Guatemala: An Observation of Climate Change and Migration to the U.S.

By Cameren Lofton on February 23, 2020

In my last blog post, I highlighted some of the complex legal challenges that climate migrants face and how those challenges are being addressed at the national and global levels. This blog post will add to the series on climate migration by focusing on the country of Guatemala and how climate change has affected people who live in the rural and agricultural regions of this country.

Guatemalan Demographics and Climate

The country of Guatemala, located in Central America, is a large contributor, along with El Salvador and Honduras, of migration to the U.S.-Mexico border. These three countries lie within the Northern Triangle region, in which a mix of poverty, gang violence, and political insecurity drive large amounts of people to migrate from their homes [1]. The effects of climate change on poverty [2] are especially salient for those who live in the Dry Corridor. This area is susceptible to droughts, tropical storms, landslides, and flash floods. Furthermore, a majority of people who live in this area are subsistence farmers “and at least 2 million of them have gone hungry in the last decade because of extreme weather”. The Dry Corridor begins in Panama and goes through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and parts of southern Mexico and “as climate change has worsened, [it] has extended into the western part of [Guatemala]” [3].

The Effects of Climate Change

As discussed in my last blog post, climate change is often among a multitude of factors that drive migration rather than the primary factor. In Guatemala, migrants often leave because they can no longer make a living in their own country and are willing to risk traveling to the U.S. for the chance at better wages and a better life. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in 2018, 10% of Guatemalans were “directly affected” by crop failures caused by drought, which resulted in “extreme food shortages” for nearly 840,000 people [4]. The changes in climate have affected the productive power of both subsistence and commercial farmers, making it hard for subsistence farmers to find work when their crops fail [5].

Much of this unpredictable weather is caused by El Niño, which is part of a natural climate cycle that has long caused changes in weather within this region of Central America; however, the effects of El Niño have become stronger and more erratic, making it difficult for farmers in Guatemala and the larger region to adjust. Normally, farmers would use alternative practices (e.g. finding work on commercial farms) to adapt, but those alternatives no longer suffice [6]; farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to adapt to the increasing effects of climate change [7]. Even an alternative source of income that seems to work in the short-run, the cutting down of firewood, is further worsening the effects of climate by contributing to deforestation and subsequent decreases in tree cover, which shield areas from some of the effects of climate change [8].

Another driver of migration from regions of Guatemala dependent on agriculture is the fact that many other Guatemalans have already left for the U.S. “With increasing numbers of people leaving, it’s becoming harder for others to justify staying behind”, and people who live in areas with high levels of migration are more likely to emigrate themselves [9]. Additionally, those people who successfully make it to the U.S. often never show the negative parts of life in the U.S., creating an unrealistic ideal of the U.S. that does not include the “racism and constant work” that one deals with as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. [10].

Remittances, Debt, and the Effects of U.S. Border Policy

Getting to the U.S. border is not an easy task. Those who attempt to migrate to the U.S. often either use smugglers, known as “coyotes”, or attempt to brave the dangerous trip with no assistance. As U.S. border policy becomes stricter and Mexican criminal cartels have become more prevalent, travel to the border has become more dangerous and difficult and as a result, smugglers are becoming increasingly expensive ($10,000-15,000 in 2014) [11]. Furthermore, in January 2019, the Department of Homeland Security declared the implementation of a “Remain in Mexico” program, which forces non-Mexican asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as U.S. immigration courts rule on their case. Since many families would attempt to gain entry to the U.S. by seeking asylum, this program will likely lead to further increases in the price of smugglers [12].

The people who do use smugglers often take out loans or put up their land as collateral to pay the high price, making their ability to pay contingent on successful entry into the U.S. For many, paying off these loans would often require “between 6 months and a year of steady work in the U.S.” [13].This practice has led to an “epidemic of debt” in Guatemala, in which families who’d taken out loans were never able to make it to the U.S. or were stuck in deportation proceedings for so long that they did not have time to pay off their loans. Often, these people become trapped in a “feedback loop in which immigrants who fail to reach the U.S. become stuck in a cycle of future attempts”. This is often the only foreseeable option for some, as their debt is so high that it could not be paid by any attainable wage available in their country [14].

A common sign of the prevalence of Guatemalan migration to the U.S. comes in the form of remittances, or money that is sent back to people in Guatemala by their family members living in the U.S.. In 2018, $9 billion was sent back to Guatemala in the form of remittances, accounting for 11% of their GDP. For comparison, in 2017 the U.S. sent less than 3% of that ($500 million) to Guatemala in the form of aid. Remittances account for a great portion of the Guatemalan economy, and without them, levels of crime and poverty would be higher [15]. Guatemalans are becoming increasingly dependent on the success of other Guatemalans migrating to the U.S. Additionally, Guatemalans who make it to the U.S. have begun building houses in Guatemala with the money that they are making. Known as remittance houses, they often serve as the residence for their family members who stayed behind and a way for “immigrants to invest their money while living abroad”. However, these houses can also serve as reminders to those who remain in rural Guatemala of the relative economic prosperity that comes with life in the U.S. [16]. As U.S. immigration policies become more strict, many Guatemalans are beginning to construct remittance houses in the case that they get deported from the U.S. [17].

Conclusion

Guatemala is listed as one of the countries most affected by extreme weather events and is also considered one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. With these trends in mind, it is highly likely that migration from Guatemala will only increase in the coming years as the effects of climate change. Because half of the Guatemalan workforce is in the agricultural sector [18] and much of their income and livelihood depend on their crops, they are extremely reliant on the predictability of weather patterns, which can threaten the success and viability of their crops.

This post demonstrates that the effects of climate migration are already salient for inhabitants of many countries throughout the world. In the next blog post, I will focus on how climate change has affected the West African country of Sierra Leone and how those effects have contributed to migration to the European Union.

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