‘Every Day You Become More Desperate’

Extreme weather in Central America’s Dry Corridor is forcing farmers to make the hardest decision

José Ramón Campos López, a 40-year-old farmer from San Carlos Lempa, El Salvador, stares out at his two acres of land. It’s August, harvest time. The field should be full of tall, vibrant corn stalks. Instead, it’s full of weeds, but for a small patch of corn on the edge of the plot that managed to survive one of the worst droughts thatCampos López can remember.

Making a living through agriculture has never been easy in Central America’s Dry Corridor, a region that stretches from Mexico to Panama and is home to 10.5 million people, most of whom live in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. As the name suggests, the weather has always been hot and dry, with periodic drought. Some 1 million families there rely on subsistence farming, and 20 percent live in extreme poverty.

In recent years, though, the droughts have been more frequent and they last longer, making it harder for farmers to recover their losses from one year to the next. As of June 2016, 1.6 million people in the Dry Corridor were officially food insecure, and more than 3 million needed humanitarian assistance.

There is a debate among experts about how much of the increasingly harsh weather is due to climate change, but for farmers like Campos López, the reasons matter less than the reality. He and many of his fellow farmers now believe leaving may be the only way to provide for their families. Campos López has tried to get to the United States three times without success. He almost certainly will try again.

“Every day you become more desperate, and so you make the journey to the U.S.,” Campos López said.

In the eastern part of El Salvador, longer and hotter droughts have savaged the staple corn crop, forcing hundreds of peasant farmers to migrate to the U.S.

In 2014, more than 237,000 migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were caught at the U.S. border, surpassing the number coming from Mexico for the first time. As the number of Mexican immigrants to America has dropped in the past decade, migration from these three countries — known collectively as the Northern Triangle — has risen dramatically. In 2007, 51,000 migrants from the Northern Triangle were apprehended at the U.S. border compared to over 800,000 Mexicans. A decade later, in 2017, more than 160,000 migrants from the Northern Triangle countries were caught at the border, compared to only 128,000 Mexican migrants who were apprehended that year.

Central Americans head north for many reasons — to flee gang violence, reunify their families, and to chase economic opportunity. But in the Dry Corridor, at least, drought, and the hunger that results, is now among the leading drivers of migration. In 2014 and 2015, farmers lost their entire harvests to drought. Salvadoran farmers had another tough year in 2018, losing anywhere from half to all their harvest.

The droughts led to the highest level of food insecurity in the region on record, according to the World Food Program. In Guatemala from 2014 to 2016, 95 percent of the migrants from the Dry Corridor left because they didn’t have enough food or because they lost their harvest. In El Salvador, poverty, particularly in relation to increased drought and insect plagues, was shown to be the second most common reason people left, after gang violence.

“There are many factors, but what we’ve shown is that food insecurity also comes into it,” said Andrew Stanhope, the World Food Program’s in-country representative for El Salvador.

The debate, and the reality

The effect of climate-driven migration has been examined by researchers in the fields of geography, anthropology and migration studies since at least the mid-1990s. The consensus is that adverse climate conditions and extreme weather do cause people to pick up an leave, mostly in poor regions dependent on subsistence farming.

However, actual scholarship proving that the phenomenon of climate change is, by itself, to blame for the recent uptick in these migration patterns is lacking. Migrants have abandoned the Dry Corridor for decades, but there is not yet enough evidence to show that climate change has drastically changed traditional migration patterns, says Clionadh Raleigh, who co-authored the working paper “Assessing the Impact of Climate Change on Migration and Conflict,” with funding from The World Bank. People living in the Dry Corridor, and places like it around the world, are marginalized economically and politically, she notes. So it is impossible to reduce their decisions to migrate to a single cause.

José Ramón Campos López is struggling to pay back the debt he took on in his last attempt to get to the U.S.

There is little doubt, however, that climate change is making conditions worse, in the Dry Corridor and elsewhere. El Niño, a warming of the tropical Pacific, tends to produce drought here. And when those droughts hit, ever-warmer temperatures are pulling more moisture out of plants and soils.

In El Salvador’s Dry Corridor, families that have lived off the land for decades now worry that their children won’t be able to do the same. Campos López, who has five children, arrived to San Carlos Lempa in 1992, as El Salvador’s 12-year-long civil war was coming to an end. Back then the land was greener, with more trees; the weather, while always hot, was bearable, with more rain and shorter dry periods. In the past six decades, temperatures in El Salvador have warmed by 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit, and are expected to keep climbing.

To Campos López, the source of his troubles is clear. “Of course climate change exists, and the truth is it greatly affects us,” he said. “In 15 or 20 years, what’s it going to be like if we don’t do something now?”

Campos López’s neighbor, Pablo Antonio Villegas, a 44-year-old father of two, also struggles to get his crops to harvest, even though he has diversified what he grows — adding plantain, mango and coconut trees to his staple corn crop.

“With climate change, it’s very difficult,” said Villegas. “The mango trees dried out. The plantains became dehydrated and then it becomes difficult to sell them. Coconut also becomes dehydrated and you have to keep giving it water. And the corn is spoiled.”

Those who deny that climate change is real “haven’t lived it themselves,” he says. “We’ve seen it firsthand and it’s very difficult.”

BothCampos López and Villegas have siblings and other family members in the U.S. Campos López first tried to make it to the U.S. in 1999, after Hurricane Mitch devastated the region. He was caught at the border, and sent back to El Salvador. He tried again in 2004, after a drought, and again was caught and sent home. After each failed attempt, he tried to work hard in El Salvador to support his family, but they were constantly struggling to produce enough food.

Pablo Antonio Villegas (right) with his father, says it’s clear that climate change is making life harder in the Dry Corridor.

In 2017,Campos López tried a third time. He sat down with his wife, Ana Luz, and considered all their expenses — water, electricity, food and schooling for the five kids. “There was not another option to move the family forward,” he said.  

But the outcome was the same as the first two times. Now he’s struggling to pay back the debt from the $8,000 he paid a coyote, or human smuggler. Campos López sold livestock to cover part of the cost, his brother chipped in some money, and he took out a loan to pay the rest.

Andrew Stanhope, of the World Food Program, says the worsening weather is forcing farmers to  resort to “negative coping strategies,” such as selling land, animals or tools, cutting back on what they eat and reducing the variety of their diet. Immigration is an “extremely difficult and costly” coping strategy. “This is really a last resort,” he said. “People don’t want to migrate.”

Villegas, too, has contemplated the journey to the U.S. With more than a million Salvadorans in the U.S., the idea of joining them is always considered a possibility when times get tough. “Migrating to another country means leaving everything — your family, deserting your home, the roots that you have,” Villegas said. “I’ve considered it many times, but I’ve decided to stay.”

He hopes to one day pass on his land and way of life to his son, currently 4 years old. But he acknowledges that if one day he finds no other viable option, he would go north. “Sometimes people have to go and leave everything behind to safeguard the lives of the people they care about,” he said. “But we still haven’t arrived to that point.”

With the Trump administration’s efforts to tighten the border with Mexico, the journey to the U.S. has become even more risky. Migrants, whatever their reasons, are now exposed to possible mistreatment and abuse at the border.

“I would like to see them in our situation,” Campos López says of the immigration opponents in the U.S., as he points to his desiccated corn field. “What can this give me? What can I be sure to give to my kids for the next year? Nothing. If they were in the same situation, I think they would do the same.”

Drought-ravaged corn on Pablo Antonio Villegas’s farm in El Salvador.

Finding help, and hope, at home

The government in El Salvador, along with NGOs, has begun helping farmers improve their resilience to climate change as the weather in the Dry Corridor grows hotter and more extreme.

One strategy is to move toward agroforestry — the combination of trees, shrubs, and other non-food plants with pasture and cropland as a way to increase reforestation, preserve biodiversity, and prevent soil erosion. Promoting agroforestry is part of the government’s National Plan for Climate Change, which is focused on the use of green technology to preserve water, forest cover and soil, and on promoting both sustainable agriculture and fisheries.

Another strategy is to diversify the crops they grow. By planting mango, plantain or citrus trees, in addition to corn, farmers can replenish the soil and also diversify their income stream. Still, this is not a silver bullet. These crops can also be affected by drought, although they are more likely to be resilient than than the traditional crops of the region.

One lucrative crop that grows well in agroforestry systems is cacao, the seeds of which are the base ingredient for chocolate. Cacao was sacred in Central America during the Mayan empire, and now an initiative called Alianza Cacao aims to help up to 10,000 small farmers in El Salvador by planting more than 16,000 acres of cacao by 2019.

Time will tell whether these efforts are enough to making farming viable in the Dry Corridor. Farmers there expected better conditions this year, but instead they were left waiting for rain that never came. Another bad year likely means more migration.

Photos on the living room wall of Pablo Antonio Villegas’s house of his relatives, many of whom are now living in the U.S.

At Campos López’s house, his adolescent daughter packs up her bag and heads to school, waving goodbye to her parents as she rushes out the door. For now, the family is getting by with both parents doing all they can. But the constant fear of not being able to provide for the family looms over every day. Migrating still seems like the only way to change their precarious situation.

“There is no other option for someone here, who is going to great lengths, always falling and getting back up again,” Campos López said. “In El Salvador, it’s difficult to find another option.”


Top photo: José Ramón Campos López walks through a corn field lost to drought. Campos López, who farms in El Salvador’s piece of Central America’s Dry Corridor, has tried to migrate to the U.S. three times, and almost certainly will try again.

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