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How climate change has fueled the border crisis

Those arriving at the border may cite gang violence or economic hardship for leaving. But there also is solid evidence that one factor often behind it all is climate change.

There is solid evidence that one factor often behind the migration is climate change – which wind turbines help mitigate.
REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

If President Trump wants to stop the flow of poor and desperate Central Americans to the U.S. border, he could do much worse than encourage construction of a whole lot of wind turbines.

That probably sounds a little odd. And in any case, it’s not going to happen. Even before his bizarre claim last week that wind turbines can cause cancer, it was clear that Trump detests wind power – apparently due to a fight with the Scottish government some years ago over an offshore wind farm near one of his golf courses. He appears to dislike those migrating from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador just as much, but wind farms are not his idea of the kind of project that will keep them out.

Instead, as the number of arrivals spikes again, you blame the secretary of homeland security and cut aid to Central America. And you still insist on building a wall.

But here’s the thing. Those arriving at the border may cite gang violence or economic hardship for leaving. And while that’s true, there also is solid evidence that one factor often behind it all is climate change – which wind turbines help mitigate (and which, of course, the president thinks is bogus).

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It’s next to impossible to unravel all the ways in which climate change and migration are connected, but here is a start: Most of those heading north come from rural areas of Central America, according to a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. For instance, almost two-thirds of unaccompanied Salvadoran minors deported in a recent year were from rural families. About three-quarters of rural people are poor in Guatemala and Honduras. And they live in areas especially vulnerable to climate change, particularly the so-called Dry Corridor near the Pacific coast.

FAO warned three years ago that 3.5 million people were in need of aid because of persistent drought. It would not be a stretch to assume that some of them ended up at the U.S. border. The U.N. agency adds that the Dry Corridor “has become one of the most susceptible regions in the world to climate change and variability.” In El Niño years, there are long periods with high heat and little rain that decimate corn and other grain crops; during years of more rain there are tropical storms. Both climate variants are becoming more extreme.

Many people don’t head straight for the U.S. border when they can’t survive on the land. The governments don’t really keep track of internal migration, but it’s not unusual for them to head into the cities first – where they may be subjected to gang violence and a different kind of poverty.

There has been some excellent reporting recently on what this actually looks like to those living with the effects of climate change.

The western highlands of Guatemala are a tough place in normal circumstances; the malnutrition rate is 65 percent, according to Jonathan Blitzer, writing in the New Yorker. Of the 94,000 Guatemalans deported from the U.S. and Mexico last year, he says, half are from this region. Most people make their living off the land, but hurricanes, wild fluctuations in temperature and rainfall are making it much harder. Land that once fed a family for a year now can sustain it for less than five months. Even more enlightened U.S. policies have missed the boat. Although experts have been warning for years about the effects of climate change on the region, Blitzer points out that a $750 million Obama administration aid package contained little money to address it.  

In rural Honduras, PBS special correspondent Marcia Biggs says, FAO estimates farmers lost more than 80 percent of their corn and bean crops last year due to drought. One farmer told her that a decade ago he could harvest 4,000 pounds of corn from his land; today it’s more like 500. Faced with persistent drought, farmers are trying a more rugged and lower-quality corn they once fed to chickens.

Things aren’t much better for coffee farmers. Honduras is the world’s fifth-largest coffee producer, and almost 3 million people depend on it to live. But hot, dry conditions are ideal for a leaf fungus that eventually destroys the plants.

In El Salvador, one of the big issues is water – a result of mismanagement and climate change, according to National Geographic.  More than a quarter of the rural population has no access to running water – at home, or at a public tap. Meanwhile, aquifers have dropped by up to 13 feet, and 90 percent of the surface water is polluted. Climate change threatens to make matters worse. Much of El Salvador is in the Dry Corridor.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a project of USAID and other federal government agencies, says the circumstances of subsistence farmers and farm workers have deteriorated over the past five years because of irregular rain, diseases, pests – and a lack of other employment options.

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That’s the problem in government-report language. In the simpler words of Alfredo Monge, a Honduran farmer: “Not having food makes one desperate.”

He added: “We will have to get out of here.”