Forced migration – impacts of climate change in Central America

Anyone looking for an example of how climate change is driving people to leave their homeland simply needs to look to Central America. Here, hundreds of thousands set out to find a future for themselves and their children in the United States. The effects of climate change are clearly visible not only on the agricultural sector but also on society and the economic development of this whole region. Especially in the countries of the so-called Northern Triangle – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – where about one third of the population lives from agriculture, climate change calls all official long-term development goals into question. No wonder people are starting to migrate north. Rebecca Bertram takes a look

Drought and extreme weather conditions increase poverty and migration in Central America (Public Domain)

The average temperature in Central America has risen by 0.5 degrees Celsius since 1950. Experts predict that another one to two degrees Celsius will be added by the middle of this century. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras together account for just 0.37 percent of global CO2 emissions. But the climate catastrophe takes no account of that. In particular, the agricultural sector suffers huge losses from the associated dramatically changing weather phenomena. In some areas, there is little to no rainfall, whereas in others, floods have increased dramatically. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch, for example, brought the worst flood of the century to Honduras and threw the small country back by 50 years in its economic development.

A functioning agricultural sector is central to all three countries as the economy, exports and jobs depend on it. In Guatemala, for instance, the sector accounts for 14 percent of GDP, 31 percent of all jobs and 50 percent of export earnings. The situation is similar in the two other countries. The effects are particularly harsh in the so-called “dry corridor”. This area covers more than 20,000 square kilometers from southern Guatemala via El Salvador to much of Honduras and is home to around 10.5 million people. Here, one in every three people is already dependent on development aid. A drought has been waging in the area since 2014, and as a result, farmers barely harvest crops: the production of beans has decreased by 87 percent and corn by 96 percent.

Drought drives people away

At the same time, irregular rainfall has turned the Central American region into one of the world’s most prominent warning signs of the interaction between climate change and the variability in weather patterns. During the weather phenomenon El Niño with its long heat waves rainfall decreases by 40 percent. La Niña, on the other hand, brings intensive rainfall and tropical storms with often catastrophic consequences for both infrastructure and agriculture. Usually, the small farmers in the rural communities are the worst affected. These can hardly plan their harvest and lose their livelihoods as a result. Many seek refuge in the overcrowded urban centers of the region or make their way to the US border. But not only the dry corridor is hit by dramatic climate change, also the western highlands of Guatemala witness the change imposed by climate change. Around 90 per cent of the farmers here live of the coffee harvest, a product that is quite different to corn and beans. If they want to survive they have to leave or do something else for a living.

The coffee sector is enormously important to the Central American region. Not only do nearly 25 percent of the population work in coffee but the national economies also hugely depend on their exports. In El Salvador, for example, coffee production accounts for 10 percent of GDP, in Honduras 5 percent. However, in recent years climate change and falling prices in the international coffee market have reduced coffee production in the region by almost 30 percent. Coffee farmers must locate their plantations at higher altitudes to generate the necessary returns. Environmental destruction and deforestation in untouched nature are the result.

Finally, climate change in Central America is burdening the already hardest hit ecosystems of the forests. In Honduras, for example, increased temperatures in 2013 led to an epidemic of bark beetles, destroying about one quarter of all forests in the country. Only slowly is the forest population now recovering. But with rising temperatures and falling precipitation, the area is increasingly exposed to forest fires that put any reforestation efforts at risk.

Rising sea levels are also a devastating force, especially for the coastal state of El Salvador. Experts believe that by the end of the century, up to 28 percent of the country’s Pacific coastline will disappear. Today, 30% of the population of El Salvador live in this coastal region and will have to find new homes within the next few years.

Drops on the hot fields

International aid and development organizations have recognized the climate problem in the region and are involved in support programs and development strategies. But this help appears like a drop in the bucket or on the hot fields. In March of this year, the US and the largest lender in the region prominently announced that it would no longer provide financial help to the countries of the Northern Triangle unless they undertook serious measures to stop the migration towards the US. But how are these countries supposed to do that? The governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have neither a holistic political nor economic strategy on how to tackle and adapt to climate change. They lack the expertise and a clear prioritization of the issue.

Costa Rica proves that things can be done differently. The southern neighbor is internationally recognized as a pioneer in environmental and forest conservation. The country has set itself not only ambitious climate and environmental goals but is committed to a considerable reforestation program. For example, by 2050, the entire economy will be decarbonized. No more CO2 emissions are to be produced that cannot be compensated by the country’s own forest resources. Costa Rica also wants to abandon the consumption of fossil fuels altogether from the year 2050 onwards. The country is well on track with its “carbon offset through reforestation” strategy. Over the past 30 years, forests have doubled in size and now cover half of the country.

The countries of the Northern Triangle are trying a similar reforestation strategy. However, the state structures in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are much weaker than those in Costa Rica, and it will be much harder for them to actually impose this policy. Honduras, for example, committed itself for the first time in 2015 to a reforestation program that would increase its forests to one million hectares by the year 2020. This would bring the country a total of US$ 314 million from international donors. Yet as much as the money lures Honduras, lags considerably behind this reforestation obligation. The country lacks state mechanisms and frameworks that could enforce this commitment. In addition and despite the reforestation target, large quantities of illegally mined timber are mined and exported to Europe and the United States everyday.

Pressure from outside

It needs to be said that Germany’s and Europe’s foreign and development policy is by no means powerless when it comes to improving the current climate situation in Central America. For example, trade policy could be a form by which the EU could impose stricter climate and environmental standards to resolutely address illegal deforestation in the Northern Triangle. A first important step has already been taken with a voluntary agreement and standard setting between the European Union and Honduras in 2018. It aims to ensure that timber exports to the EU are legal and climate-friendly.

Climate change has devastating consequences in Central America, threatening to further dilute an already politically unstable region. Weak state structures and institutions as well as a non-diversified economy make it almost impossible for the countries of the Northern Triangle to develop and enforce their own holistic climate strategy. External pressure through the European Union’s trade policy, supplemented by its development initiatives, could provide intelligent and climate-friendly incentives for these countries to do more about fighting dangerous climate change. This could allow for climate policy to be taken seriously by Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Whether that is enough can be discussed. But at least it would show that countries in Europe’s temperate climate are not completely putting aside the warning signs from Central America.


Rebecca Bertram works as a freelancer and consultant on energy and climate issues in Guatemala. She used to work for the Heinrich Böll Foundation both as the Director for the Energy and Environment program in the Washington D.C. office and as the Senior Policy Advisor for European Energy Policy at the Foundation's Headquarters in Berlin. Before that, she worked on international energy issues both for the German Ministry of Environment and the German Foreign Ministry. She holds a Master's degree in International Affairs and Economics from the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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