, including drought, floods, increasing temperatures, and rising sea levels. These climate crisis factors have implications for the NTCA’s human and social development, and will increase internal and external displacement.

For the large NTCA population that relies on agricultural and food production as a means of subsistence, the effects of the climate crisis are of great concern. From 2014 to 2016, three consecutive El Niño droughts decimated farmers’ staple crops throughout the dry corridor—a swath of historically arid land that runs through all three countries.115 While rainfall is sparse in some areas in the region, in other areas, flooding is expected to increase by 60 percent, decimating crops.116 Temperatures have risen in Central America by 0.5°C since 1950 and will continue to increase with a projected rise of another 1 to 2 degrees before 2050.117 Coffee, a key cash crop of the NTCA, is vulnerable to such temperature increases and intense rainy seasons. For example, the 2013 coffee rust fungus led to $1 billion in crop losses and an estimated 100,000 Central Americans to lose their jobs.118 In El Salvador, sea level is projected to rise 18 centimeters by 2050119 thus destroying mangrove forests and the marine life that relies on them.120

Nearly half (47 percent) of the families in the NTCA region are food insecure, and the climate crisis will exacerbate this issue.121 The devastating 2014 drought destroyed 63 percent of Guatemala’s bean production and 70 percent of Honduras’s corn crops, and damaged crop cultivation in 30 percent of El Salvador’s farmland.122 For producers and consumers, agricultural losses due to drought are a leading cause of migration from the Northern Triangle.123 Likewise, water availability for NTCA countries is projected to decrease by 2100 due to the climate crisis, with all three countries falling below the limit of water stress—an 88 percent decline for Honduras, 82 percent for Guatemala, and 73 percent for El Salvador.124 For example, the 2014–2015 El Niño amplified the Zika outbreak in Guatemala.125

Across the NTCA region, the climate crisis is exacerbating the displacement of people within and across national borders. In Guatemala, there were 27,000 newly displaced people as a result of disasters; in El Salvador, there were 4,700 new displacements triggered by flooding and earthquakes; and in Honduras, there were 17,000 new displacements due to disasters.126 Projections estimate that in the next 30 years, 3.9 million climate refugees will have to flee Central America due to the climate crisis, with many arriving at the US-Mexico border.127 At this border, the largest number of asylum seekers (mostly families and unaccompanied minors) come from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—three countries especially imperiled by the climate crisis.128

Despite the dire situation residents of these countries face, the US government, through its zero-tolerance policy of unlawful immigration, separated over 2,600 children from their parents.129 In April 2019, it was announced that the United States would cut an estimated $700 million in aid to the NTCA in an attempt to deter immigration into the country.130 The US government, rather than implementing policies and practices that criminalize and dehumanize those forcibly displaced by violent conflict and natural disasters, needs to shape its immigration policy around the root causes of migration today, much of which is fueled by the effects of the intensifying climate crisis.

The NTCA governments have employed several policies to combat the climate crisis, and have signed and ratified the Paris Agreement. El Salvador’s National Climate Change Strategy aims to mitigate the crisis by rehabilitating and conserving existing ecosystems, and by transforming agricultural practices with the help of local knowledge.131 Guatemala’s K’atun National Development Plan, Our Guatemala 2032, intends to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis by promoting efficient use of irrigation water, establishing early warning systems for food insecurity by monitoring agri-food systems based on agrometeorological observation, and expanding protected areas as a strategy of ecosystem conservation.132 Honduras’s National Climate Change Strategy aims to improve the resilience of crops and pastures by incorporating more tolerant crops—preventing the erosion and desertification of soils—and fortify the country’s defenses against human diseases worsened by the climate crisis.133 Despite these attempts by NTCA governments, such efforts cannot succeed in preventing the effects of the climate crisis without concerted and collective efforts by the international community.

  • 113. Todd Miller, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security (City Lights Books, 2017), 294.
  • 114. An extrapolation of findings from a national survey in El Salvador suggests there were around 246,000 new displacements in the country as a result of criminal violence in 2018; in Honduras 950 people were newly Climate Refugees: The Climate Crisis and Rights Denied 72 displaced due to conflict and violence with a total of 190,000 IDPs; and in Guatemala there were approximately 242,000 IDPs as of December 2018, though this data was based on severely decayed data about people displaced during the country’s civil war because the government does not acknowledge the displacement in its territory, due to gang violence and development projects. Internal Displacement Monitoring, Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019
  • 115. Global Water Partnership Central America, Análisis Socioeconómico Del Impacto Sectorial de La Sequía de 2014 En Centroamérica, (June 2016), https://www.gwp. org/globalassets/global/gwp-cam_files/impacto-sequia-2014_fin.pdf.
  • 116. Lauren Markham, “How Climate Change Is Pushing Central American Migrants to the US,” The Guardian, sec. Opinion (April 6, 2019), https://www.theguardian. com/commentisfree/2019/apr/06/us-mexico-immigration-climate-change-migration
  • 117. Markham, “Climate Change Is Pushing.”
  • 118. Carrie Kahn, “Rust Devastates Guatemala’s Prime Coffee Crop and Its Farmers,” National Public Radio, (July 28, 2014), https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/07/28/335293974/rust-devastate....
  • 119. US Agency for International Development, Climate Change Risk Profile: El Salvador, (2017), https://www. climatelinks.org/resources/climate-change-risk-profileel-salvador.
  • 120. Lauren Markham, “Climate Change Is Pushing.”
  • 121. World Food Programme, Food Security and Emigration: Why People Flee and the Impact on Family Members Left behind in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, (2017), https://docs.wfp. org/api/documents/WFP-0000022124/download/?_ga=2.85460124.46423775.1540402016- 1767178983.1540402016.
  • 122. Global Water Partnership Central America, Análisis Socioeconómico Del Impacto Sectorial de La Sequía.
  • 123. World Food Programme, Food Security and Emigration.
  • 124. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Central American Agricultural Council, Council of Minister of Health of Central America, Central American Commission for Environment and Development, Council of Minister for Finance / Treasury of Central America and Dominican Republic, Secretariat of Central American Economic Integration, Central American Integration System, UK Department of International Development, and Danish International Development Agency, Climate Change in Central America Potential Impacts and Public Policy Options, (Mexico City, Mexico: 2015), https://repositorio.cepal.org/bitstream/handle/11362/39150/7/S1800827_en....
  • 125. “Climate Change Risk Profile: Guatemala,” US Agency for International Development, (2017), https:// www.climatelinks.org/sites/default/files/asset/document/2017_USAID%20ATL... Risk%20Profile_Guatemala.pdf.
  • 126. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019, 118–119.
  • 127. Kanta Kumari Rigaud, Alex de Sherbinin, Bryan Jones, Jonas Bergmann, Viviane Clement, Kayly Ober, Jacob Schewe, et al., “Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration,” (Washington, DC: The World Bank Group, 2018).
  • 128. Markham, “How climate change is pushing Central American migrants to the US.”
  • 129. Lauren Aratani and agencies, “‘Inexplicable cruelty’: US government sued over family separations at border,” The Guardian, (February 11, 2019), accessed July 3, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/ us-news/2019/feb/11/immigrant-families-sue-us-government-over-family-separation.
  • 130. Dara Lind, “Trump’s decision to cut off aid to 3 Central American countries, explained,” Vox, (April 1, 2019), accessed July 3, 2019, https://www.vox. com/2019/4/1/18290443/aid-central-america-mexico-guatemala-immigration-border.
  • 131. Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, Estrategia Nacional de Cambio Climático El Salvador, (San Salvador, El Salvador, June 2015), http://www. marn.gob.sv/wp-content/uploads/PNCC.pdf.
  • 132. Guatemala Consejo Nacional de Desarrollo Urbano y Rural, Plan Nacional de Desarrollo K’atun: Nuestra Guatemala 2032, (July 2014), https://www.undp.org/ content/dam/guatemala/docs/publications/undp_gt_ PND_Katun2032.pdf
  • 133. Comité Técnico Interinstitucional de Cambio Climático, Estrategia Nacional de Cambio Climático Honduras, (2010), http://extwprlegs1.fao.org/docs/pdf/ hon148589.pdf.