honduras drought climate change
Migrants' choice: Risk starvation or leave home
04:14 - Source: CNN
Copán, Honduras CNN  — 

Each night after her husband left, Delmi Amparo Hernández walked to a neighbor’s house to look for him on the TV news. He had fled their mountaintop community here in rural Honduras without a phone because no one in the family could afford one. Their floor was made of dirt, they grew their own food. Watching coverage of the migrant caravan heading for the United States was Hernández’s only way to know if he was alive.

What she saw in the broadcasts were visions from hell. Families jumping from bridges, getting kidnapped along dusty roads, dodging tear gas cannons fired by police from richer nations. How could this be? She continued scanning, hoping to find him, hoping not to.

She had begged Germán Ramírez not to go, but her 30-year-old husband had his reasons. The town’s corn and bean crops had failed during a years-long drought. There was no work aside from farming. No money for irrigation. Their four children, ages 3 to 13, had little to eat.

Ramírez told his wife that he had no choice but to leave with the “caravan” of thousands that had formed in Honduras and would make its way north. This was their chance, she recalled him saying that day. He could go with the group, find work, send back money.

It was this or risk starvation.

Delmi Amparo Hernández with her four children.

The couple’s tragic story, as well as others I heard on a recent four-day trip to western Honduras, complicates two narratives being told about the migrant caravan.

To hear President Trump tell it, Central American “Gang Members and some very bad people” are attempting to storm the United States at its southern border. “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you,” the President wrote on Twitter. American news reports, meanwhile, largely have focused on high rates of violent crime in Honduras and El Salvador that have driven families to seek asylum as refugees in the United States.

Overlooked is this factor: climate change.

The “dry corridor” of Central America, which includes parts of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, has been hit with an unusual drought for the last five years. Crops are failing. Starvation is lurking. More than two million people in the region are at risk for hunger, according to an August report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Under normal circumstances, without any change in rain patterns, people are already struggling,” said Edwin Castellanos, dean of research at Universidad del Valle de Guatemala and a global authority on climate change in Central America. “In some of these dry areas, we have seen events of children actually dying out of hunger. So, it is that extreme.”

This drought has been longer and more intense than those seen before in the dry corridor, Castellanos said. The failure of critical springtime rains is also new, he said, and is causing such problems for farmers whose crops depend on that water.

Subsistence crops like corn and beans are all but dying. Our crew saw beans the size of Tic Tacs. And shriveled, partially blackened ears of corn could fit inside your palm.

Corn crops have been smaller than usual, leading to a hunger crisis.

Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, said in a speech on Friday that drought and crop failures in Honduras and Guatemala “directly translate into who’s arriving at our border.”

Studies have not definitively tied this particular drought to climate change, but computer models show droughts like the one happening now are becoming more common as the world warms.

Thousands have risked their lives to flee these circumstances.

And previously unpublished data shows people started leaving certain areas of Honduras amid crop failures – even as homicide rates were declining.

Take Copán, the region of Honduras that Germán Ramírez fled in October.

In fiscal year 2012, around the start of the drought, only about 20 family members from Copán were apprehended by the US Border Patrol while trying to cross the US-Mexico border, according to a data analysis of records shared with CNN by Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at The University of Texas at Austin. Then drought hit, its cumulative effects growing as the years wore on. In 2017, about 1,450 family members from Copán were apprehended by US authorities at the border, the data show. In fiscal year 2018, with the data ending in September, the number of migrants picked up was more than 2,500.

Those figures are “absolutely” an underestimation, said Leutert. “You’re missing people who left Copán and went to big cities, you’re missing people who left Copán and went to another place in the region, you’re missing people who tried to go to the United States and didn’t make it – and you’re missing people who went to the United States and crossed undetected.”

The figure is a “baseline” that shows something big is happening, she said.

Any person’s decision to abandon their homeland is complex. For some, violence is part of it. As is extreme poverty. In Central America, it’s often a combination of things.

But there’s another truth: This region is becoming less hospitable to farmers as more-industrialized countries burn loads of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. A December report shows the world is on track to create 37.1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution in 2018 – yet another record. This pollution traps heat and warms the planet, making cyclical weather events like droughts, floods and certain storms worse.

The United States, which is the destination for so many migrants fleeing Honduras, bears outsize responsibility for global warming. Cumulatively, the nation has done more to cause climate change since the Industrial Revolution than any other. Today, President Trump supports increased coal production and has pledged to abandon the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to at most 2 degrees Celsius. A “rulebook” for that agreement is being debated this week at the COP24 conference in Katowice, Poland, with the United States on the sidelines.

Notably, Trump also has also made immigration his signature issues, rallying supporters around the idea of stopping people from Latin America, like Germán Ramírez, from crossing illegally into the United States. There’s broad support for a crackdown on illegal immigration in the United States among Republican voters. A quarter of US midterm voters said that immigration was their No. 1 issue, and 75% of those voters were Republicans, according to a November exit poll. “Build that wall” has become a popular chant at Trump political rallies.

Federal authorities have met would-be migrants at the border near San Diego with tear gas. Officials say the tear-gassing occurred after migrants threw rocks at authorities.

Yet there’s an unspoken irony here.

The nation that’s become a destination for so many migrants – a beacon of opportunity and hope –is contributing to the conditions forcing some people to abandon home.

‘I was waiting for you like the rains in May’

Think of Central America like an island.

That’s advice from Castellanos, the climate scientist in Guatemala.

He’s not talking about just any old island. He’s referencing the specks of land in the Pacific – Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands – whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels that are linked to global warming. I visited the Marshall Islands in 2015 after readers of CNN’s “Two Degrees” series voted for me to do a story on “climate refugees.” Higher tides and increased flooding were already pushing people out – and to Arkansas, of all places.

Crops have been failing in the "dry corridor" of Central America.

These little islands gained a huge voice at the United Nations climate talks in Paris in December of that year – the predecessor to the talks happening now in Poland. Calling themselves the “High Ambition Coalition,” island diplomats rallied with richer nations to make a moral case for climate action – saying their sovereign territory would vanish if global temperatures were allowed to warm more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. That goal became embedded in the Paris Agreement. In order to achieve it, global carbon emissions would need to be cut in half in about a decade.

The climate problem in Central America isn’t so much sea-level rise. But Castellanos told me an argument can be made that the region is nearly as susceptible to global warming. It is a slim stretch of land connecting North and South America – a string of land between continents. That makes it vulnerable to storms coming from the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. Climate change is supercharging those. Plus, climate models show both floods and droughts getting more intense. The United Nations Development Programme considers Honduras to be “highly vulnerable” to climate change, both now and in the future as the atmosphere continues to warm.

The dry corridor gets that name because it’s long been dry, situated behind a mountain range that catches weather from the Caribbean. But the recent drought there has challenged notions about how bad a drought in Central America could be, Castellanos told me. Some areas have seen 10 consecutive months without rain.

Central Americans have an expression – “I was waiting for you like the rains in May.” It references the fact that massive rains fall in May and June, like clockwork each year. Farmers plant their crops accordingly, counting on the spring rains to soak the plants and ensure a productive harvest. Many people here are subsistence farmers and can’t afford irrigation systems. They’re completely at the mercy of rains, and those rains aren’t coming.

When they do come