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A caravan of refugees leaving Honduras in 2018 (photo by boitchy licensed to the public domain)

Why migrants? Think twice!

Buried in popular coverage of the climate crisis a few years back was this piece at Futurity, ‘Is climate change driving migration from Central America?’ Around 2019, there were a flurry of reports claiming climate change in countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador were responsible for a massive outflow of people northward.

The article discusses a National Science Foundation-funded study by geographers at the University of Arizona and elsewhere that reached a conclusion similar to mine: Hogwash! “Migration is complicated and there are many reasons that people migrate…[this] doesn’t mean that an individual climate event can’t have an impact, but there are other driving forces…such as limited land and resources, violence, and corruption,” the leader researcher explained.

As a geographer myself, and a life-long student of Central America, I find that this study resonates with my own experience. I’ve been engaged with Honduras since 1991, and climate change was a primary reason I first worked in Honduran national parks while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Climate change brought together impoverished rural communities to save the environment and protect their water sources, fomenting—there and across Latin America—a veritable local-grown environmental revolution that has received scant coverage in US media. Why, then, am I agreeing with the study?

Microclimate change

Because the climate change that communities were concerned about was (and remains) microclimate alteration. Decades of deforestation funded by North American and European agricultural and forestry development projects had reduced rainforests and pine forests to grasslands during the Green Revolution. Tiny mountaintop water reserves called “cloud forests” were among the last hope for communities in surrounding lowlands, where deforestation had otherwise wrecked watersheds. USAID, the World Bank, and numerous other aid and lending agencies had transferred billions of dollars into the pockets of “entrepreneurs” who rotated between political office and ownership of logging companies, agro-export corporations, and other rapacious ventures. In living memory, places had become hotter and dried as forests turned into deserts.

Talking about a revolution…

The environmental revolution of 1990 to 2010 in Central America was not bloodless. Many environmentalists lost their lives; some were my close friends. The weather wasn’t kind, either, with hurricanes wrecking infrastructure as fast as it could be rebuilt. The US’s appetite for illicit substances didn’t help, as somewhere close to 90% of the world’s cocaine flowed through in the early 2010s, and the environment was hit hard as those who laundered the profits—moguls, politicians, billionaires—did so through mining conglomerates, timbering, real estate, dam building, and the expansion of cattle (see, for example, this paper in Land Use Policy).

Nevertheless, against incredible odds, many of the most at-risk forests and other precious habitats that had seemed doomed in the 1980s, in countries such as Honduras, were saved. Water sources were saved as well, so entire villages didn’t have to be abandoned. For most ordinary citizens, protection of the environment became a sacred duty, and in my experience, ideas such as animal rights, habitat protection, and the values of clean and safe natural resources such as water and air are much more popular and less contentious there than in the US. It is far from a perfect system, of course: great swaths of unprotectable rainforest are still being cut down, and the greenwashing practiced by domestic and foreign interests is too often given the stamp of approval by big environmental NGOs.

Why leave Central America?

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Central America who would tell you honestly that climate change at the macroscale is the principal driver of migration from the region. Indeed, even with changing microclimates due to deforestation, there is an incredible diversity of environmental conditions to choose from, and each little niche has distinct growing conditions that can theoretically support just about any crop or domestic animal known to humanity. On top of that, there are factors such as abundant natural resources that can be utilized sustainably, family and culture ties, and other positive reasons to keep people there.

However, negative push factors far outweigh the positives. The fact is that for the vast majority, it is nearly impossible to survive economically, thanks to, as the authors above point out, “limited land and resources, violence, and corruption.” Land isn’t limited, but access to capital and credit is, and few people control most capital and most land. The rule of law belongs to those who control the capital and the land. This means that if you are poor and you step out of line, you have few options.

(Note: where social and political conditions are much more stable, particularly in Costa Rica but also in Panama, out-migration is negligible.)

Teaching us a thing or two?

The crisis in Central America that drives people to choose to flee is a social and economic crisis, not an environmental crisis nor a climate crisis. I would go so far as to say that, in the environmental realm, Central Americans could teach Central Pennsylvanians a thing or two about how to protect the environment. After all, we share many of the same birds. I have to wonder what the birds coming north after nine months in a shaded coffee plantation think when they find yet another convenience store in place of where they nested last season, or when they have to choke their way through another Canadian burning season, or when yet another unnecessary suburban subdivision cuts down the elms and the maples to make way for Elm Street and Maple Street.

What’s an Auduboner to do?

  • Research your food, and pay more for it: because cheap coffee, bananas, and other tropical fare signify that people are paid little to produce it, perpetuating poverty. Find the food that economically benefits small farmers.
  • Work to preserve bird habitat here, so that Central American birds have decent places to breed.
  • Spend your ecotourism dollars in Central America, in ecologically sustainable places that benefit local and indigenous communities, not wealthy elites or corporations.
  • Think twice before letting profit-seeking, corporate media conglomerates convince you that the reason for the migrant crisis is the climate crisis rather than the same-old, same-old: greedy corporations, corrupt governments, entrenched power structures… Remember that it’s easier and safer for the media to invoke an all-powerful, impersonal foe such as climate change than to name and shame the actual powerful entities perpetuating the desperation that is driving millions northward.
  • Educate elected officials about the right policies for the US to pursue in Central America, environmental and otherwise, that will lead to sustainability.

In honor of the hundreds of environmental leaders who have lost their lives in this fight over the last decade, activists such as Aly Dominguez and Jairo Bonilla.