by: Emily Kelly, ViviendasLeón Social Advocacy and Research Intern - Summer 2019
To accurately assess the impacts of climate change, one must look at how it affects people of all levels of society. Research consistently shows that marginalized communities are disproportionately more by climate change impacts than other communities. This is especially apparent in Central America, where indigenous populations, rural communities, and women and children are currently experiencing the brunt of the changing climate.
These groups of people are often economically disadvantaged, meaning they don’t have the same opportunities to succeed in life as someone who is of a higher socio-economic standing or living in a more developed area. According to some estimates, half of Central Americans live in poverty, with a third living in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is especially prevalent in rural areas, where people rely more heavily on their environment for water, food, shelter, medicine, and energy.
Research shows that families living in poverty usually occupy the least desirable, and therefore cheapest, land, which is more prone to climate impacts like mud slides, flooding, and water contamination. As climate change worsens, so will rural families’ ability to continue living on their land.
In Central America, this threat is especially dangerous to the rural population whose livelihoods are mostly agrarian. It is estimated that the unpredictable weather caused by El Niño led 2.2 million people to lose their crops. The Mayan highlands, home to many indigenous groups, is especially vulnerable, with a 2014 study finding them to be the most vulnerable area in the region to climate change. In the highlands, extreme weather events are more destructive and costly and increasingly wide fluctuations in temperature and rainfall can destroy crops. As a result, harvests are becoming too small to sustain families.
This area of the highlands that stretches across Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and parts of southern Mexico and is highly vulnerable to climate change is called the Dry Corridor. As well as being a vulnerable area, the Dry Corridor can also be characterized by high unemployment, limited and seasonal labour demands and low and irregularly paid wages.
Climate change and the resulting irregularity for agrarian lifestyles can be a major driver of migration. One study found that of the Central American migrants turned away at the US border, 50% had worked in the agricultural sector before migrating. Their main reasons for migrating were unemployment and economic hardship, followed by low income and poor working conditions. Of the Guatemalans interviewed, most said that poverty, unemployment, and crop loss were the main reasons that they attempted to immigrate.
Since men account for the largest group of people who attempt to cross the border, the effects of this mass migration is felt especially hard by women. As a consequence of the mass migration of men, the women who stay behind are left with twice as much work. It can take months for families to start receiving remittances from their migrated relative, so in the time waiting, those remaining in their home country must still maintain their livelihoods. For rural women whose husbands have emigrated, this can mean taking on the duties of their husbands, such as running the family farm, as well as continuing to carry out their domestic responsibilities, like taking care of their children.
Climate change also puts women and children at risk in terms of their health. Central America has high rates of child and maternal mortality and morbidity, with high levels of malnutrition and inadequate access to food, drinking water, health services, and education throughout the region. Extreme weather events often damage the infrastructure for communication, sanitation, electricity, and water, leaving these communities even more marginalized. This isolation from health services and communication creates a favorable environment for the spread of infectious diseases, which have also been shown to be associated with changes in climate. Negative effects on health can equally be attributed to the widespread drought and loss of crops in the area.
Indigenous groups usually fall within the rural, agrarian population of Central America, but experience even more marginalization due to social prejudices. These people usually rely on traditional knowledge about farming practices and when to plant and harvest crops, but climate change is rendering their knowledge less and less useful. With increasingly unpredictable weather, the people of these groups are unable to accurately predict when the rainy season is, and end up planting their crops at the wrong time, destroying them.
The Mayangna, Miskitu, and Rama peoples live on Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Coast, which is coincidentally one of the country’s poorest areas. Without their agrarian livelihood, these people are more likely to turn towards alternate and less safe means of survival, such as helping drug traffickers or letting loggers into the forest.
Climate change is much more than just an environmental problem. For marginalized communities and individuals, this is a major disruption that can be felt throughout many aspects of their lives. As more and more research is pointing to this imbalance in the effect of climate change on humans, action must be taken to protect these vulnerable groups from worsening environmental, financial, and health problems.
Blitzer, Jonathan. “How Climate Change Is Fueling the U.S. Border Crisis.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 5 Apr. 2019.
Brigida, Anna-Catherine. “A Guatemalan Teen Fled Climate Change. He Died in U.S. Custody.” Time, Time, 13 May 2019.
“Why People Flee and the Impact on Family Members Left behind in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.” Food Security and Emigration, Aug. 2017.
“Potential Impacts and Public Policy Options.” Climate Change in Central America, 2015.
“Inequalities exacerbate climate impacts on poor.” World Economic and Social Survey, 3 October 2016.
Baird, Rachel “The Impact of Climate Change on Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.” Minority Rights Group International, April 2008.