Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Fleeing the Weather

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Fleeing the Weather

Article excerpt

THE STREETS OF SANTIAGO K ARE QUIET. THIS village in the highlands of southwestern Bolivia bustled throughout centuries of conquest and expansion, but the mayor is now one of the few remaining residents. He says most of the young have migrated across the border to Chile in search of work, some to other towns in Bolivia. Eighty percent of families have left since 2015. Multiple seasons of drought have decimated the area's quinoa crops and dried up the river. For these farming families, there was simply no way to make ends meet.

The term "climate migrant," bringing together two of today's most timely and fear-ridden debates, typically conjures images of people forcibly displaced by hurricanes, floods or rising sea levels. These issues have increasing political, academic and social visibility across Latin America.

People like the residents of Santiago K have used migration to adapt to changing climate for centuries. A study in the January 2011 issue of Science connected periods of low temperature in the early 17th and 19th centuries to "sustained settlement abandonment during the Thirty Years' War and the modern migrations from Europe to America." But today climate change is impacting migration patterns across Latin America and the Caribbean in accelerated and diverse ways.

International law does not guarantee a "right to migrate" for these people fleeing the weather. States can choose to provide short term humanitarian visas but are obliged to provide safe haven only to certain categories of vulnerable individuals, most significantly, refugees. And refugee law, designed for the displacement challenges of the 1950s, does not apply. It guarantees refuge to those fleeing individual persecution on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Latin America's existing frameworks for regional free-movement lay the groundwork for an effective and humane alternative response, allowing some citizens to legally emigrate and work with minimal requirements. These frameworks can be useful more broadly, but stand to be tested in the coming years. The most visible examples of climate change's impact on migration are sudden-onset disasters leading to large collective evacuations. In 2016 alone, an estimated 1.8 million people were displaced across Latin America and the Caribbean by hurricanes, floods or mudslides. Evacuations due to rising sea levels are another high profile example: in Panama, plans are underway for the exodus of the Guna indigenous people from the San Blas archipelago, as the water begins to swallow their homes.

At the same time, the long-term effects of climate change on migration patterns, as witnessed in Santiago K, remain poorly understood and under-addressed. Less visibly, the slow-onset impacts of climate change both directly and indirectly drive decisions to uproot. Land and forest degradation, loss of biodiversity, and drought are widespread examples. A recent World Food Program survey of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras found that of six main reasons to emigrate, the highest percentage of respondents reported "no food" as being most important: a multi-year drought and 2015-2016 El Niño in the so-called "Dry Corridor" of these countries has left 3.2 million without enough to eat.

Climate change restricts and disrupts access to water, land, and employment. The poor and marginalized carry this burden disproportionally. Resource scarcity and inequality also have welldocumented links to violence of all kinds. Examples include civil unrest over fresh water scarcity in Peru and Bolivia; the murder of environmental activists in Brazil; and spikes in intimate partner violence in Nicaragua in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. All these complex factors impact individual migration decisions. As environmental law expert Benoit Mayer has written, "the physical effects of climate change produce series of social effects which. …

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