Climate change is a rarely discussed cause of migration

Climate Change Is A Rarely Discussed Cause Of Migration

Climate change is a rarely discussed cause of immigration. If we’re concerned about the influx of migration, perhaps we’ll have to help developing nations introduce sustainable practices

Climate Change, Guatemala, and Migration

Guatemala is one of the primary sources of illegal immigrants in the United States. Central America as an entire region, accounts for approximately 15.2% of the total number of undocumented migrants (2).

According to Lauren Markham, in her essay for the New York Times, Guatemala is a country filled with not only political problems, but racism against indigenous people, poverty, and gang violence (1).

However, one of the issues that typically escape the radar are the indirect effects of climate change and the environment.

16.6 million people live in Guatemala, and, in addition to political issues, drought and the increasing difficulty of farming and providing for oneself only exacerbates the situation (1)

Markham describes one day she experienced while in the town of Jumaytepeque, a part of Central America’s dry region, where farmers took her out to see what their crops looked like.

Guatemalan farmers typically rely on coffee as their primary agricultural product, but they showed her that it has been destroyed by coffee rust, or “la roya” (1).

Plagues affecting crops are not directly and solely caused by climate change, but the erratic weather does play a role.

As the temperature increases at higher elevations, more wildlife is affected, and drought is only agriculture more vulnerable to disease.

Guatemalan Environmental Catastrophes Are Self-Inflicted

However, what Markham didn’t mention in her essay for the New York Times, is that, like North Americans, many of Guatemalan environmental concerns are of their own doing.

According to, Guatemalans typically aren’t worried about environmentalism, and the result of this carelessness has been massive deforestation and the degradation of farmland soil.

It’s easy to criticize Guatemalans for not farming sustainably or using renewable resources. People do the best they can with what tools and knowledge they have at their disposal.

However, it’s a common talking point among political pundits and academics that there are privileged individuals and societies, and then there are the exploited, the people who are subjected to unfair treatment for the benefit of the rich.

It isn’t the responsibility of Americans, Canadians, and other Westerners, to save people from developing countries.

Maybe, a better course of action would be to introduce sustainable farming and industrial practices in the nations that need it the most, rather than opening the floodgates to migrants coming from ravaged regions.

Environmentalism In Guatemala

Many environmentalists in Guatemala find it difficult to advocate for sustainability because they are threatened by cattle ranchers, drug cartels, powerful agricultural groups, and government officials who don’t believe in sustainability (2).

A long time ago, Guatemala was a country littered with flourishing forests. The Mayan-Toltec name, Guatemala, means, literally, “land of the trees,” but a person wouldn’t be able to tell nowadays (2).

According to, in 2001, 40% of the country still had forests, but by 2005, it was down to 37%, and in 2011, it was at 33.7%. On average, the period between 1990 and 2010, Guatemala lost around 1.15% of their forests every year (2).

Agriculturalists have ripped down forests and turned the Carribean lowlands into banana plantations, and parts of the former Pacific slope forests are home to coffee and sugarcane farms (2).

The southern and central sections in Guatemala have been deforested, almost completely, resulting in the decline of annual rainfall and longer/warmer dry seasons (2).

Guatemala cuts down their forests to clear the way for subsistence farming through slash-and-burn agriculture.

Slash-and-burn agriculture is when foresters cut down the forest, burn the remains, and the resulting soil and ash is filled with nutrients suitable for crops in subsequent years. But, the soil is nutrient-dense for a limited amount of time.

After continuous farming, the soil becomes a wasteland, and farmers have to move on to another area. Where they cut down the forest and start the cycle over again, cutting it down, lighting it on fire, planting their crops, and then moving on once they’ve stripped the land of all its nutrients.

According to, Mayans were brought nearly to their extinction due to deforestation, and it looks like it could happen again (2).

Some historians believe Mayan city-states began fighting each other over the ever decreasing number of natural resources.

Air, Water, And Transportation Systems

According to a report from the United Nations, around 25% of Guatemalans don’t have access to drinking water, and in rural areas, it’s closer to around 50% (2).

Cities have sewer systems, but the wastewater isn’t treated, and then they dump the sewage into lakes, rivers, and oceans.

Guatemalans are careless in their farming operations and pollute the water tables, leading to illness among the population (2).

And their air quality isn’t great, due to the lack of environmental regulations. Guatemala City, for instance, has city transportation that uses old and inefficient school buses that emit a lot of exhaust. Vehicles such as these wouldn’t pass emissions tests in developed Western countries (2).

Thankfully, the government is working toward replacing some of these older machines to cut down on the amount of smog (2).

Environmentally Catastrophic Farming And Industry Practices Lead To Migration

As farmers begin to realize their situation is almost beyond the point of salvation, they decide that they can either move into the cities and try and make it work among all of the gang violence, or they can head “north,” meaning, to the United States.

Thankfully, It’s clear the environment is increasingly becoming a concern. It’s not uncommon for mainstream news outlets such as The Guardian and The New York Times to have subsections devoted to environmental news.

President Trump has taken a lot of criticism for his views on the environment, including backing out of the Paris climate accord, as well as relaxing regulations meant to protect the water, air, and land.

Sustainable farming and industry, as well as the use of clean and renewable energy, is one of the most important issues in the modern era.

Forced migration as the result of deforestation, soil degradation, and water and air pollution is only going to get worse as we continue to engage in harmful practices.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there have been 22.5 million people leaving their homes since 2008 due to climate-change related phenomena or extreme weather incidents (1).

Starvation in Darfur, storms, and flooding in Bangladesh, and hurricanes in Puerto Rico are just a few examples of the kind of environmental catastrophes that cause people to pack up all their belongings and leave home (1).

Unfortunately, as climate change continues and environmental degradation increases, people will have to migrate more and more all of the time.

In Yemen, for instance, the lack of water helped foster horrible war and fighting. El Salvador, one of the most dangerous nations in Central America, is still getting better following a brutal drought (1).

There are several reasons for the lack of water in Central America, including deforestation and farmers overusing their land for agriculture (1).

However, according to Climate Links, a subdivision of the US Agency for International Development, the average temperature in El Salvador has risen to around 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950’s, and their droughts are only getting worse (1).

Since the 1950’s, sea levels have risen by approximately three inches and is supposed to increase seven more by 2050 (1). Between the year 2000 and 2009, El Salvador has dealt with 39 hurricanes (1).

In the 1980’s, El Salvador only had 15. It’s the same story for some farmers in Ethiopia, who told Laura Markham that they had to leave Ethiopia because they couldn’t farm the land anymore (1).

Climate change doesn’t necessarily result in just higher temperatures, but increasingly erratic weather patterns (1).

For instance, the men complained that there wasn’t any rain when the crops needed to grow, and then around the time of harvest, their crops flooded because of terrible rain.

Ironically, the nations hit hardest by climate change are usually the ones who don’t even emit the most greenhouse gasses (1).

Laura Markham is right when she says that if Donald Trump is concerned with migration so much, then he should begin adopting environmentally-friendly policies.


(1) New York Times

(2) Anywhere

(3) Pew Hispanic

image sources

  • Climate change is a rarely discussed cause of migration: Dennis Jarvis - Flickr

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