'No other option': Climate change driving many to flee Guatemala

Juan de Leon Gutierrez, 16, left his eastern Guatemala home due to years of drought. He died in US custody weeks later.

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    'No other option': Climate change driving many to flee Guatemala
    Transito Gutierrez last saw her son at the beginning of April [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

    Camotan, Guatemala - The rains in the village of Tizamarte in the eastern Guatemalan department of Chiquimula no longer arrive as they did in the past.

    "Before it was beautiful, we used to have two harvests a year," Transito Gutierrez told Al Jazeera.

    "Now not one [crop] survives," she said. "Now we cannot do anything. This drought does not end."

    Gutierrez's hardship goes deeper than the lost crops, however. Last month, her 16-year-old son, Juan de Leon, died while in US custody after migrating to the US to find work and send money back home to his family.

    "[Juan] told me that the coffee plants were dying. He said he was desperate," Gutierrez told Al Jazeera earlier this month. "He said he could earn more there in the United States than here. He could earn more than the $4 a day working in the field."

    While the cause of Juan's death is still being investigated by US authorities, the reasons that pushed him to migrate in the first place are the same driving many families in this region to make the journey to the US: Years of drought due in part to climate change are driving more and more residents north to find work to support their families. 

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    Years of drought

    Eastern Guatemala and western Honduras are part of a region known as the dry corridor. Over the last two years, farmers have seen near-complete losses during harvests as the effects of climate change take hold in the region, with 2018 being among the worst years in recent memory.

    The Guatemalan government estimates that more than 200,000 families in 13 of the 22 departments were affected during the 2018 drought.

    The situation was not much better in neighbouring Honduras. Officials estimate that nearly 170,000 people were affected in 2018.

    In the Maya Ch'orti region of Chiquimula, rivers and water sources across the region are near-depleted or completely dried up. And temperatures, according to residents and the Guatemalan government's National Institute of Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology, and Hydrology, have also risen significantly, adding to the strain on crops.

    "The temperature has risen a lot," said Gloria Amador, a 41-year-old nurse who has worked in the village of Tizamarte and the surrounding region for nine years.

    "If it doesn't rain then there is no work," she told Al Jazeera. "There was no harvest of maize or beans this year. [The farmers] sowed seeds, but they lost everything."

    Gloria Amador walks through the village of Tizamarte [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera] 

    According to a 2018 report from the Guatemalan government's National Institute of Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology, and Hydrology, this rise in temperature will continue due to climate change. They estimate that by 2050, the temperature is set to rise between 2.1 and 4.1 degrees Celsius.

    These changes in temperature especially affect the country's southern coast and dry corridor, including the village of Tizamarte, which is part of the municipality of Camotan, Chiquimula. 

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    Central America is also one of the regions most affected by extreme weather phenomena linked to climate change. According to the 2019 Climate Risk Index by Germanwatch, Honduras and Nicaragua are among the countries most affected by extreme weather events in the last 20 years.

    Poverty, malnutrition

    The drought has meant a near-constant crisis for farmers in this region.

    It is estimated by local organisations that farmers lost between 80 and 90 percent of their primary staple crops, specifically maize, bananas, and beans, and economically viable crops such as coffee, during the 2018 drought. As a result, nearby towns that usually buy the crops are also affected.

    "The harvests aren't occurring due to the lack of the rain," said Edgar Rivera, a 48-year-old maize vendor from Chiquimula.

    "The farmers lost over 90 percent of their crops," he told Al Jazeera. "As a result, the farmers were unable to recuperate the costs of production due to the intensity of the drought."

    Rivera has been importing maize and beans from other parts of the country and from Mexico to sell in the market. But in turn, the costs for the products have also increased.

    Other farmers, including Carlos Flores, are also heavily affected by the drought.

    "It has been incredibly difficult due to the lack of water," Flores told Al Jazeera as the 54-year-old farmer from the nearby town of San Juan Ermita sold green onions in the Jocotan market. "We are sowing less and when it does rain the harvests smaller."

    Damaso Aldana, a resident and authority in the small village of Pinalito in Jocotan, Chiquimula, inspects maize crops during the August 2018 drought [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera] 

    The drought has also disrupted traditional migratory routes that families have utilised to ease the pressures of poverty.

    Historically, the residents of the region seasonally migrated to Honduras to work in the coffee harvest as a means of supporting their families. But the regional drought has affected the harvest so much that this migratory route has now all but ended.

    "During the second cycle of maize, which is October and November, the people would go to harvest coffee or sugar cane," said Jeremias Hernandez, an agronomist and member of the central coordination for the Ch'orti Maya organisation Nuevo Dia. 

    "Yet the problem is with the changes in the rains, the coffee production has fallen," he explained. "As a result, plantation owners are either cutting back on the number of people they hire or lowering salaries."

    According to Hernandez, a small farmer could earn between 80 to 100 Guatemalan quetzal ($10-$14) a day harvesting coffee in 2015. But current rates are between 30 to 50 Guatemalan quetzal ($4-$7) as a result of the drought.

    The near-constant drought directly affects the food security of families. As a result, the region has seen a drastic increase in cases of chronic malnutrition and disease, according to Amador and Hernandez.

    "We have seen cases where families are only eating once a day, or in some extreme cases, every other day," Hernandez told Al Jazeera.

    Malnutrition remains a constant problem across Guatemala. The country has one of the highest malnutrition rates for children in the world, according to UNICEF.

    The Guatemalan government launched a campaign to lower malnutrition, especially focusing on the Dry Corridor sector. But according to Vice President Jafeth Cabrera, the efforts were unable to achieve the goal of lowering malnutrition by 10 percent by 2019. Cabrera said that they would continue to work to reduce malnutrition.

    'No other option'

    As the droughts leave farmers without the means to provide for their families, many have sought opportunities in the US. 

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    Amador estimates that in the last year and a half, at least 12 of the 110 families in Tizamarte have migrated to the US. This trend is common across the region.

    "In our region, it was rare that people would migrate to the United States," Toribio Aldana, a member and president of the local development committee from the village of Tesoro, told Al Jazeera.

    "There were farms that would give work to the people, but today they do not provide work," Aldana said. "As a result of this, there is no other option for the people other than to migrate. In the last two years, many have travelled for the United States."

    A withered field sits in the mountains over Jocotan, Chiquimula during the August 2018 drought [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera] 

    According to Hernandez, many young people took advantage of the larger migrant caravans that left the region beginning in October 2018 as a means to escape the effects of the drought. 

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    Others including Juan de Leon Gutierrez travelled to the US border with smaller groups.

    The first rains of 2019 arrived in early May, which normally signals the beginning of the planting season.

    "Many are considering to plant right now, but there is a great financial risk," Hernandez said. "They risk being further indebted if the drought does not end."

    The uncertainty of whether the rains will continue mean that many may consider migration out of necessity to provide for their families.

    "The necessity to cover the basics, clothing, education, health, the indispensable, are the motivations for migration," Hernandez said. "The drought is the final straw in the decision."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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