Argument

The Hungry Caravan

Violence isn’t the only reason migrants are fleeing Central America. A four-year drought has destroyed harvests and lives—and has pushed the hungry northward.

Santos Rodriguez, a 70-year-old Honduran, walks through a cornfield affected by the drought in San Buenaventura on Aug. 15. (Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)
Santos Rodriguez, a 70-year-old Honduran, walks through a cornfield affected by the drought in San Buenaventura on Aug. 15. (Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)

In the United States, most discussions about the thousands of people who have fled their homes in Central America in recent months have focused on the violence that has forced them to flee. But there’s another reason people are leaving the region in droves: food insecurity.

Back home, once-fertile plots of land are parched. Rain is sporadic at best, and when it does come, it is torrential, devastating the few remaining crops. The drought, which began in 2014, is the worst to hit Latin America’s dry corridor—a stretch of land that runs from southern Mexico down to Panama—in decades.

The region is home to approximately half of Central America’s 1.9 million small producers of basic grains, and according to some estimates, over the last two years, farmers there have lost as much as 70 to 80 percent of their harvests of staple crops, primarily corn and beans. As a result, United Nations officials warned in September, more than 2 million people are at risk of going hungry. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are the most severely affected.

Around the world, food insecurity has long been associated with migration, and a 2017 study by the U.N. World Food Program and others found that Central America is no different. “Poverty and unemployment are the general causes of emigration,” the authors found, and those stressors are compounded by food insecurity. Together, they drive impoverished and hungry residents northward. “There is clearly … a link between food insecurity and emigration,” the report concludes.

Given the magnitude of poverty and hunger in the region—47 percent of families the World Food Program interviewed there were food insecure—it is easy to understand why so many risk the treacherous journey to escapeGiven the magnitude of poverty and hunger in the dry corridor—47 percent of families the World Food Program interviewed were food insecure—it is easy to understand why so many risk the treacherous journey across several conflict-ridden countries to escape. The numbers speak for themselves: According to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, apprehensions of migrants from countries other than Mexico totaled more than 250,000 in 2014. That is a fivefold increase over 2010 levels. On top of that, figures showed an alarming 50 percent surge in unaccompanied minors heading north from the dry corridor between 2015 to 2016.

If the environmental factors that push migrants to leave their homes are underreported, the solutions to this problem are even less discussed.

Historically, land ownership in Latin America has been extremely concentrated among elites and corporations—especially foreign ones. In fact, the region has the most unequal distribution of land in the world. A 2016 Oxfam report found that the largest 1 percent of farms—mostly composed of estates controlled by multinational corporations—occupy an estimated 51 percent of the region’s farmland. At the other end of the spectrum, 80 percent of farms in Latin America are held by smallholder farmers. And these cover just 13 percent of the region’s land.

Without the security and stability that come with more equitable land distribution, smallholder farmers and communities will remain poor. They may lack an incentive to invest in sustainable farming practices and other adaptations that can build resilience to environmental disasters and climate change. Such investments require time, labor, and money, which farmers are often reluctant to commit when they believe that land can easily be taken away.

Development organizations working in the region thus need to recognize the deep problem of land disparity and insecurity. Their investments in promoting climate-smart agriculture and other sustainable land management practices—such as terracing, fallowing, improved irrigation, and agroforestry—will be hindered as long as communities do not have rights to their land. And for families in the dry corridor, that will mean continued vulnerability to drought and food insecurity.

For now, those living there are left with two alternatives: stay and starve, or leave in hopes of starting over somewhere else. If Americans truly wish to confront the growing humanitarian crisis at their border, then Central America’s land problems can no longer be ignored.

Helena Silva-Nichols is a Stanford in Government Fellow researching climate change and food security at Landesa, an international land rights nonprofit organization.

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