The Forgotten Migrants of Central America

Traditional indigenous attire of a Mayan woman from the Quiche region of Guatemala. Credit: UN Photo/John Olsson

By Caley Pigliucci
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 12 2019 – Rural and indigenous populations in countries like Guatemala and Honduras are increasingly on the move – either migrating internally or to neighbouring countries.

But the focus on these populations has been limited, leaving them forgotten and marginalized as they continue to be disproportionately affected by climate change.

The disappearance of farmlands and unreliability of crops due to climate change have led families to experience increased food and economic insecurity—that have forced some of them to migrate.

“In general, we can say that the majority of rural migrants are poor people, but often not the poorest, because the latter cannot afford the significant costs of these journeys,” Ricardo Rapallo, Senior Food Security Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), told IPS.

According to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), between 2000 and 2010, the number of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increased by an average of 59% and the number of illegal immigrants apprehended by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) increased from 50,000 during 2010 to over 400,000 in 2016.

Elizabeth Kennedy, a researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW) based in Honduras, told IPS, “When we talk about climate change, we have to think about historical and social factors that leave certain groups more impacted than others…many of the people who farm and fish on the lands most vulnerable to climate change have been historically mistreated.”

“Realizing that those most impacted are indigenous is critical, because it hasn’t been part of the main stream conversation, and it needs to be,” Kennedy added.

The United Nations does not label those forced to migrate due to climate change as ‘climate refugees.’

A change in language would require an agreement among member-states altering the definition of refugees (currently defined as: “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence”.

And a refugee also has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

However, Kennedy emphasized that “Indigeneity is a protected factor, and that is a reason to claim asylum.” But she warns that in the case of migration from Central America, “many people around the US, including lawyers are not aware that they need to be looking at historic and systemic inclusion.”

She added that this is true “even in Guatemala and Honduras. This is in fact demonstrative that the state doesn’t take it seriously.”

Researchers, like Kennedy, are frustrated as they see little data and few programs that help indigenous and rural people which also take into account the fraught history that indigenous people have in Central America, a place where a number of massacres occurred in 1996 and many are still recovering from the violence.

Kennedy said there are six indigenous groups in Honduras and over 30 in Guatemala, but she expressed her desire to see “updated statistics on the various indigenous groups.”

Many climate migrants are also left out of the public eye because they only migrate within their own country.

“It is important to stress that, even if the international migration is the one gathering public attention, and motivating political reactions, internal migration is by far larger,” said Rapallo..

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has estimated external migration in 2015 at around 244 million people, while internal migration (as of 2009) was estimated at 740 million people.

For many who experience food insecurities, families will send one member to another country to provide for the family from afar, but the rest of the family will remain in their home country.

The FAO says “what has been observed is that young people represent a major part of the international migrants.”

Alongside the increase of internal migration and external migration among youth, Kennedy also sees an increase in family units migrating away from Guatemala and Honduras in recent years, which, she says, “shows that more is happening than needing to just provide economic stability to the home.”

Rapallo said: “If we want to give people options and make an impact on migration movements, we should work on the root causes of migration.”

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has taken a specific policy initiative to protect climate migrants: the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD).

UNHCR representatives told IPS that the PDD “…promotes policy and normative developments to address gaps in the protection of people at risk of displacement or already displaced across borders in the context of climate change and disaster.”

UNHCR says that member-states and stake-holders will have an opportunity to “…deliver concrete pledges and contributions that will advance the objectives of the Global Compact and highlight key achievements and good practices” at the Global Refugee Forum on the 17 and 18 of December 2019.

But, thus far, it remains unclear to what extent the PDD has had an effect on the admittance or protections of climate migrants.

The 2019 Climate Action Summit will take place this September during the UN General Assembly sessions.

Luis Alfonso de Alba, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the summit responded to a question from IPS about the potential need to update language surrounding climate migrants.

At a press briefing on May 28th, he said: “This is not a meeting for negotiations… So I think the topic of language will continue to rather be an issue for member states.”

“We are obviously taking into account the impact of climate change into migration as a topic,” he added, but said “We are not negotiating language.”

Though de Alba assured IPS that indigenous populations will be involved in the summit, rural and indigenous populations migrating internally and externally in Central America are still largely over-looked.

Kennedy worries that not enough is being done. “They need targeted programs, they need targeted statistics, and these are not provided,” she said.

Rapallo said: “The right to migrate also involves the right not to migrate. Migration should be an option, but not the only option to pursue a better life, or sometimes even to survive.”

Uganda’s Rare Tree Climbing Lions and Endangered Primates Threatened By Climate Change

Elephants in an area infested by the invasive sickle bush. The Uganda Wildlife Authority fears that the management of the shrub could be a challenge as the plants rapidly colonise grasslands in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, the country’s most diverse park. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

By Wambi Michael
KASESE, Uganda, Jun 12 2019 – As climate change leads to increased temperatures in East Africa, a thicket of invasive thorny trees with the ability to withstand harsh climatic conditions have begun threatening Uganda’s second-largest park, home to a rare breed of tree climbing lions and one of the highest concentrations of primates in the world.

The Queen Elizabeth National Park forms part of the Greater Virunga Landscape, considered the richest part of the African continent in terms of vertebrate species. The park is Uganda’s most diverse and boasts 5,000 species of mammals, including: 27 primates such as chimpanzees, red-tailed and monkeys, and baboons; birds; amphibians; reptiles; hippos and elephants.

But conservation experts at the Queen Elizabeth National Park are fighting to stop the spread of Dichrostachys cinerea, commonly known as sickle bush.

There is a fear that the further spread of of the shrub, which has a long tap root and various lateral roots that make it difficult to remove, could further place at risk the already endangered species that exist here. A recent  Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report found that there is massive loss of biodiversity globally that could “undermine human well-being for current and future generations,” according to Sir Robert Watson, the outgoing chair of the IPBES.

Though not new to the country or the region, the invasive plant, which is native to South Africa and known for its medicinal uses, has begun spreading rapidly across the park, taking up in recent years an estimated 40 percent of the almost 2,000 square kilometres that the park covers.

Edward Asalu, the chief warden here, told IPS that the spread of these thickets was affecting animal settlements in this ecologically diverse part of the country.

“This issue is being studied but we know that it is largely linked to climate change,” he said, alluding to the increased temperatures in the country. He added that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also contributed to the fast spread of the sickle bush.

According to a climate risk assessment report on the country by the Climate and Development Learning Platform, which aims to integrate climate change into development programming, “climate projections developed for Uganda … indicate an increase in near-surface temperature for the country in the order of +2°C in the next 50 years, and in the order of +2.5°C in the next 80 years.”

Robert Adaruku is a tour guide with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and has noted that increased temperatures have affected the growth of the sickle bush.

“As the temperature goes high, such kinds of plants like the sickle bush are able to survive in a hotter environment are able to expand. Because the weather or environment will be favouring their expansion,” he told IPS.

The sickle bush and its recent rapid growth due to increased temperatures has led it to become the latest threat to Uganda’s wildlife conservation efforts. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

Thicket drives away animals
The spread of the sickle bush is evident as one drives along the road overlooking the Kazinga Channel, a 32 kilometre stretch of water that joins Lake George and Lake Edward. The channel has previously been considered the ideal spot to view game.

A lonely male elephant is spotted in the early afternoon under a thicket of sickle bush. There is no grass underfoot.

Asalu told IPS the thickets were not easily penetrated by most animals and that “grazers like antelopes, warthogs and buffalos are avoiding those thickets because they can’t find food under there.”

“We have areas which were grasslands but are now being taken over by thickets. Animals, especially the herbivores, like open areas where they can be able to see the carnivores trying to eat them. That is why you cannot find them in area colonised by the sickle bush,” Asalu explained.

Adaruku explained that he first noticed the sickle bush in the park way back in 1997. “The sickle plants were there but on a very small scale. As time goes on it has been able to expand and colonise this area.”

Sickle bush spreading rapidly across Africa and beyond

But it is just not this park that the sickle bush is taking over. Asalu confirmed that Tanzania’s Randilen Wildlife Management Area also recently had to deal with the spread of the sickle bush.

Quoting a study by the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI), a non-profit inter-governmental development and information organisation, Asalu said that Dichrostachys cinerea spreads very fast because it can produce up to 130 shoots from the mother stem.

Studies from West Africa have found that the sickle bush is mostly found in warm, dry savannahs but it can grow in more than three climate groups.

CABI said the subspecies spreading in East Africa is thought to have originated in countries such as Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa and is spreading all over the world.

Dichrostachys cinerea has a high reproductive rate, meaning that they produce many seeds throughout the year. Although not all offspring are successful, the plants that do establish themselves can typically expect a long lifespan due to their tolerance to natural disturbances like fire, drought and pests,” reads part of a 2017 report by CABI.

It added that the ability by the sickle bush to prosper on nutrient-poor soils and disturbed areas made it very adaptive and resilient in its native region of South Africa.

A 2017 study in the journal Nature Communications found that alien invasive species, like the sickle bush, have the ability to expand rapidly at higher latitudes and altitudes as the climate warms, out-pacing native species. The park is estimated to be 914m above sea level, while Uganda is about 140 kms above the equator.

Geofrey Baluku is a part-time tour operator around Kilembe and Kasese, the areas alongside the Queen Elizabeth National Park. He is also concerned about the spread of the sickle bush.

“It is a serious problem. What will happen to this park if all the animals go away?” Baluku said in an interview with IPS.

He told IPS that the sickle bush is not entirely new to the area but the rate at which it is expanding was.
“We have used those same plants to treat some diseases. It is very good soothing to tooth ache.
“But …even elephants don’t eat their leaves. Other small animals don’t want to stay in areas colonised by sickle bush so they move to other areas, including where there are human settlements,” Baluku said.

Uganda Wildlife Authority wardens at one of the areas formerly colonised by the sickle bush. The authority has undertaken restoration efforts since July to clear the Queen Elizabeth National Park of the shrub. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

A problematic plant

Dr Peter Baine, a research officer at Uganda’s invasive species research unit, told IPS that the sickle bush forms a canopy in a colonised area, releasing chemicals that kill the grass underneath.

“It is quite problematic to other plants because of its ability to spread fast, grow fast, disperse numerous seeds, and the seed’s ability to last in soil up until a year,” he said.

Baine did not rule out the fact that its rapid spread could be linked to climate change. He told IPS that invasive species and climate change are two of the primary factors that alter ecological systems.

He said the National Agricultural Research Organisation and UWA were conducting studies to understand the interaction between climate change and the sickle bush for a possible management plan to fight the problem.

Restoration Effort

The UWA has in the past burnt the sickle bush but discovered that the tree would sprout again after a few weeks.

Since July, the authority has embarked on a new restoration effort, involving the uprooting and burning of the plants in colonised areas.

About six hundred hectares of sickle bush had been uprooted by May when IPS visited the Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Asalu told IPS that there remains a huge challenge ahead because uprooting and burning the sickle bush requires huge financial resources that are not readily available.

But in the meantime the current efforts for eradication are making a difference. IPS saw a number of animals, including buffalo and bushbucks (African antelopes), in parts of the restored area.

*Writing with Nalisha Adams in Johannesburg