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Climate Change Is a Driving Force in Central American Migration

A new report finds that the climate crisis is already a driver in migration from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

We look at the link between migration and the climate emergency, which studies have estimated could displace over 200 million people by 2050, including many in Central American countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Last year, two hurricanes, Iota and Eta, devastated the region and forced thousands to flee north. A new report finds that the climate crisis is already a driver in migration from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, which reiterates the necessity of planning “ahead for the major migration flows,” says Camila Bustos, human rights associate at the University Network for Human Rights. “What we’re really telling the Biden administration is to take this data, look into it, think critically and creatively about solutions, and revise immigration policy.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. And we look now at the link between the climate emergency and migration. Studies have estimated climate change could displace over 200 million people by 2050, including many in Central America, including Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Last year, two hurricanes devastated the region, forcing thousands to flee.

We go now to Camila Bustos, human rights associate at the University Network for Human Rights, one of the co-authors of a new report titled “Shelter from the Storm: Policy Options to Address Climate Induced Displacement from the Northern Triangle.” It was recently published in collaboration with experts from Harvard Law School and Yale Law School.

Camila Bustos, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Why don’t you lay out your findings?

CAMILA BUSTOS: Hi, Amy. Thanks for having us.

So, as you explained, our findings indicate that climate change is already acting as a driver of migration in the Northern Triangle. We know people leave for multiple reasons. We know those have to do with the social conditions, economics, politics, violence. But we know that climate is accelerating, in many cases, those and amplifying those factors. So we have to prepare for that. And we have to plan around migration. We know — we can’t expect it to just happen and, you know, have those lives upended and at risk.

So, what we’re asking the Biden administration is to really plan ahead for the major migration flows. And, you know, earlier this year, the Biden administration issued an executive order — the first of its kind, really — on climate migration, which we applaud, and I think it’s a great first step, of many more, many more to come, because, as I said, and you’ve — you know, on your show, you’ve discussed, like, climate change disproportionately affects folks in the Global South, particularly in places like Central America. The Northern Triangle region is vulnerable because of its geography, because of its economy, because of the current violence and political instability. So, what we’re really telling Biden’s administration is to take this data, look into it, think critically and creatively about solutions, and revise immigration policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Among other demands in the report is a climate visa. Explain, Camila.

CAMILA BUSTOS: So, there are already existing mechanisms that have allowed people to come to the United States, to do so with dignity, after a hurricane. For instance, it happened with Hurricane Mitch. So there are programs in place that allow people to come, but those are limited, for many reasons, limited because they may only target things, like a hurricane, which are instant climate impacts, but disregard long-term impacts like droughts or coastal erosion. So, in that sense, the existing programs are not enough. They also tend to protect folks who are already here, who enter perhaps without status and who now can’t return to their country because of a particular disaster.

But we really think the climate crisis, in many ways, is unprecedented. And our immigration system, which advocates have said for years is broken, is not enough as it is. It needs reform. It needs reform from many different angles, but especially from climate change. It needs to integrate climate change. So, by a new climate visa, we are really asking Congress and the Biden administration to take the climate crisis seriously and to think creatively about how to provide, facilitate a way for folks to come, either permanently or temporarily, but that allows them to do so with dignity, with a work permit, eventually perhaps to apply for residency. So, I think a lot of the details are still to be determined, but that’s why we are, again, putting the idea out there. It’s already, you know, not — it’s new, but it’s last — just last Congress, a piece of legislation was introduced by Representative Velázquez and Senator Markey on this idea of climate displacement and the creation of a new category of people. So, again, they’re new ideas, but they’re not unprecedented. And the crisis in the moment that we’re in calls for it.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, during the virtual global climate summit, the Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed the United States offer work visas and citizenship to participants in Mexico’s vast tree planting program. This is what he said.

PRESIDENT ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR: [translated] The United States government could offer those who participate in this program that after sowing their land for three consecutive years, they would have the possibility to obtain a temporary work visa, and after another three or four years, they could even obtain residency in the United States or their dual nationality. The migratory phenomenon, as we all know, is not resolved with coercive measures, but with justice and well-being.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Mexican president. Camila, respond to his proposal.

CAMILA BUSTOS: Again, the fact that this already on the agenda is a good one. I think all proposals deserve careful consideration. But I think current proposals are not enough, both in terms of emissions, as we discussed earlier in the show, but also in terms of the current immigration framework. Work visas are good, but they’re not the end-all solution. This crisis requires, you know, steps on all fronts. And again, it’s not just Mexico, right? We’re talking about, like, Central America and the world, really, the Global South. In our report, we argue that we do owe a special debt, ecological and moral debt, to the region, because of the particular role that the United States has played not only, again, in contributing massively to climate change, but also in destabilizing many of the economies in Central America through foreign intervention, through foreign policy, right? So, again, I think all — the fact that this is being discussed is already — is a good step, but it’s not enough. And we need to think creatively, not just on work visas, but all other forms, other vehicles for relief, that would allow to respect people’s rights and allow them to migrate with dignity.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how U.S. policy in Central America drives people north, and particularly the issue of Central America being so dangerous for land defenders, for environmentalists, for example, Berta Cáceres, who was gunned down in her home, well known in Honduras and around the world for her environmental activism? Can you talk about how U.S. policy and extractive projects, such as mines and dams, have made the region more deadly for those who are fighting to save the planet?

CAMILA BUSTOS: Absolutely. I mean, it’s tragic. It’s tragic, what’s happening around the world, but especially in Central America and Latin America. We know it’s one of the most dangerous regions to be an environmental activist. That is a serious issue that we have to confront, particularly because these folks are fighting for their land, for their water.

And because of that, we want to call attention to the impact of climate on migration, and the fact that climate change is happening. And while mitigation of emissions is certainly needed, there’s already a level of warming that we’re locked in, right? So, even if we were to stop emissions today or tomorrow, that there’s already impacts that are being felt and will be continued to be felt around the region.

In terms of U.S. policy, you know, there’s books and articles and much history that has documented how U.S. intervention, particularly in the last decade, but, you know, since the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, the way in which we’ve really destabilized governments, supported coups across the region, and, again, through counterinsurgency measures and other foreign policies that have really wreaked havoc. Again, we’re not saying that climate change is the only factor driving migration, but it aggravates many of those that are already there, from economic insecurity to political instability.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, your own country, Camila, Colombia. The Indigenous Governor Sandra Liliana Peña was just gunned down in the Cauca region. But she is among many, hundreds of rights activists — the, well, 52nd social leader killed just this year. And over 1,100 activists and land defenders have been killed since the 2016 peace deal was signed. Let’s end with Colombia.

CAMILA BUSTOS: It’s a sad story, because it could have been prevented. We knew this was going to happen. We knew that after the 2016 peace agreement was signed, there would be a spike in violence, especially from right-wing criminal bands, and that precisely those people who have been defending their water and their land and peace, really, for decades, would be targeted. So, the government knew exactly what was going to happen, and has not done enough. It was already bad under the prior administration, but it’s only, as you mentioned, gotten much worse. So, it’s also a crisis that we’re facing and that we must take seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: Camila Bustos, I want to thank you for being with us, human rights associate at the University Network for Human Rights, one of the co-authors of the new report, which we will link to at, “Shelter from the Storm: Policy Options to Address Climate Induced Displacement from the Northern Triangle.”

When we come back, we go to the continent, we go to Africa. We’ll be joined by two leading African climate activists. Stay with us.

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