Environmental Eviction

By Douglas, David | The Christian Century, September 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

Environmental Eviction


Douglas, David, The Christian Century


LUIS BRITO walks briskly over the stony soil of a rural village near Guanajuato, Mexico. For 20 years Brito, a community development organizer and former Jesuit seminarian, has helped agricultural communities improve their living conditions. He impatiently dismisses the assumption that Mexican migrants are attracted northward by economic bright lights. It is less the pull of U.S. jobs, he insists, than the push of local environments, where depleted soils and declining aquifers often evict villagers from traditional homes. "The degraded ecology has expelled them," he says, accenting the verb expulsar.

The pattern witnessed by Luis Brito is being chronicled in villages across the globe. Eroded homelands have spawned a burgeoning class of migrants known as "environmental refugees." Thousands have fled in the wake of cataclysmic disasters such as earthquakes, floods and industrial accidents. Many others have left because of long-term deterioration of soil, forest and water.

Oxford University ecologist Norman Myers estimates that 25 million people worldwide have been uprooted for environmental causes, a number that exceeds the official total of 22 million refugees who have fled civil wars and persecution. Myers and UN observers predict a sharp rise in environmental refugees due to desertification and deforestation, and to the threat of a rise in sea level from global warming. "The total may well double by the year 2010, if not before, as increasing numbers of impoverished people press ever harder on overloaded environments," predict Myers and coauthor Jennifer Kent in Environmental Exodus, a 1995 study for the Climate Institute in Washington, D.C.

People "are both origin and victim" of environmental degradation, notes Essam El-Hinnawi, Cairo-based author of Environmental Refugees (1985), a United Nations Environmental Programme report, the first attempt to chart the global toll. Taking a term coined by development specialist Joan Martin-Brown, El-Hinnawi defines "environmental refugees" as those people forced to leave traditional habitat that has been rendered "temporarily or permanently unsuitable to support human life."

The phenomenon is not new; environmental decline has precipitated flight throughout history. It defined migration during the Irish potato blight of the 19th century and the Dustbowl of the 1930s. But the current scale of flight appears to be unprecedented. "Environmental refugees could become one of the foremost human crises of our times," warns Myers.

According to Myers and UN reports, the primary exodus has taken place from portions of Africa's Sahel, India, China, Central America and the Horn of Africa. These observers hasten to add that environmental breakdown rarely acts as the sole catalyst: poverty, repressive politics and inequitable land tenure often combine in a complex set of pincers to trigger migration.

With increasing frequency, however, people are being uprooted by the depletion of three natural resources: water, soil and forests.

The pumping of water for large agricultural farms has caused the aquifer under Luis Brito's communities to drop 12 feet a year and left wells dry. In Latin America's rural areas only half the inhabitants enjoy clean water; worldwide, 1 billion people in developing countries lack safe drinking water. The consequence of inadequate water and sanitation is a stunning casualty toll--30,000 deaths a day and pathogens responsible for 75 percent of the world's disease.

Since 1945 a tenth of the world's fertile soil--an area equal to China and India combined--has suffered significant soil degradation from overgrazing, drought and slash-and-burn agriculture, according to the World Resources Institute. Loss of soil fertility has damaged 25 percent of Central America's vegetated land, and researcher El-Hinnawi notes that "throughout the Third World, land degradation has been the main factor in the migration of subsistence farmers into the slums and shantytowns of major cities. …

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