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Climate Migration in Latin America: A Future ‘Flood of Refugees’ to the North?

Council on Hemispheric Affairs, News Analysis, Alexandra Deprez Posted: Feb 23, 2010

Editor's Note: The original, full-length article appears at Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Latin America bears a combination of factors that may converge to give rise to “hot spots” for mass population movements. Not only is it host to a number of environmental events, but it also possesses conditions such as poverty and an unequal geographical distribution of the population that heighten their vulnerability to these effects.

With well-established migration channels between most Latin American countries and the United States, the manifestations of climate change may have an increasingly stronger impact on South-North human flows in the Western hemisphere. Developed nations such as the United States hold a responsibility for the anthropogenic climate change their industrial activities helped engender. This is an issue that Western policymakers might one day not have the luxury to continue to ignore.

Drivers of migration in Latin America:
Drought, sea level rise, melting glaciers and hurricanes

Anthropogenic climate change will manifest itself through an intensification of drought, sea level rise and the melting of glaciers. Climate change will modify rain patterns geographically and temporally, inducing a shift in the start of rainy seasons as well as an increase of precipitation in some temperate areas, and a decrease in other regions, particularly in the tropics. This decline in rainfall may produce a more recurrent drought and negatively impact crop yields.

Northern Mexico, where 60 percent of arid or semi-arid land suffers from erosion, has over the past few decades seen a decrease in precipitation that has been projected to steadily worsen. A June 2009 report by the United Nations University stated, “Based on Mexican government’s data, approximately 900,000 people left arid and semi-arid areas every year [since the mid 1990s] in part because of their inability to make a living from the land due to excessively dry conditions and soil erosion.”

Another example of the effect of drought on migration in Latin America may be found in Northeastern Brazil. In this primarily agricultural region, spikes in migration to the country’s southern regions have been observed following decreases in crop yields during years that suffered from severe droughts.

Another environmental process that will be intensified by anthropogenic climate change is sea level rise; different analysts have predicted a change of 50 cm to 1.5 meters by the end of the 21st century. It has been widely assumed to be the “climate-process” with the strongest and most direct push effect on migration.

Although drawing practically no press coverage, several Caribbean islands are at risk of being partially or completely submerged.

The melting of glaciers is a third process that has been taking place since the industrial revolution, and due to the ever increasing concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it will continue to occur at an accelerated pace. In South America, this translates into concerns about how the Andes Mountain range may now be seeing a reduction of water availability for agricultural and personal consumption, as well as an increased risk of fires during the dry season, and a change in rain patterns, all of which could provoke greater flooding during the rainy season.

The Argentine regions of Patagonia and Cuyo, which a few years ago were still the sites of incoming migration, have now started to experience emigration flows linked to justified environmental fears.

Reduction of water availability is of particular relevance and concern in this region, as it may place even greater economic pressures on the poorer sectors of society, who already have been strongly affected by the wave of provocative water privatizations which have swept over the continent during the past twenty years. These economic pressures are likely to translate into stronger migratory impulses.

Climate change is also being manifested through the intensification and increased recurrence of certain natural hazards. Natural disasters reportedly have been on the rise over the past decades. From 1980 to 2000, inhabitants of developing countries accounted for more than 95 percent of all of those who lost their houses in natural disasters. The extremely disproportionate impact that these events have had on the world’s developing regions may be explained by the much higher vulnerability they face in comparison to Western nations. Not only are the tropics--where most of the developing regions are located--at higher risk of experiencing natural hazards, but a combination of political, economic and social factors lower their populations’ resiliency and capacity to respond effectively to these disasters.

The situation of disaster prevention and relief in Central America, where hundreds of thousands of people are periodically left homeless during the hurricane season, illustrates a low capacity of response. Costa Rica’s disaster response plan, which offered an only somewhat acceptable response to the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that hit its Central Valley in January 2009, is indeed considered the best in the region.

Unacceptable delays and insufficient responses, such as those given by ex-president Manuel Zelaya when he declared a state of emergency three weeks after Honduras was shaken by a 7.1 earthquake in June 2009, are much more common in the isthmus. Of course, these examples are now slighted by the incomparable catastrophe the poorest country in the Western hemisphere has been suffering following the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti’s capital on January 12, 2010, incurring a death toll of more than 200,000 people and the damage or destruction of almost 300,000 residences and commercial buildings.

As the oceans’ temperature continues to rise due to climate change, tropical storms are believed to become increasingly recurrent and potent. This trend was particularly noted in the Caribbean basin, the region most strongly affected by hurricanes in the Western hemisphere. As hurricanes hit the Caribbean with more frequency and strength, households that have repeatedly suffered from these events may increasingly consider permanent or international migration as an adaptation strategy.

This may be facilitated by the existence of strong migration ties and networks between Latin American countries and the United States.

Unequal land distribution in Latin America

The largest amount of climate migration is most likely to be concentrated in areas where “non-environmental” factors--such as poor governance, political persecution, population pressures, and poverty--are already present. Environmental changes should not induce mass migrations in a country that has an accountable and responsive government.

The United Nations University’s June 2009 report “In Search of Shelter” asserts that the loss of arable soil, clean air, and water, will be the principal cause of mass environmental migration. Populations that depend on these for their livelihood--such as farmers, who could suffer from reductions in crop yields--will be more likely to choose migration.

General economic pressures, as well as a lack of natural hazard risk assessments and zoning laws, may push those less fortunate populations onto marginal areas. In Latin America, where historical factors have also contributed to these displacements, the population’s geographical distribution is also a factor in climate migration.

In his article “Roots of Flight: Environmental Refugees in Latin America,” York University Professor Andil Gosine explains the processes that forced indigenous populations and small farmers from the rich arable valleys onto marginal arid or mountainous lands. The arrival of European “Conquistadores” to Latin America marked the installation of a very unequal land tenure system, visible to this day in countries such as Nicaragua, where in 2003 less than 25 percent of the rural population owned almost 85 percent of the country’s land.

The capitalist systems established in many Latin American countries in the 19th century exerted economic pressures on the region to produce monocultures for export. According to Gosine, this trend, which was continued by the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) infamous Structural Adjustment Plans of the 1960s that supported the production of cash crops, has served to perpetuate an unequal geographical distribution of the population.

Relegated to less productive lands, small farmers in Latin America face undeniable economic hardships as their produce customarily has to compete against strongly subsidized American and European agricultural goods.

The migratory pressures already in place due to these hardships will most likely be cemented by climate change, and the inequality in land distribution only further underscores the disproportionate influence it is bound to have on the poorer sectors of Latin American society.

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