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Opinion How climate change is affecting rural Honduras and pushing people north

Volunteers serve coffee to members of an immigrant caravan — mostly from Honduras — as they prepare to cross the Guatemalan border into Mexico on Oct. 19. (John Moore/GETTY IMAGES)

Stephanie Leutert is the director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

In August, rows of corn plants dotted the rural landscape in the Honduran department of Lempira. From afar, nothing looked amiss in these small farms. Yet it hadn’t rained for the previous 40 days, and the corn cobs tucked inside the husks were small and kernel-less. Across Honduras, an unpredictable climate has made this situation increasingly common. Droughts have wrecked crops, and changing weather patterns have created additional challenges for millions of Honduran farmers. To survive amid the bad harvests, rural families are looking elsewhere to supplement their incomes: to different sectors, nearby cities and north to the United States.

A caravan with thousands of migrants has been making its way through Mexico after setting out three weeks ago from Honduras, which holds the distinction of being one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change. Over the past four decades, the country’s average temperature has risen, and it has borne the brunt of ever more frequent severe weather events. These climatic changes are on a collision path with the country’s weather-dependent workforce and economy. Today, 1 in 4 Hondurans continues to work directly in agriculture, and bananas and coffee continue to be two of the top economic drivers.

Droughts are among the country’s most common risks. Central and western Honduras — including the department of Lempira — form part of Central America’s “dry corridor.” It stretches from Nicaragua through Guatemala and is prone to reoccurring droughts that leave parched crops, bone-thin cattle and hungry families in their wake. In 2016, the United Nations’ World Food Program estimated that a recent drought left 1.3 million Hondurans in need of humanitarian assistance. This hunger translates directly into migration, with the Food and Agriculture Organization reporting that from 2014 to 2016, people migrating out of the dry corridor’s drought-stricken areas most frequently cited “no food” as the driving factor.

More powerful hurricanes are one of many signs of climate change, and those who deny it are complicit in the destruction, meteorologist Eric Holthaus says. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Yet while droughts may be destructive, it can also be devastating when the rain finally arrives. Torrential downpours and flash floods are common across Honduras, washing away fields of crops, bridges and houses. Hurricanes also batter the country. The most infamous example was Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which left 15,000 Hondurans dead in the aftermath and 1 million homeless. While this disaster spurred some Honduran migration to the United States, far more residents rebuilt their homes and remained vulnerable to future flooding and landslides.

The effects of a changing climate go well beyond droughts and floods to include the dreaded coffee leaf rust. Honduras’s coffee sector is one of the largest rural employers, with more than 96,000 small coffee producers and a million workers. A warming climate has allowed the coffee rust to spread to plants in higher elevations, and farmers have to invest in medicines to keep their plants healthy. However, these extra costs contribute to making Honduran coffee more expensive to grow than farmers can sell it for on the global market. And in response, the sector has seen layoffs, bottomed-out wages and an exodus of rural workers.

Three weeks ago, I spoke with Álex Orlando Lora, 20, and Audiel Guillermo Mejia, 25 — both from the western region of Honduras — in a migrant shelter in southern Mexico. Both men had left behind subsistence agriculture and coffee farm jobs, since they no longer could afford to eat three meals a day. According to U.S. Border Patrol data provided through a Freedom of Information Act Request, their case is increasingly common. In the past year alone, the number of migrant families coming from Honduras’s heavily agricultural and coffee-producing western area has doubled. The region now constitutes the sending region for around 20 percent of Honduran migrant families.

However, it can be tricky to tease out climate change’s exact role in migration. Climate factors often get wrapped up in broad explanations such as “poverty,” “low economic development” or “low wages,” and it can be hard to tell if changing weather patterns are the driving factor for a migration decision or simply one factor of many. Further complicating this chain of causation is that many Hondurans do not simply grab their backpacks and hit the migrant trail when facing unpredictable weather but rather relocate to cities in search of work. This makes it difficult at times to understand not just what finally pushed Hondurans out of their country but also what initially forced them to leave home.

Today, a changing climate is transforming rural Honduras, and the effects are just beginning. Over the next decade, climate models predict that Honduras’s temperatures will continue to rise, water will become scarcer in certain regions and weather patterns will become even more unpredictable. Without monumental shifts in small farmers’ resiliency to extreme weather, today’s patterns of disaster, ruined crops and hunger are bound to continue. In the face of these challenges, Honduran farmers and ranchers will continue to do as they have done in the past, moving both within their own country and also migrating even farther to the United States.

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