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.