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Climate Change Is Forcing Farmers In Guatemala To Leave Their Land For The U.S.


As we just heard, Central American migrants who arrive at the U.S. border often talk about violence and poverty driving them north. Jonathan Blitzer writes in The New Yorker about another big factor in this crisis - climate change. He spent time in Guatemala reporting on how the changing climate is helping to drive people to leave. Jonathan Blitzer, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


SHAPIRO: Tell me about one of the small towns in Guatemala you visited where the impact of climate change is really apparent.

BLITZER: There was a small town about 9,000 feet above sea level called Climentoro. And basically the way you'd begin to feel the impact of climate change, which sometimes feels so vast as to almost be impossible to fully survey, is in the form of, first of all, how few young men were visible on the streets of this town. Most of the young men in this town had already left for the U.S. And the reason specifically is it's a community that consists almost entirely of subsistence farmers who grow potatoes, maize, a few other vegetables. It's hard to grow things at that altitude.

SHAPIRO: Under the best of circumstances, it's hard to grow things at that altitude.

BLITZER: Exactly, exactly. And in recent years, and what everyone said, almost to a person, was that over the last six or seven years, things really began to change. The weather patterns started to become erratic. The rains didn't come when they were supposed to come. And increasingly, it became impossible for people to grow their staple crops - to grow potatoes, to grow maize. And as a result, they had not only nothing to eat but also nothing to survive on to sell. And so as a result, increasingly, people were abandoning their land and heading north.

SHAPIRO: In this town of Climentoro, you say there were almost no young men of working age, but the migration crisis at the border is a lot of parents with young children. And you saw evidence of those departures, too. Tell us about that.

BLITZER: That's true. The new dynamic, as you say, is that increasingly families are coming to the U.S. seeking asylum. And you saw that, too, in a lot of these communities. People would say, for example, that, look; we're going to leave anyway, but if we go as a family, we at least have a better shot of making it across the U.S. border.

SHAPIRO: A lot of these subsistence farmers were barely scraping by anyway. How do you know that the struggles they're having today are a result of climate change?

BLITZER: It's a good question. I mean, I think for one thing, there's a general stipulation that has to be made, which is that climate change kind of on its own isn't the single thing that's driving people north, but it seriously exacerbates the existing problems in the region. But concretely, the descriptions of how weather patterns were changing, the increasing spikes and then drops in temperature, people spoke extremely specifically about how their crops were affected. So people, for example, planting potatoes would say, look; now we have new fungus that are growing that weren't here four years ago. We need to invest more money in pesticides to kill some of these new fungus that are growing as a result of increased humidity. Now, it's impossible for us to make any profit on our crops. All of this stuff was identifiable as being a new force, a new phenomenon in the last few years.

SHAPIRO: Well, this makes me think about what we hear from the U.S. government that countries like Guatemala need to do more to address the migration crisis. And generally, they're referring to problems of instability and violence, but problems of climate change can't be addressed by the government of Guatemala, right?

BLITZER: That's right. And in fact, all of the problems really that that are affecting this region and that are forcing people to leave, everything from violence to massive entrenched corruption to years of poverty, all of these things are too big and too complex for any single government on its own to solve as a policy matter. The U.S. needs to take the lead on this. And the fact that the Trump administration seems to be moving in the exact opposite direction, that is to say planning to cut aid, seeming to penalize these governments basically for the desperation of their situation, is just obviously counterproductive.

SHAPIRO: There was a U.S.-funded program to help some of the farmers who are struggling with the changing climate. And it sounds from your reporting like it actually had a positive impact. Tell us about it.

BLITZER: There was a small tiny hamlet called Paraje Leon where beginning in around 2015, the community received help from a group of local NGOs that had money from the U.S. We're talking about tiny sums of money - $190,000 over the course of a three-year period. And this community basically had agronomists and forestry experts come to the community, instruct them on how to diversify their crops, help them begin to respond to some of these acute pressures wrought by climate change, and more and more people decided they did not need to leave because they saw a viable future in this community. This funding stream ended in 2017 because of the Trump administration's hostility to climate change as a force in the region and as a problem that needed to be solved. And so everyone was very much buoyed by the money that came through and the opportunities that that presented for them. And now that that money is gone and that some of those opportunities have been taken away, it's harder, I think, for many of them to imagine staying.

SHAPIRO: Jonathan Blitzer, thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

BLITZER: Thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: He reported from The New Yorker on how climate change is helping to fuel the U.S. border crisis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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