CHIQUIMULA, Guatemala — Four consecutive years of drought nearly wiped out the corn and beans that Mario Diaz Hernandez, a 25-year-old subsistence farmer in eastern Guatemala, grew to feed himself, his wife and their sons, Sergio, 6, and Dayro, 4.
So, in January 2017, Diaz Hernandez migrated to New Jersey in the hopes that one day his sons could go to school instead of working in the fields. Seven months later he was deported back to Guatemala.
Now, after nearly a year trying to support his family by growing food, he wants to try again. He receives assistance from local disaster relief programs, but it’s still not enough.
“There (the U.S.) you can have a better life and help your family, but here there’s no way,” said Diaz Hernandez, sitting in a hammock outside his house as his sons raced toy trucks. His hands are calloused from years of working in the fields and his boots covered in dirt from tending to his crops.
While violence is undoubtedly driving large numbers of Central American migrants to flee their home countries, climate-change is another often-overlooked driving factor, particularly in Central America’s so-called 'Dry Corridor' – a drought-prone region of more than 10.5 million people that covers parts of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. An estimated 12% of residents in Guatemala’s Dry Corridor have a family member who migrated recently, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). In Honduras it's 16%.
The region has always suffered sporadic droughts, but conditions have worsened since 2014, the first of four years of extreme drought , when farmers lost entire harvests. Losing crops also meant farmers depleted stocks of seeds for the coming years. At the same time, the coffee industry in Central America suffered a devastating rust plague, meaning that there was less seasonal work nearby to keep these families afloat.
Mario Touchette, a WFP representative in Guatemala, said that has compounded issues of unemployment, poverty and food insecurity. Measures a family once took to survive simply aren’t available anymore.
“The effectiveness of traditional survival strategies decreased and families had to adopt new strategies,” Touchette said, “which often meant selling their belongings and migrating.”
It’s notoriously difficult to measure the exact number of migrants leaving the Dry Corridor, which stretches over segments of several provinces. Tens of – if not hundreds of – thousands of migrants are leaving the region, according to the WFP data. Deportation statistics are the closest that researchers can get to measuring how many of these migrants are on their way to the United States. About half of the migrants deported to the region were heading north to the U.S. and were deported either from the U.S. or Mexico.
Nearly 60% of migrants from Guatemala’s Dry Corridor cited food security as their reason for leaving. Another 37% said losing their harvest was the driving factor. In El Salvador and Honduras, violence and lack of employment were other driving factors from the region on top of food insecurity.
Scientists say climate change is to blame for the worsening farming conditions in the Dry Corridor, because climate change exacerbates El Niño, a weather pattern that causes changes in the atmosphere when the ocean surface warms, leading to longer droughts, shorter and more intense periods of rainfall and tropical cyclones. During El Niño years, rainfall in the Dry Corridor drops 30 to 40%. Rising greenhouse-gas emissions mean those years are coming more frequently.
“Climate change has increased the threat of drought and other extreme weather events that have effects on agricultural production and food insecurity in the population,” according to a study on the Central American Dry Corridor, by the organization Acción Contra el Hambre.
“Adapting to climate change is the biggest challenge that this Central American region faces,” the study said.
Subsistence farmers like Diaz Hernandez, who were once able to bounce back from the occasional drought year, are finding their way of life unsustainable. He says 15 days of work in Honduras might earn him the equivalent of $40 to $55, to bring back to Guatemala. That would only pay for food for the family for about a week.
“There’s not a lot of food for the family,” he said. “It’s sad because I know they aren’t eating as they would like.”
Jose Manuel Rodas, the head of the office of food security for the municipality of Camotán in the department of Chiquimula, remembers when migration to the U.S. was seen as strange. He arrived here from another part of Guatemala about 40 years ago.
In the last five years, Rodas has watched migration from the region increase. Whereas only people from more urban areas used to migrate, now farmers from rural areas, many who identify as part of the indigenous Mayan group Chortí, are leaving in larger numbers.
“Now there are so many,” he said.
Since 2014, the U.S. has also seen a sharp increase of migrants, particularly unaccompanied minors and women and children, from Central America’s Northern Triangle – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. From 2015 to 2017, more than 158,000 unaccompanied minors and more than 175,000 women and children from these three countries crossed the border.
As conditions worsened starting in 2014, governmental agencies and international organizations increased efforts to combat food insecurity in the Dry Corridor. Organizations such as WFP and Oxfam developed disaster response programs to offer short-term employment, provide subsidies of corn and beans, and distribute cash handouts for families to buy the products they used to grow.
Other efforts from these organizations focus on long-term shifts in farming practices that will make families in the Dry Corridor more resilient, such as improving irrigation systems, conserving soil and substituting crops.
But a lack of education and deeply entrenched traditions make these shifts difficult. Many continue to migrate even as the presidency of Donald Trump has made the journey more costly, since many migrants report that smugglers have recently increased prices.
“Migrating is a necessity, so any measure that is taken to limit it won’t work,” said Rodas, referring to policies to tighten border controls or make migrants’ journey to the U.S through Mexico more difficult. “Migrants are always going to look for a way to access better opportunities, so it’s really a problem of lack of opportunities.”
Rainfall in the Dry Corridor has increased in recent months, but the effects of the drought are lasting.
Diaz Hernandez and his family get by eating tortillas with salt, and beans when they are lucky. If there isn’t enough food for all four, Diaz Hernandez and his wife go hungry so their sons can eat.
The young father continues to pay off the $9,500 he paid to a human smuggler to get to the United States. This means any extra money he earns goes to the smuggler, and not his family.
“My goal is to try my luck and to figure out how to make enough money to send my kids to school, because sending your kids to school is not a given,” he said. “If I have the opportunity, I would return.”