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Hungry and desperate: Climate change fuels a migration crisis in Guatemala

Starving and in debt, farmers whose land has been destroyed by climate-related weather events are becoming migrants.
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LA VEGA, Guatemala — Darwin Mendez has tried and failed to reach the United States three times. Twenty-three years old and $30,000 in debt, he said leaving Guatemala is his only option. Years of punishing drought scorched the field he farms with his father, mother, uncle and siblings, shrinking the maize and drying out what precious few kernels grow on the tiny cobs. 

Then came the rains.

Unpredictable storms and back-to-back hurricanes last year brought heavy downpours to the hills of western Guatemala, triggering mudslides that buried Mendez’s crops and left pests and disease in their wake. When the land dried out, it stayed dry, and the region is once again gripped by prolonged heat waves and persistent drought.

For Mendez, it means another year of poor harvest.

“We don’t have much land — no one does around here — so when we lose crops, we lose everything,” he said.

Nearly half of all children in Guatemala under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Nearly half of all children in Guatemala under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition.Carlos Perez Beltran / NBC News

As Guatemala lurches between intense droughts and devastating floods — two extremes made worse by climate change — some farmers like Mendez are being forced to take drastic action, selling whatever they can or borrowing huge sums of money and leaving home. Most will move within the country, to cities in search of work, while others will join the tens of thousands of Guatemalans who each year attempt a much more treacherous journey north.

More than one-fifth of the population of Guatemala faces what one United Nations agency considers dangerously high levels of food insecurity. Nearly half of all children in the country under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, and in some of the most vulnerable rural communities, that number is significantly higher, according to the U.N. World Food Programme

“Whatever we grow in the field is not enough to feed ourselves,” Mendez said. “I want to go to the U.S., so I can feed my family.” 

More than 250 miles away from where Mendez lives in Huehuetenango, Jose Vasquez is similarly finding it difficult to survive off what he can grow. Vasquez, 42, is a small farmer in Chiquimula, in southern Guatemala. On a recent walk through his sloping field, he snapped corn off of a couple of stalks, pulling aside the papery husks to reveal withered cobs notched with only a few brown kernels.

Jose Vasquez shows the undeveloped corn grown near his home.
Jose Vasquez shows the undeveloped corn grown near his home.Carlos Perez Beltran / NBC News

“The problem with the maize is that rain never came,” he said, adding that he feels desperate at times. “I’m afraid because there might not be enough food for my family.”

Experts have said climate change could displace hundreds of millions of people around the world as rising sea levels, hotter temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events transform where is livable on the planet. In places already grappling with high levels of poverty, corruption and conflict, the effects of global warming may reach a fragile tipping point for some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. 

It’s a situation that is already playing out in Guatemala. Without deep cuts in global emissions, it’s likely that global warming will create climate migrants on just about every continent. The consequences will be staggering.

“It’s hard to point to a region of the world that is not going to be heavily impacted by climate change and from migration,” said Nicholas Depsky, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, and a researcher at the Climate Impact Lab, a consortium of climate scientists from Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the Rhodium Group and Rutgers University. “When you see the writing on the wall, it’s hard to feel like there’s any way that you can overstate the gravity of the situation.”

From southeast Asia to Central America, the movement of people displaced by climate change could fuel political conflicts between nations, or deepen existing tensions, Depsky added. 

“From a U.S. perspective, migration is already such a flashpoint,” he said. “It’s such a divisive political issue, and Central America is already a big region of focus because of how much it plays into our political discourse here.”

Years of drought interspersed with unpredictable storms have resulted in poor harvests and food shortages.
Years of drought interspersed with unpredictable storms have resulted in poor harvests and food shortages.Carlos Perez Beltran / NBC News

Migration has been a focus for the Climate Impact Lab, and Depsky’s research has centered, in particular, on droughts in Central America. Guatemala sits along the so-called Dry Corridor, a stretch of Central America that extends from southern Mexico to Panama where high levels of poverty and a reliance on grain crops in rural communities make people in the region especially vulnerable to climate change.

Depsky co-authored a study published in December in the journal Environmental Research Letters that modeled future drought forecasts in Central America. The researchers found that the severity, frequency and duration of droughts throughout the Dry Corridor are projected to worsen through the end of the century.

While the models predicted a decrease in average annual precipitation, Depsky said there will likely also be an increase in extreme weather events, including severe storms and heavy downpours, due to climate change. It’s not yet clear whether global warming is making hurricanes more frequent overall, but studies have shown that warmer sea surface temperatures are increasing the chances that storms will become major hurricanes when they do form.

Part of the problem is that there is no clear definition, legal or otherwise, on who is a climate migrant. Climate change is rarely the main reason why someone decides to leave their home, but it’s almost certainly a compounding factor in many cases.

Darwin Mendez, 23, wants to migrate to the U.S. so that he can provide for his family.
Darwin Mendez, 23, wants to migrate to the U.S. so that he can provide for his family.Carlos Perez Beltran / NBC News

“It’s really important to look at how climate change interacts with existing vulnerabilities and how climate change exacerbates those vulnerabilities, how it threatens livelihoods, how it increases poverty, how it interacts or tips over into conflict,” said Amali Tower, the founder and executive director of Climate Refugees, a nonprofit organization that aids and raises awareness about climate migration.

In Guatemala, years of severe drought interspersed with tropical storms, Hurricanes Eta and Iota last year and other heavy precipitation events have not only destroyed crops but also battered the land, said Paris Rivera, a climatologist at the Mariano Gálvez University of Guatemala.

“The plants no longer grow and the soil that remains is infertile,” Rivera said, “causing various problems, especially to the people who use the soil for their crops and for their personal consumption, thus generating incredible food insecurity.”

While climate stress will probably drive waves of migration in Guatemala and elsewhere around the world, not everyone will have the means or ability to cross borders.

“It’s not as simple as a drought hits the Dry Corridor and all these farmers pick up their things and move north,” Depsky said. “It’s a lot more nuanced, and the people most impacted because they have the fewest resources to adapt and cope are also the ones that can’t afford to move until it’s a life-or-death situation.”

As such, most climate migration will likely be among people who have been displaced and forced to move within their home country. A report released earlier this month by the World Bank projected that 216 million people across Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Eastern Europe, North Africa, Central Asia, East Asia and the Pacific could move within their countries by 2050.

“Nobody actually wants to be forced to leave their own home,” Tower said. “By and large, how climate change impacts mobility is to create situations of internal displacement.”

But with so much on the line in an increasingly untenable situation, some like Mendez feel they don’t have much of a choice but to leave Guatemala and push north.

“I’m worried about the future,” he said. “All I can do is pray to God I’ll be able to migrate to the U.S.”

Denise Chow reported from New York City, and Carlos P. Beltran from La Vega, Guatemala.