News: Climate Change Drives Migration

(Inter Press Service) September 9, 2010 – MEXICO CITY, “We planted

our seeds, but the earth is no longer productive. We’ve had too much rain, even more than last year, and the harvest was ruined,” says Ermelinda Santiago of the Me’phaa indigenous people, who like everyone else in the village of Francisco I. Madero has been affected by the impact of extreme weather on agriculture in southern Mexico.

The 25-year-old woman is one of thousands of native people who migrate every year from the municipality of Tlapa and its surroundings in the southern state of Guerrero, to pick fruit and vegetables in the north of the country.

Tlapa, one of the poorest places in Mexico, is ravaged by deforestation, intermittent drought and torrential rains, so that farming is not an economically viable occupation for local people.

Regions like Tlapa illustrate the possible relationship between climate change and migration, an issue that is coming under scrutiny in Mexico, a country that is vulnerable to the effects of phenomena like prolonged droughts, soil degradation, devastating rainstorms, lack of water and rising sea levels.

“Migration patterns are changing as a result of climate change which is having increasing impacts. In a number of states, more people are emigrating,” Andrea Cerami, a lawyer with the independent Mexican Centre for Environmental Law (CEMDA), told IPS.

Together with factors like poverty, lack of job opportunities and high crime rates, environmental degradation has become an additional element driving migration, both within the country and abroad.

Every year some 500,000 people emigrate from Mexico

to the United States, where some eight million Mexicans are living without the necessary legal documents, according to specialist agencies.

The National Institute for Statistics and Geography reports that the areas receiving the largest numbers of internal migrants are Mexico City, the western state of Jalisco, Baja California on the border with the United States, and the southeastern state of Quintana Roo, while the centre, south and mid-west of the country are the major sources of migrants.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) defines environmental migrants as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”

“Climate change isn’t necessarily people’s main reason for leaving,” Patricia Romero Lankao of the U.S. National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) told IPS. “They leave in search of job opportunities that are not available in their places of origin, and because they have a network of contacts. Climate change is still not the chief reason, but it does play a part.”

Romero Lankao and her colleagues Hua Qin and Melissa Haeffner are working on a research project titled “Displacement or Adaptation? Climate Change and Migration in Mexico”, presented in June at an international conference in Oslo on Climate Change and Displacement in the 21st Century.

In 2010 and the first half of 2011, Mexico as a whole suffered intense drought, while in the south and southeast torrential rains and flooding destroyed crops, human settlements and infrastructure.

Four powerful hurricanes have struck the country since 2005, leaving 650,000 Mexicans homeless, while floods displaced 500,000 people between 2003 and 2010, according to the NCAR research project.

Several recent research studies appear to have identified a link between climate phenomena and the movement of people in Mexico.

In their study presented this year, “The Environmental Dimensions of Emigration from Rural Mexico”, Lori Hunter, Sheena Murray and Fernando Riosmena of the University of Colorado at Boulder found that “households subjected to drought conditions are far more likely to send a migrant as compared to those subjected to wet conditions.”

The scientists examined data collected between 1987 and 2005 from 24,132 households comprising a total of 117,040 people, from 66 rural communities in 12 different states.

They found substantial variation in rainfall patterns, with approximately 23 percent of the sample subjected to drought in the year of the survey.

Moreover, 13 percent of the sample suffered drought the year before the survey, and 3.6 percent were subject to drought in both the previous and the survey years.

Close to 28 percent experienced heavy rainfall in the survey year, while 23 percent had suffered a deluge in the previous year, and seven percent in both.

Meanwhile Shuaizhang Feng, Alan Krueger and Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University in the U.S. state of New Jersey concluded that a 10 percent reduction in crop yields in Mexico leads an additional two percent of the population to emigrate. By approximately the year 2080, they estimated climate change would induce 1.4 to 6.7 million Mexicans to emigrate to the United States, because of declines in agricultural productivity.

Their research paper “Linkages among climate change, crop yields and Mexico-U.S. cross-border migration” was published in 2010 in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

By 2050 there could be a worldwide total of 200 million people who have migrated for environmental reasons, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body that reviews evidence related to global warming.

The categories of “environmental migrant” or “climate change refugee” are not included in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees.

“Because measures to adapt to climate change have not been adopted by the Mexican state, people in this country who are adversely affected will have to move away and migrate, primarily to the United States,” CEMDA’s Cerami predicted.

“Mexico will be a very important laboratory. The empirical evidence we have reviewed tells us that, droughts and all, what causes farmers to leave their homes is markets and opportunities,” said Romero Lankao, whose work at NCAR uses a model that links the vulnerability of communities, capital, and life opportunities with migration. “Circular migration, where people eventually return to their communities, is more interesting, and deserves more research,” she said.

“We have to migrate, because there is no food, and no money,” said Santiago, who first became a migrant when she was seven years old and is now the mother of a four-year-old son. Her own mother was run over in mid-August on a road in the northern state of Chihuahua during the chili pepper harvest. (END)


  • Mathew Jones

    Environmental change has a multiplier effect on other drivers of migration, such as economic hardship and crop failure. Yet terms such as “environmental refugees” and “climate refugees” may cause more problems than they solve. Neither category has status under international law. In the case of small island nations, there is an additional obstacle: If a whole state becomes submerged or uninhabitable, and there is no prospect of return, temporary refuge will not be enough. In “environmentally induced migrations” Bogumil Terminski distinguish environmental refugees from much more general category of “environmental migrants”. According to El-Hinnawi environmental migrants are “those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life”. Very timely question and good article!

Leave a Comment