Changing climate forces desperate Guatemalans to migrate

Drought and shifting weather are making it difficult for many small-scale farmers to feed their families, fueling a human crisis.

Eduardo 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.

A country in crisis?

To Diego Recalde, director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Guatemala, the current trend of mass migration in response to food insecurity and drought is a clear indication that the country has been barreling towards a climate change-induced crisis for some time.

Adverse climate conditions in Guatemala affect food security by reducing agricultural production in both commercial as well as subsistence farming, limiting the agricultural work opportunities that make up a significant portion of the national economy as well. Rising poverty rates and plunging social indicators paint a bleak outlook for the country, which has the fourth-highest level of chronic malnutrition in the world, and the highest in Latin America. According to the World Food Programme, nearly 50 percent of children under five years old are considered chronically malnourished in Guatemala, a measure that peaks to 90 percent or higher in many rural areas.

For subsistence farmers like Méndez López who rely on rainfall to produce the food they eat, it only takes a few months of erratic climate patterns to limit or completely impair their ability to put food on their families’ tables. With increases in the frequency and severity of droughts, Recalde worries that for the most vulnerable sectors of the population, the worst is yet to come.

“This is a national disaster,” he says. “There should be red flags going off all over the place.”

Scientists attribute the unusually severe droughts starting in 2014 that have sped up the exodus of families heading north to effects from El Niño, part of a natural climate cycle known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which causes swings between cooler and wetter, and hotter and drier periods around the globe.

El Niño 101

This type of natural climate variability has affected Guatemala and other Central American countries for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, even playing a role in the mega-droughts that accompanied the collapse of the ancient Mayan civilization.

"Climate has always had a very strong variability here,” explains Edwin Castellanos, director of the Center for the Study of the Environment and Biodiversity at the Universidad del Valle in Guatemala. “The problem now is that El Niño and La Niña have become both stronger, more intense, but also more erratic.”

Climate change to blame?

While it may seem as if climate change is driving these wide swings in weather, it’s important to make a distinction between periods of climate variability, and the long-term shifts of climate change. The latter quickly becomes a matter of politics, international negotiations, and claims for loss and damages under the Paris Agreement.

While scientists know that El Niño contributes to increases in global temperatures, it is still unclear whether human-induced climate change is causing El Niño events to intensify and occur more frequently.

“By definition, climate change should usually be modeled in 50-year terms. But what the models are showing should be happening in 2050 is already happening now,” says Castellanos, referring to alterations in rainfall patterns and aridity levels across Guatemala. “So the question is, is this variability higher than usual?”

A lack of historical meteorological data makes demonstrating a clear connection between human-induced climate change and increased climate variability difficult. Nevertheless, Castellanos, who is among Guatemala’s leading experts on climate change, finds it hard to ignore the transformations he’s experienced first-hand throughout his life.

“We still have some ways to go before we can conclude scientifically that what we’re seeing now is outside the normal. But if you go out to the field and ask anybody if this is normal, everybody says no.”

Whether attributed to El Niño events or to global warming, what’s happening in Guatemala paints a vivid picture of the vulnerabilities that are exposed when societies don’t have the capacities to cope with and adapt to a changing climate.

Vulnerable economy, vulnerable villages

In previous years, families affected by a bad year’s harvest would seek work as day laborers on commercial farms, making enough to purchase staples like corn and beans. But this year, there’s no work to be found. Even well-established commercial agriculture ventures have been affected by this year’s drought, foreshadowing the bigger problems that will arise as the climate-sensitive crops that make up the bulk of Guatemala’s key agricultural exports (and domestic job market) suffer the effects of rising temperatures and increasingly frequent climate-related disasters.

Today, towards the end of yet another “rainy season” that brought no rain, many rural communities seem trapped in a dizzying vortex of catastrophe. Years of erratic weather, failed harvests, and a chronic lack of employment opportunities have slowly chipped away at the strategies Guatemalan families have used successfully to cope with one or two years of successive droughts and crop failures. But now, entire villages seem to be collapsing from the inside out as more and more communities become stranded, hours away from the nearest town, with no food, no work, and no way to seek help.

“There’s no transportation. People have run out of money to pay the fare, so cars don’t even come here anymore,” says José René Súchite Ramos of El Potrerito, Chiquimula. “We want to leave but we can’t.”

Many describe the current situation as the most desperate they’ve ever faced. In the settlement of Plan de Jocote, Chiquimula, Gloria Díaz’s crops didn’t produce a single grain of corn.

“Here, 95 percent of us have been affected by droughts that started in 2014, but this year, we lost absolutely everything, even the seeds,” Díaz says. “Now we’re stuck with no way out. We can’t plant the second harvest, and we’ve run out of the resources we had to be able to eat.”

Like many others in her community, Díaz has taken to foraging the countryside for wild malanga roots in attempts to stave off starvation, but they’ve become scarce too. Without a reliable source of potable water, outbreaks of diarrhea and skin rashes have become increasingly common, especially among children.

In the neighboring department of El Progreso, Sister Edna Morales spends many days riding a donkey through the parched mountains surrounding the small town of San Agustín Acasaguastlán, looking for malnourished children whose families are too poor and weak to seek help. These days, the nutritional feeding center she runs remains at full capacity.

“These children have so many health problems that are compounded by severe, chronic malnutrition. Their hair is falling out, they’re unable to walk,” she says. “Living here, you hear about many cases of children dying from malnutrition. They don’t even get reported to the news.”

It’s not just children who are suffering the consequences of severe food shortages and crushing poverty. In Chiquimula, Díaz displays a recent group photo of the community organization over which she presides, the Association of Progressive Women of Plan de Jocote. One by one, she points at women who have died, or are slowly dying, from preventable causes made untreatable by extreme poverty and malnutrition.

When subsistence farmers lose their harvests, they’re forced to purchase the staples they typically grow—often at highly inflated prices—to feed their families. Without a source of income, this additional expense leaves many without the economic resources for other basic necessities such as medications or transportation to doctors.

As hunger pushes desperate parents to resort to extreme measures in order to feed their families, robberies and violent assaults have skyrocketed.

“People from our own community are starting to go out and rob people, because it’s their only option,” says Marco Antonio Vásquez, a community leader of the village of El Ingeniero in Chiquimula.

Mass migrations

Many consider migration to be their last option, one that comes with tremendous risks to their personal security and unthinkable consequences if they’re unable to complete the journey.

“A lot of people are leaving, many more than ever before,” says Vásquez. “Towards the U.S. in search of a new future, taking their small children with them because they feel so pressured to risk it all.”

Those with homes or small plots of land use them as collateral to pay human smugglers known as “coyotes” between $10,000 and $15,000 USD in exchange for three chances to cross the border into the U.S. But families from the poorest regions of the country are often forced to choose the option with the least guarantees and the highest risks—going alone, often with small children in tow.

In Guatemala City, two to three planes touch down at the Guatemalan Air Force Base every day, each one carrying around 150 Guatemalan citizens who have been deported or intercepted as they attempted to cross into the United States. Many were fleeing hunger and extreme poverty in their home country.

Ernesto, who asked his name to be changed, looked weary as he waited in line to claim the small bag containing belongings that had been taken from him when he was intercepted at the U.S. Border—his shoelaces, a battered cell phone, and a small bible. His family in Guatemala had put their home and livelihood on the line, hoping he could make it across to find work in the U.S., which would allow him to support his family back home. This was the second time he had been deported.

“I have one chance left. If I don’t make it, we will really be in trouble.”

This reporting was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative. Gena Steffens is a writer and photographer based in Colombia. She is currently working on a National Geographic Society storytelling grant.