At root level
Climate change feeds tensions
There is a huge mango tree in the courtyard of a convent/orphanage in Guatemala I visited recently. It regularly drops red and green mangoes on the ground, and when they hit the tin roof it sounds like gunfire. The children gather the fruit, tear the skin with their teeth and suck the sweet, sticky juice.
As I contemplated the tree, I noticed that the concrete seat that encircled it was cracked and the ground lifted where the roots of the tree had bulged upward, and thought of the knowledge of those roots of underground forces.
The sweet faces of the people I met in Guatemala and El Salvador also conceal underground forces, trauma of which they are well aware. The beautiful town of Suchitoto, El Salvador, was the scene of several massacres in the 1980s as the government strategy of counterinsurgency decimated the populace to deprive rebels of resources. This strategy was abetted by training at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. Afraid of communism, the U.S. also supplied arms to the oppressive El Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments.
In Guatemala, some 400 indigenous villages were wiped out. At the Centro de Arte y Paz in El Salvador, I met Nicolas, who showed me a video—scenes of dead children lying in the street. The UN estimates that in El Salvador alone more than 75,000 were killed, 85 percent by the El Salvadoran armed forces and death squads.
In 1954, the U.S. CIA carried out a covert operation that deposed democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz and ended the Guatemalan Revolution of 1944-1954, installing the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas, the first in a series of U.S.-backed authoritarian rulers in Guatemala. The Revolution of 1944 that eventually brought Arbenz to power through democratic elections had attempted to bring a minimum wage, near-universal suffrage, and land reform to Guatemala. This angered United Fruit, which under previous governments had managed to acquire 42 percent of the nation’s land and had been granted exemption from all taxes and duties on both imports and exports. United Fruit had lobbied to topple Arbenz.
Add to this history the intimate knowledge of the tree, that of climate change. The project “The Economics of Climate Change in Central America” came to the conclusion that climate change poses a serious threat to Central America, which itself produces minimal greenhouse gases but is already one of the regions most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change. In 2009, corn crops failed in four provinces and 400,000 peasant families needed food aid.
In El Salvador, Hurricane Ida brought massive flooding, displacing 15,000 people. In Mexico, the Worldwatch Institute reports, “desertification … is leading some 600,000 to 700,000 people to migrate annually. … Almost 40 percent of the farmland inspected by the government has been affected by the drought … .” Deregulation of Mexico’s fishing industry means “Mexico’s fleet accounts for less than 10 percent of the total catch, with the rest going to boats from the United States, Canada and Japan.” Governmental corruption, bad economic policies, deforestation, poverty and the violence of the drug trade combine with climate change to drive people north.
The U.S., having profited off their land, deposed their democracies and contributed the lion’s share of carbon emissions exacerbating their droughts and flooding, now talks of building a wall to deny entry to the country that is reaping the ripe mangoes and leaving them with the cracked concrete.
Look at the history. The forces of social upheaval exacerbated by the threat multiplier of climate change are behind the desperation of Central American refugees leaving their homes and heading northward. It is incumbent on the U.S. to recognize our exploitative past and begin to make amends.
There is some action in Congress in this direction. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have introduced the Dream Act 2017, which would give young people brought to the country as children a chance at permanent residence and a possible path to citizenship. The proposal comes as the DACA program, which provides temporary relief from deportation to those immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” faces a legal challenge from 10 states.
What chance this bipartisan bill has under the current administration is far from certain.
Climate change is exacerbating tensions not only in Central America, but all over the world. A study from Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science projects up to 700 million climate refugees by 2050.
There is much we still can do: Acknowledge our responsibility as the nation that has profited the most from the burning of fossil fuels and suffered the least, honor the Paris agreement, enact a Carbon Fee and Dividend which would speed up the transition to renewable energies, creating jobs and improving our economy, and establish a fair and compassionate immigration system.