In the past decade, more and more people have left the Northern Triangle countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, for the United States. There are many reasons why people chose to leave the region and seek a better life elsewhere. High crime rates, gang violence, and government corruption are all drivers of migration. But another reason we often overlook is climate change. This region has suffered tremendously from extreme weather events in the last ten years. They’ve endured more hurricanes, stronger storm surges, devastating floods, and longer lasting droughts. Most recently according to a UN report, governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, have reported losses of 281,000 hectares of corn and beans, staples on which the food and nutrition security of much of their populations depend.
It is also one of the poorest regions in the hemisphere, and these extreme weather events make matters worse for small farmers that depend on their crops to survive. They live day-to-day. If they lose their harvest because of a flood or no rain, they don’t have a back-up. They simply don’t have enough to eat.
In a 2017 survey by the World Food Programme, “migrants from the most drought-afflicted areas that left their homes between 2014 and 2016 gave ‘no food’ as their primary reason for emigrating.” No food.
The US government is making the situation worse for countries like El Salvador. Despite being the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, the current presidential administration continues to roll back environmental regulations. Our government is contributing to the global problem that unfairly impacts countries like El Salvador and Honduras, who have contributed to emissions the least. For example, El Salvador only contributes 0.03% of total global emissions but is consistently among the top ten most at-risk countries to climate change threats.
So here we are, part of the problem that is driving people to leave their homes. And how are we treating these climate change refugees? People who are fleeing poverty, starvation, and violence, much of it a result of our own making? By criminalizing them. Dehumanizing them. Persecuting them. By inhumanely separating families and detaining asylum seekers in deplorable conditions. We blame them for the situation they are in. It’s their problem, so why should we care? Why should we help them? Why should we treat them like humans?
Because we are part of the problem. For decades this country has meddled in the politics of Central America – for our own benefit and at the expense of those countries. We’ve gotten richer, and they’ve suffered more and more. We use their rivers and streams as dumping grounds for our waste. We strip their lands of natural resources. And we pollute the air that all of us on this planet breathe. And now, because they have no other choice, no alternative, they’re knocking on our door, asking for our help. The time to step up is now.
We need to take responsibility for our actions and for our past. And we need to be part of the solution. We need to hold our elected officials accountable. To remind ourselves, each other, and this administration that we helped create the mess that we’re in, and the only way out is to accept that and work together to fix it.
Addressing climate change will not only help our future and our children here in this country, but it will help people in places like El Salvador, so they won’t have to flee. So they won’t have to come knocking at our door. If that is what we really want, we need to get serious about climate change and take a good hard look at our immigration policy. Let’s stop making the problem worse. Let’s be part of the solution.
The communities I work with in Central America are at the forefront of climate change mitigation and adaptation. They are innovative thinkers and leaders in environmental protection, food-security, and community organizing. They are working to create climate resilient communities that come together and help each other when times get tough. They are making life better in their country by protecting their environment and creating sustainable, green jobs. There is something for us to learn from them. They care about their neighbors and are working together to face an uncertain future. What are we doing?
The government of El Salvador has pledged to reduce their carbon emissions. The US has not. Instead, we plan to build more coal plants, burn more fossil fuels, and roll back restrictions on polluters.
Why? Because… “America First.” If we don’t take action now, we’re going to end up last.
*This blog was adapted from a speech given by Ana Luisa Ahern at the Columbus, Georgia Rises for Climate, Jobs, and Justice rally on September 8th, 2018.