Commentary: The border wall problem few of us are talking about? Climate change.


Fog rolls in over the mountains as night falls in Buena Vista, a small town in Guatemala with a spectacular view over the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. The land here is studded with boulders and blanketed by yellow daisies and lavender. At this altitude, there are few trees and almost no water. Families rely on rainwater for drinking, washing and agriculture. When the rains don’t come or they come in torrents, people suffer.

The harsh conditions and increasingly unpredictable weather are putting added stress on poor families and pushing up migration in an area where locals estimate nearly half of the 250 households have already seen someone leave.

Related: Climate change is the overlooked driver of Central American migration

At a community meeting I attended here in the Guatemalan highlands in August 2017 as part of an international reporting fellowship, I asked how many men were thinking of migrating. Most smiled uncomfortably. With a little prodding from the head of the community council, nearly every man in the room raised his hand. The unforgiving land only allows for one crop a year, they said, and if it fails, farmers quickly start accumulating debt.

While many Americans have been engaged in recent debates over Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, I’ve been thinking about the families I met in Guatemala. I’ve also been thinking about climate change and its increasing threat to communities in Central America and beyond.

When mentioning border security in his State of the Union address, the president focused on threats and heightened fears held by citizens in a country where fear is the source of so many problems.

Related: Commentary: Trump’s immigration blame game

But so little of the discussion hinges on what life is like for the people who are migrating and why they would risk their families, their security, their very lives to cross the US border.

The harsh conditions and increasingly unpredictable weather in the highlands of Huehuetenango are putting added stress on poor families and pushing up migration in an area where locals estimate nearly half of the 250 households have already seen someone leave.Sara Schonhardt/The World 

There is talk of gangs and violence and poverty or political instability — all real drivers of migration. But seldom is there mention of the inability to grow food or make a living off the land. Unsurprisingly, climate change was absent from the State of the Union.

Related: Guatemala’s changing climate is forcing families to leave their homes, livelihoods

Climate change is just one part of it. Farming is also threatened by land conflicts, agribusiness and extractive industries and infrastructure developments like dams that impact water, deforestation and natural disasters. But many of these things are integral to the environment, and they all impact food security.

It’s not just about the economy

Back in 2017, Susana Carrillo Pablo de Calmo stood in her potato field high in the inhospitable hills of Huehuetenango and started to sob as she talked about her husband leaving. He migrated to the US in March 2016 to pay off loans used to plant crops that continually failed. He ended up milking cows near Los Angeles. At least, that’s what Susana thought. They spoke by phone each week, and at that time he was sending money back every month.

Traditionally, men in Guatemala have migrated internally in search of work — to the capital or coffee or sugarcane plantations. But climate change has also hit those operations.

Years of prolonged drought in an area known as the dry corridor that snakes through Guatemala, into El Salvador and Honduras, has reduced people’s ability to grow food and driven up the need for humanitarian assistance, forcing many families to turn to migration as a coping strategy.

A study by the World Food Program released in August 2017 found that younger and more vulnerable people are leaving due to a lack of work and food. A drought that started in 2014 caused a significant increase in irregular migration to the US, the study says. Yet, when food shortages drive migration, families left behind can become even more vulnerable to poverty and food insecurity.

Huehuetenango in the Guatemalan highlands has suffered from a lack of water and deforestation in recent years. A coffee-growing region, many plantations have also been hit by weather-related disease. Guatemala is consistently among the countries most at risk from extreme weather events, such as droughts, landslides and hurricanes, according to the Global Climate Risk Index. That makes it hard for subsistence communities that rely on rain-fed agriculture to get by. Sara Schonhardt/The World 

More and more women are now migrating, too, some with entire families driven by a lack of livelihood options. Many are fleeing domestic violence. Some are also escaping a fate that includes forced marriage or sexual trafficking.

The women who stay fight battles of their own.

Related: Guatemalan women transform their town one brushstroke at a time

Left to do the work of two people, they care for five, six, 11 children; tend to chickens, goats and other livestock; look after the crops; and collect wood for the stove and water. If a harvest fails due to a lack of rain or disease, they must find ways to make ends meet.

In Huehuetenango, a poor, overlooked province given its high population of Indigenous people, severe frost has stung. An early cold snap ruined Susana’s potato crop in 2016, and it was only through money her husband sent back that she was able to repay her debts. She’s doing a job that’s not hers, she says.

All but one of Eulogia Matias’ four sons have migrated to the US, the youngest going three years ago just after getting married. Despite missing her children, Eulogia says she worries more about what would happen if they returned.

“The soil is not as fertile as it used to be, so what will they do?” 

Eulogia Matias’

“The soil is not as fertile as it used to be, so what will they do?” she asks.

Finding ways to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather is important, say scientists, because climate change isn’t going away — and neither is migration.

All but one of Eulogia Matias’ four sons have migrated to the US, the youngest leaving three years ago just after getting married. Despite missing her children, Eulogia says she worries more about what would happen if they returned.Sara Schonhardt/The World 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists convened by the United Nations, produced a report released last October that says rising global temperatures will lead to an increase in fatal heat waves, water and food shortages and wildfires and coastal flooding. Without urgent action to address the causes of those disasters, more than 140 million people could be internally displaced by the middle of this century, according to a 2018 World Bank report.

Solutions to such problems need to come from national governments since the poorest are often the most vulnerable to climate impacts and too often, don’t have the money or resources to immigrate. But the global community will also increasingly be called on for humanitarian outreach. Both sides will need to focus on adaptation so populations can try to navigate climatic changes that are not going away.

Yet, these are not discussions we’re having when it comes to border security. Worse, perhaps, the Trump administration has walked back environmental standards and safeguards and announced it would pull out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The media is partially at fault for continuing to cover Trump’s press conferences and statements as though nothing else in the world is happening. Too few resources go toward telling the stories of women like Susana and Eulogia or explaining the roots of the challenges they’re facing. Focusing on security alone overlooks some of the main causes of out-migration. Perhaps if we looked beyond our borders, we might have a better idea of why we’re dealing with a crisis there in the first place.

Sara Schonhardt traveled to Guatemala as a 2017 fellow with the International Reporting Project.

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