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Addressing Climate Change and Conflict: Central American Agriculture and Migration (part III)


This is part three in an article series discussing climate change, conflict, and the role of the United Nations Security Council. Read part one here and part two here.

On December 15, 2017, a group of United Nations (UN) member states and global leaders called an Arria-formula meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) titled “Climate Change: Preparing for the Security Implications of Rising Temperatures.” A panel of climate change experts engaged the UNSC in a conversation about climate change and its effect on conflict and security. The panel held the meeting specifically to call the UNSC to action in assessing and combating the detrimental human effects of climate change now and in the future. This article will expand on one of the issues addressed in the meetingdisrupted farming practices and forced migration in Central America.


Climate change is altering livelihoods across the Global South. From Guatemala to Nepal to Mozambique, millions of workers—farmers in particular—are losing opportunities to support their families. Cruel combinations of drought and flooding are choking crops, enabling fungus to spread, and drenching rice paddies in poisonous saline water.


These destructive physical manifestations of climate change were a repeated theme at the December 2017 Arria-formula meeting. Rising sea levels and flooding have seriously affected coastal communities in Indonesia and northern Peru, the countries’ representatives reported. Japan’s representative brought up the AR5 Synthesis Report, published in 2014, which exposes how human activity is impairing air quality and shifting weather patterns.


Speakers also mentioned the presence of climate shifts and effects in the North in the past year, including Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which tore into southern Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Barbuda, and other Caribbean Islands Although the United States snubbed the opportunity to participate in the meeting, other nations spoke on its behalf, noting the drought and wildfires devastating its western coast at the time.


The representative from the Dominican Republic named several climate change impacts that, although perhaps more subtle than natural disasters, still hinder the well-being of Latin American and Caribbean citizens. Changes in rainfall have inhibited crop production, forcing the Dominican Republic to import basic goods like coffee and rice from as far as Vietnam. This is not an issue that can be solved with more imports and donations, the representative emphasized, as the real issue here is that farmers are losing their crops and therefore their livelihoods.


Losing one’s means of growing food, earning money, and supporting a family puts workers in delicate positions. This is when the peripheral effects of climate change start to come into focus. The spread of coffee rust (la roya) in Guatemala is a concrete consequence of climate change—increasing temperatures allow the heat-loving fungus to climb slightly higher up the mountains each year, killing more crops. The nuanced security impact of the spread of coffee rust is that now many farmers must seek new ways to earn income. For some this may mean migration to more climate-stable areas. Those who decide to migrate must choose whether to travel alone or with their families. Both situations pose their own threats, especially when women or children are involved.


A farmer with a family may choose to travel alone, with the hope of finding work in the United States or, increasingly, Mexico. This can be treacherous and involve crossing borders using unsafe and corrupt methods only to arrive in a host country that may not have adequate resources to provide. Furthermore, as the United States has proven over and over throughout the past several decades, having enough resources does not necessarily mean a willingness to share them. Migrants are at the mercy of obscure legal processes and deportation; their families are vulnerable to starvation and illness.


This is a security concern.


Those who are suddenly without a livelihood but do not migrate face other forms of risk and conflict. What starts as disorganization and confusion can quickly turn into a struggle over resources. This turns deadly when gangs, terrorist groups, or even government systems find ways to control resources at the expense of citizens.


This is a security concern.


Because the response to migrants can often be unwelcoming and even hostile, the UN has been formulating a document to help regulate international migration. The Global Compact for Migration (GCM) was initiated following the adoption of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in September 2016.


The inclusion of climate migration within the GCM has received strong support from many UN leaders, including current Secretary General of the UNGA Antonio Guterres. Guterres recently released a report titled “Making Migration Work for All,” wherein he stated: “A forward-looking compact on migration, as well as a compact on refugees, must respond to the reality that climate change is likely to exacerbate economic, environmental and social pressures to migrate over the next few decades.”


Not all migrants are climate migrants, and not all affected by climate change will relocate. But the hope of many within the UN and civil society is that the GCM will benefit migrants neglected by their own governments and rejected by other governments, as well as migrants who simply want to move because they can. Other climate migrants may not fit easily into any of these categories. There is still a need to prepare to respond to their unique needs. The GCM seeks to do this through framework and the acknowledgment of climate change as a push factor in some migration scenarios.


Much like the intersection of climate change and conflict discussed in the previous article, migration can be difficult to quantify or “measure.” This presents a challenge when trying to convince a body of authority, such as the UNSC, to take concrete action. But the energy behind the Global Compact for Migration is an encouraging counterpart to the energy expressed at the Arria-formula meeting on climate change.


There is also a need for action on the grassroots level. Broad-scale projects like the GCM are complicated and inevitably raise questions about where funding will come from and how it will be spent. Hopefully, the discussion surrounding climate change will also continue to press forward on all levels as the global community pursues cooperation and solid solutions.


Abby Hershberger is the Program Assistant at Mennonite Central Committee’s UN Office.