Massive Earthquake Striking Chile Raises Once Again Issues of Environmental and Climate Migration in Latin America

This is the second installment of the research piece “Climate Migration in Latin America: a future ‘flood of refugees’ to the North?” which exclusively explores the migratory consequences environmental manifestations of human-induced climate change may have in Latin America.

To read the first installment of this two-part series click here.

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Now that Chile has just been visited by a huge quake, the world has good cause to harbor grave apprehensions over a situation where no region is spared good grounds to fear the consequences of such phenomena. In light of the monster earthquake that struck near Conceptión, questions of disaster prevention and response, as well as link between environmental change and displacement seem particularly relevant. This is the second installment of the research piece “Climate Migration in Latin America: a future ‘flood of refugees’ to the North.” The second segment identifies Mexico as an environmentally-induced migration ‘hotspot,’ discusses development impacts in Latin America, and speculates on potential responses from Washington.

‘Hotspot’ case study: Mexico

With a confluence of climate and non-climate drivers, the ubiquitous presence of land degradation, and an irregular geographical population and land distribution, Mexico stands out as a candidate to witness the next environmental shock and its consequences and an exemplary potential hotspot for environmentally-induced migration in Latin America.1 Its adjacency to the United States has in part facilitated international migration as a viable coping strategy. Migration exponentially rose in the 1980s following the economic hardships stemming from Mexico’s economic strategy of liberalization imposed upon the country’s poor and led by President Zedillo and before him President Salinas de Gortari. There has been a growing out-migration of environmentally induced migrants from the arid northern region, already estimated by the mid 1990s at 900,000 per year.2 When Washington decides to include environmentally motivated migration as a factor in its migratory policy, it might first address it in regards to Mexico, due to the latter’s status as the largest immigration feeder country into the United States. This may set a precedent for how the issue is approached in the rest of the Western hemisphere.

Mexico has already started to suffer from environmental events and processes that can be traced back to anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, sea level rise (SLR) will primarily affect the country’s Caribbean coastlines, and an increased frequency of hurricanes that will put poor rural regions like Chiapas at greatest risk. According to the preliminary findings for the Mexico case study undertaken by the European Commission’s Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios (EACH-FOR) project, Chiapas has been suffering from rising out-migration as hurricanes have become stronger and more recurrent over past decades. Fieldwork found that this worsening trend had served to accelerate the decision of those villagers already considering migration as a potential response to the economic hardships they were facing in their personal lives. The Mexican government’s unequal response in terms of hurricane relief may also have played a part in accelerating out-migration. Indeed, while authorities responded quickly and effectively to Hurricane Wilma that hit the Maya Riviera and its tourist attractions in October 2005, they provided practically no assistance to the impoverished victims of Hurricane Stan, which devastated Chiapas less than a month later.3

Nevertheless, for the authors of In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Migration and Displacement, published in June 2009 by the United Nations University (UNU), the most alarming fact pertaining to Mexico is the predicted decrease in precipitation runoff “by at least 5 percent and possibly more than 70 percent”.4 Although the rich irrigated coastal areas, belonging to wealthy landowners, will also likely be affected, the greatest impact will be felt in the country’s northern regions. There “more than 60 percent of the land is considered to be in a total or accelerated state of aridity, and mountainous lands with high slopes throughout the region have suffered deforestation and soil erosion.”5 Consistent with the irregular geographical distribution of the population present in many Latin American countries, northern Mexico is primarily inhabited by impoverished rural populations, whose livelihoods depend on rain-fed agriculture.

The economic hardships these small farmers already faced was compounded by the liberalization undertaken by Mexico in the 1980s, as well as the introduction of NAFTA in 1994 that placed these small farmers in unequal competition with the United States’ strongly subsidized agricultural products. According to the Earth Institute at Columbia University, crop yields in these regions have already been affected by the land degradation that resulted in part from external pressures to forsake sustainable traditional agricultural practices in hopes of increasing productivity. Changes in rain patterns and decreases in overall precipitation will further impact these crop yields, exerting additional migratory pressures on the population.6 These pressures, as well as actual migratory responses, have been extensively noted in fieldwork results. Preliminary quantitative analyses indicate that this could have a serious impact on Mexican migration to the U.S.

Development Impacts of Environmentally Induced Migration in Latin America

Rural-urban migration is already a well-established reality in developing countries, providing a diversification of income from agricultural to industry and service based occupations. The decrease in water and food security, as well as the increasingly inhospitable character of areas affected by climate change, will certainly hasten these migratory flows.7 Although functioning as an adaptive strategy, environmentally-induced migration has strong negative impacts on transitory and destination areas. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that “rapid and unplanned urbanization has serious implications for urban welfare and urban services,”8 particularly in cities with “limited infrastructure and absorption capacity.”9 Currently, more than 1 billion people around the world are slum dwellers, and this figure is predicted to double by 2030. According to the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat), by 2001 there were 128 million slum-dwellers in Latin America, comprising more than 30 percent of the region’s urban population.10 In Environmentally induced migration and displacement: a 21st century challenge, a report by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, Tina Acketoft explains that in slums:

“The newly arrived often end up settling in locations where a lack of security of tenure, and inadequate basic services, as well as a perpetually looming threat of forced evictions, compound and perpetuate the vicious cycle of abuse and deprivation. Waves of new slum dwellers will thus swell the ranks of the urban poor who live in precarious shelters vulnerable to landslides and flooding, and are harshly exposed to the risks of extreme weather conditions and consequent displacement.”11

In Latin America, a quintessential example of this situation, in which populations have been forced onto ecologically sensitive areas, may be found in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, located on hillside border zones that the Brazilian city shares with the Atlantic Forest. Subsequent waves of incoming migrants have settled further into the forest, inducing deforestation and erosion, which notably increases the risk of landslides. Rio’s authorities have used these environmental concerns as a pretext to propose “eco-walls” —a series of walls between the forest and the favelas— in an approach that in reality would perpetuate the city’s geographical segregation instead of solve the problem at hand.12

Another concern is the environmental and economic impact that environmentally-induced migration might have on the regions left behind. Acketoft further notes that:

“Migration could potentially help slow the process of environmental degradation and allow those who remain in affected communities to adjust their livelihood strategies by changing their agricultural practices or, for instance, shifting to non-agricultural activities. Remittances, if channeled into schemes to make local livelihoods more sustainable, might help to reduce environmental degradation caused by human activity. Temporary or circular migration can also bring and develop skills needed to reduce negative impacts of human activity on vulnerable environments and to improve environmental protection in areas of origin.”13

Although these positive outcomes may hold some truth in Latin America, the general consensus seems to be that the impact of environmentally-induced migration on areas of origination is overwhelmingly negative. Local surveys in Chiapas indicate that remittances have played an important role in sustaining those populations that remain in this region.14 However, these monetary transfers may often prove insufficient in the “hollowed economies” left behind by migrants, where the remaining population may prove not large enough to sustain normal economic activities, thus spurring additional out-migration. Environmentally-induced migration may have an even more profound impact on these countries’ development. According to the IOM, “climate change could accelerate the brain drain as it is typically those with larger reserves of financial and social capital who are able to move away.”15

Beyond the international legal debate surrounding this type of migration –and by consequent the aid those affected by it have failed to receive– other concerns have been raised regarding the victims’ direct wellbeing. Environmentally-induced migrants, and in particular those abruptly uprooted from their homes due to sudden natural disasters, are “at greater risk of sexual exploitation, human trafficking and sexual and gender-based violence”16 than settled populations. The displacement process and precariousness most migrants experience upon arrival to their destination also increases their risk for contracting diseases. For instance, the IOM reports that in northeastern Brazil “periodic epidemic waves of VL [Visceral leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease] have been associated with migrations to urban areas after long periods of drought.”17

Environmentally induced migration is also “far from being gender neutral.”18 As an adaptive strategy already commonly used in several Latin American countries, temporary or seasonal male rural-urban migration increases the responsibility and freedom of those women left back at home. The remittances they receive may increase their quality of life, but could also be insufficient and further strain their economic situation.19 Climate change will also certainly induce greater female out-migration. Acketoft reports that “while lone women migrants will face similar challenges to their male counterparts in finding employment, affordable housing, and accessing social services, they are in addition more likely to face difficulties due to gender-based discrimination.”20 This holds especially true in Latin America, where patriarchalism is still strongly prevalent.

Over the past few decades, factory and agricultural industries have helped to increase, diversify and –to a certain extent– formalize the urban labor opportunities available to rural female migrants in Latin America. This has been particularly visible in Mexico where maquiladoras –manufacturing and assembly factories– flourished in the 1980s, and in Central America, where free-trade zones were established throughout the 1990s. Nevertheless, the embedded gender discrimination in the maquilas is just one example of how the formalization of the overall labor opportunities is not a guarantee of improvement in women’s urban work conditions.21 With little formal skills, many rural women in Latin America are still bound to end up working in domestic service, which Paulina de los Reyes explains in Women, Gender and Labour migration, “is not only performed in unstable and informal conditions but is also not officially recognised as work and is to a great extent excepted by labour legislation.”22

However, one of the developmental concerns with the most extensive literatures, and which is frequently brought up by alarmed policymakers, is the link between environmental change, migration, and conflict. Populations may respond to the scarcity entailed by environmental change at large by either adapting, fighting over remaining resources, or migrating, which in turn may also increase the potential for conflict.23 Indeed, “large population movements are already recognized by the UN Security Council as constituting a potential threat to international peace and security, particularly if there are existing ethnic and social tensions.”24

Environmentally Displaced People: Understanding the Linkages between Environmental Change, Livelihoods and Forced Migration, a 2008 report by the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, cautions, however, that this link has been easily assumed without empirical basis, notably by Western policymakers who have “increasingly couched [concerns about environmental change] in terms of geopolitical security and the potential for conflict.”25 Current studies have found that although environmental modifications may contribute to conflict and its subsequent migration, this has been confined to tension felt within nations. However, not only does the propensity for “conflict in relation to environmental stress and competing interests” vary widely on accompanying elements such as poverty, inequality, and good governance; but migration itself is always motivated by a conjunction of factors.26

These complexities demonstrate the oversimplification engendered by considering the impacts of environmental change exclusively through a lens of national security. Unfortunately, this seems to be the approach favored by Washington. In the summer of 2009, the Pentagon took for the first time “a serious look at the national security implications of climate change,”27 a move that might induce a necessary shift in focus toward addressing climate change and its implications, but it does not augur appropriate responses to the forthcoming debate on the impacts of climate change on migration. This is especially worrisome in Latin America where, according to Professor Gosine, environmental degradation has often been used as a pretext for conflicts that are in reality caused by underlying ethnic tensions and injustices associated with an unequal geographical distribution of the population.28

Distributing responsibility and proposing change

Environmentally induced migration has started to attract attention from international organisms dealing with migration and refugees. Nevertheless, the responses presently put forth have been largely insufficient, which is alarming as climate change and its manifestations are become increasingly intensified. In addition to promoting more interdisciplinary research, better data recollection and predictions, several other strategies have been proposed to approach the issue in a constructive manner.

First of all, it is crucial that those who flee or are displaced by environmental factors be integrated in the international agenda and given a legal status, like is the case for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Only with this legality will funds perhaps be provided to their end and policymakers grant the issue its due importance. Although one may argue that the 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 Protocol on Refugees could use revisions and changes to be more applicable to our contemporary world, in the case of environmentally induced migration this effort may be misplaced, as the majority of migration will most likely take place within countries. Camillo Boano, Roger Zetter, and Tim Morris from the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) at Oxford University argue that:

“A […] promising line is to take the example of the 1998 Guiding Principles on IDPs [Internally Displaced People] as a model for an incremental process of aggregating and adapting the wide range of extant legal and normative frameworks in order to protect the rights and human security of the ‘environmentally displaced’ and those who remain behind.”29

The debate must also be centered on a human rights perspective, instead of the national security approach that has been proposed and favored in Washington with regards to environmental degradation ¬–and most recently, climate change–30 in Latin America.31 In view of its contributing responsibility for both anthropogenic climate change, as well as for the economic pressures it has indirectly helped impose upon the poorest factions of Latin American societies, the U.S. should instead take this as an opportunity to address the underlying issues that are at the root of most conflicts and migration –namely poverty, underdevelopment, and social inequalities. As for now, the West primarily responds to the effects of environmental change in developing countries by providing emergency relief aid for natural disasters and “early warning systems” to better detect these disasters.32

The paradigm shift currently taking place from mitigation of climate change to its adaptation, must be further adopted and undertaken. Emphasis must be placed on decreasing developing populations’ vulnerability to climate change, by increasing their resiliency and capacity to respond. As previously mentioned, this goes beyond superficial responses like those currently being provided, to an investment in more permanent solutions. Countries at a higher risk of suffering from the manifestations of climate change may have to consider “in situ adaptation measures.” 33 Such measures may include changing agricultural practices to make them more sustainable, more supportive for the local population, and more resilient to the effects of climate change, or potentially reorganizing their territory in response to decreasing ‘ecosystem services,’ as well as changes in land uses. More just land tenure systems should be emphasized throughout the region, and better disaster prevention and response programs should be implemented, particularly in the Central American isthmus. In this vein, the RSC cautions development projects must be “environmentally proofed” so as not to negatively contribute to environmental degradation, unlike for instance some agricultural practices emphasizing high productivity.34

Nevertheless, there has yet been little talk to even consider integrating migration as an adaptation strategy for coping with the manifestations of environmental change. Even within the same country, migration is mostly considered a “failure of adaptation,”35 although throughout history it has been vastly used as a response to environmental stress. The fact that climate change-induced population movements are bound to be a reality –at very least, to a certain extent– renders the legal resolution of this debate even more crucial.

Mass out-migration from countries at highest risk of suffering from climate change is not a durable solution to this issue, in part because of concerns of the effects on hollowed out economies back home. Nevertheless, it seems best to view some extent of migration as a necessary, if not “a proactive diversification strategy,” for those populations already coping or soon to cope with the manifestations of climate change.36 Many scholars have asserted that migrants are a solution to the economic and demographic problems of the North, and also prove beneficial to countries of origin. For example, the remittances that migrants send back home can be used as a resource in undertaking more sustainable economic development projects.

For now, however, no country has accepted environmentally induced migrants under the status of refugees. In the past few years the U.S. has granted –lest on a case-by-case basis– extended stay to Central American populations taking refuge in its territory following a natural disaster.37 On January 15, 2010, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano granted an 18-month temporary protection status (TPS) to the 100,000 to 200,000 illegal Haitian immigrants currently residing in the United States, but warned that those seeking to escape the disaster zone by migrating to the U.S would be stopped by the Coast Guard.38 Although the amnesty is bound to have positive effects on the situation –by allowing Haitians living, and now legally working in the U.S. to send much needed remittances back home¬– the decision to prohibit the entrance of those affected by the earthquake raises, once again, questions surrounding the rights of those fleeing their home due to environmental forces. If the U.S. decides to give a more humane answer to future environmentally induced migration flows in the Western hemisphere, they might have to offer the TPS amnesty more often, or include some sort of extensions for temporal and seasonal South-North migration into the Regional Conference on Migration –also known as the “Puebla Process”– or another convention that lobbies for U.S. immigration flexibility.39

To read the first installment of this two-part series click here.

References to this article can be found by clicking here.