Changing climate forces desperate Guatemalans to migrate

JOCOTÁN, CHIQUIMULA, GUATEMALAEduardo Méndez López lifts his gaze to the sky, hoping to see clouds laden with rain.

After months of subsisting almost exclusively on plain corn tortillas and salt, his eyes and cheeks appear sunken in, his skin stretched thin over bone. The majority of his neighbors look the same.

It’s the height of rainy season in Guatemala, but in the village of Conacaste, Chiquimula, the rains came months too late, then stopped altogether. Méndez López’s crops shriveled and died before producing a single ear of corn. Now, with a dwindling supply of food, and no source of income, he’s wondering how he’ll be able to feed his six young children.

“This is the worst drought we’ve ever had,” says Méndez López, toeing the parched earth with the tip of his boot. “We’ve lost absolutely everything. If things don’t improve, we’ll be forced to migrate somewhere else. We can’t go on like this.”

Guatemala is consistently listed among the world’s 10 most vulnerable nations to the effects of climate change. Increasingly erratic climate patterns have produced year after year of failed harvests and dwindling work opportunities across the country, forcing more and more people like Méndez López to consider migration in a last-ditch effort to escape skyrocketing levels of food insecurity and poverty.

During the past decade, an average of 24 million people each year were displaced by weather events around the world, and although it's unclear how many of those displacements can be attributed to human-caused climate change, experts expect this number to continue to rise.

Increasingly, those displaced seek to relocate in other countries as “climate change refugees,” but there’s a problem: the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines the rights of displaced people, provides a list of things people must be fleeing from in order to be granted asylum or refuge. Climate change isn’t on the list.

Data from Customs and Border Patrol show a massive increase in the number of Guatemalan migrants, particularly families and unaccompanied minors, intercepted at the U.S. border starting in 2014. It’s not a coincidence that the leap coincides with the onset of severe El Niño-related drought conditions in Central America’s Dry Corridor, which stretches through Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Seeking to understand the upward trend in emigration from this region, a major inter-agency study led by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) interviewed families from key districts in the Dry Corridor about the pressures that are forcing them to leave. The main “push factor” identified was not violence, but drought and its consequences: no food, no money, and no work.

Their findings suggest a clear relation between climate variability, food insecurity, and migration, and provide a frightening window into what’s to come as we begin to see the real-world effects of climate change around the world.

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