‘People are dying’: how the climate crisis has sparked an exodus to the US
(July 29, 2019) At sunrise, the misty fields around the village of Guior are already dotted with men, women and children sowing maize after an overnight rainstorm.
After several years of drought, the downpour brought some hope of relief to the subsistence farmers in this part of eastern Guatemala.
But as Esteban Gutiérrez, 30, takes a break from his work, he explains why he is still willing to incur crippling debts – and risk his life – to migrate to the United States.
“My children have gone to bed hungry for the past three years. Our crops failed and the coffee farms have cut wages to $4 a day,” he says, playing nervously with the white maize kernels in a plastic trough strapped to his waist.
“We hope the harvest will be good, but until then we have only one quintal [46kg] of maize left – which is barely enough for a month. I have to find a way to travel north, or else my children will suffer even more.”
Central America remains one of the world’s most dangerous regions outside a warzone, where a toxic mix of violence, poverty and corruption has forced millions to flee their homes and head north in search of security.
But amid a deepening global climate crisis, drought, famine and the battle for dwindling natural resources are increasingly being recognized as major factors in the exodus.
Camotán is a collection of rural communities in the eastern department of Chiquimula, which lies in the rain shadow of the imposing Sierra de las Minas. It forms part of Central America’s dry corridor: a belt stretching south through Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, that receives little rain and is particularly susceptible to droughts and extreme weather.
In theory, the rainy season here should last from late April to October, with a drier period in July and August known as the canícula – a regional peculiarity that requires two short harvests.
But the past decade has seen frequent, intense droughts and late rains due to unusually hot and dry canículas and prolonged years of El Niño – the warm phase of a complex weather cycle caused by increased Pacific surface temperatures.
“Over the past six years, the lack of rainfall has been our biggest problem, causing crops to fail and widespread famine,” said the climate scientist Edwin Castellanos, the dean of the research institute at Guatemala’s Universidad del Valle.
The current run of hot, dry years follows a decade or so of unusually prolonged rains and flooding due to the other phase of the cycle known as La Niña, caused by colder Pacific waters.
“Normal, predictable weather years are getting rarer,” added Castellanos.
On the ground, the impact has been devastating. In 2018, drought-related crop failures directly affected one in 10 Guatemalans, and caused extreme food shortages for almost 840,000 people, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
As a result, entire families have been migrating in record numbers: since October 2018, more than 167,000 Guatemalans travelling in family groups have been apprehended at the US border, compared with 23,000 in 2016.
Those who remain, often depend on money sent home by emigres, especially in rural areas, which received more than half the $9.2bn of remittances sent to Guatemala in 2018.
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