A version of this ICN story was copublished with NBC News. NBC Senior Video Producer Mariana Henninger reported from Guatemala.
EL ROSARIO, Honduras — On a late winter evening, the people of this remote village walked out the doors of their tin-roofed houses and headed to the local health clinic, a small, brightly painted building that has become a lifeline and a community gathering place.
Worry crossed their sun-worn faces as they crammed onto wooden benches outside the clinic, shoulder to shoulder, shuffling their dust-covered cowboy boots and plastic sandals.
They had come with questions.
What, everyone worries, will happen to them?
Some people here know about climate change, about the vast, complex forces of cambio climatico roiling the weather. Or they’ve been told the disappearance of the pine forests around the village is partly to blame for the rising temperatures and the diminishing streams, which once ran, clear and plentiful. The hillsides that surround El Rosario used to be covered in cooling swaths of pine trees, but logging has left giant patches of shadeless stubble and an infestation of beetles has destroyed much of the rest.
As their staple corn and bean crops shrivel and they face depleted kitchen pantries, everyone here fears something has shifted.
Ronis Martinez, a village farmer, says he doesn’t remember a summer when the critical August rains didn’t fall in El Rosario. But last year, amid the prolonged drought, even these never came. This year, forecasters say an El Niño weather pattern could mean another dry season.
“If that is repeated this year, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Martinez says. “How are we going to replenish the loss?”
Nelson Mejia has lived in El Rosario all his life, save for a handful of years when he worked in a maquiladora — a textile plant — that made jeans in San Pedro Sula, about two hours away. Now, he’s back to farming in El Rosario, watching each growing season unfold with a new kind of dread.
Unlike many of his neighbors, Mejia has seen life in one of the world’s most dangerous, gang-ruled cities. He knows if he and his fellow farmers can’t figure out a way to grow crops and feed this village, some of his neighbors might be trapped there, and those who can afford to will flee toward an uncertain fate.
A big, soft-spoken man of 50-some years with a thoughtful pause in his speech, Mejia has become a community leader — a world-wise person who neighbors seek out for help. Standing at the health clinic as the sun slid below the distant treeline, he looked toward his neighbors, widened his stance and began to talk to the crowd.
“We know we have to find options,” he said.
Highly Vulnerable to Climate Change
Like so many developing countries, Honduras has contributed relatively little to the greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet. And yet, projections suggest it is especially imperiled by climate change.
Its rural farmers, innocent of the forces driving a global climate transformation, are especially vulnerable, mostly because they depend on the landscape around them. Tiny El Rosario and its 500 people only got electricity seven years ago.
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere — nearly two-thirds of its population lives in poverty. Its cities are ruled by violence, and its countryside, by vendetta. Police forces and government authorities are often corrupted by drug lords and gangs.
It is also among the countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change, because of its “high exposure to climate-related hazards,” says the U.S. Agency for International Development. For a period of 20 years, from 1998 to 2017, it was among the three most weather-battered countries in the world, a distinction largely attributable to Hurricane Mitch, which devastated the country in 1998. The situation is projected to get more dangerous, especially in Western Honduras, which is predicted to become a climate “hotspot,” with greater temperature increases.
Climate change, when layered onto this mix of economic instability, violence and weak governance, can become fuel — a threat multiplier that could aggravate all of Honduras’ vulnerabilities, leaving people little choice but to leave their homes. The World Bank projects that nearly 4 million people from Central America and Mexico could become climate migrants by 2050.
Some parts of the world have already experienced this kind of combustion. Researchers argue that drought in Syria drove internal migration that contributed to instability and, ultimately, the civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, forcing millions from their homes or seeking refuge in other countries.
And, while the links among climate change, migration and security are complex and difficult to disentangle, researchers project this type of chain reaction could become more common.
“The physical impacts of climate change are set to become the fastest-growing driver of involuntary migration and displacement globally, beginning in the middle of this century,” wrote Robert McLeman, a Canadian researcher, in a 2017 report, adding, “States that are already politically fragile are the most likely future epicenters for climate-related violence and forced migration events.”
These flows are likely to destabilize entire regions and lead to conflict. U.S. national security officials mostly have been concerned about North Africa and the Middle East where extremist movements are thriving in drought-prone and impoverished regions. But Patrick Paterson, a professor at the National Defense University’s William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, said climate change may contribute to insecurity in Latin America, too. “It will translate into problems that will destabilize our partners in the region.”
In Honduras, agriculture employs nearly one-third of the country’s population, and immigration analysts point to the fact that roughly half the adults apprehended at the U.S. border work in agriculture, underscoring the precarious nature of their lives at home.
In El Niño years, agriculture in the Dry Corridor — a large swath of Central America characterized by dry, erratic weather conditions — is especially stressed. The tropical dry forest belt that stretches from southern Mexico to Panama has experienced declines in rainfall of up to 40 percent and intense heat for long stretches. In other years, heavy rainfall washes out crops or makes it impossible to plant or harvest.
“The Dry Corridor is known for its irregular rainfall, and has become one of the most susceptible regions in the world to climate change and variability,” says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This could have “disastrous consequences on the cultivation of basic grain crops, such as corn, which are part of the region’s subsistence agriculture.”
As farmers battle weather extremes, food supplies could dwindle, shaking security both within and beyond Honduras.
“National security rests on economics as well as anything,” said Richard Holwill, who was the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs in the 1980s. “The Soviet Union didn’t collapse because of a military threat, it collapsed because it could not maintain an economy.”
“We can’t just pull up a drawbridge, wall out the rest of the world and say, hey, we can survive here in this island that we call the United States,” Holwill added. “We are interconnected, and our security is enhanced by ensuring that their world is stable.”
Something Has Changed in the Village
The road into El Rosario in north central Honduras, about 175 miles north of the capital Tegucigalpa, climbs through the scrubby hillsides for several miles, then slopes downward as it approaches the village primary school and a library with a hand-painted wooden sign above the threshold: “La Biblioteca Regional de Dr. Dean J. Seibert.”
Seibert is a doctor from Vermont who taught at Dartmouth College’s medical school for decades — and a veteran of humanitarian emergencies.
He’s traveled to trauma-sieged countries around the world, taking care of thousands of people suffering from physical and emotional shocks brought on by nature and man. He’s experienced the aftermath of wars in Liberia and the Balkans, natural disasters in Indonesia and Pakistan. He first came to Honduras after Hurricane Mitch decimated the country, burying villages in landslides and killing thousands in 1998.
He’s been returning to the country — to El Rosario — ever since. And, at the age of 86, each trip feels crucial.
This winter, Seibert sat in the front seat of an SUV as it jolted along the winding dirt road leading to the village. Years ago, the road would get so rained out, it would become impassible, but today the SUV’s tires kick up a dust storm. After decades making the same trek, Seibert knows the road well.
He points out the lumber mill, the particularly dangerous curves, the trail in the hillside that leads to the simple home of Carlos Lopez. Paralyzed by polio, Lopez lives in a cluster of houses with no electricity. Without any family, he manages to get around by pulling himself forward on his hands and makes a few lempira powering people’s cell phones with a donated solar charger.
Seibert runs a small community development organization back home in Vermont called ACTS — Americans Caring, Teaching, Sharing — that has worked in El Rosario for 30 years. He came on board a few years after ACTS built the health clinic, and is now the group’s driving force, conscience and heart.
Dr. Dean, as everyone in the village calls him, persuades cadres of volunteers, mostly from New England, to travel to El Rosario five times a year. With each trip they haul giant red duffel bags, stuffed with supplies: ibuprofen, bandages, school books and donated clothes that a woman named Lillian Dominga Mejia sells on her porch. She sits in a wheelchair that won’t navigate the village’s rutted, dusty roads. She gives half her proceeds to a community group.
Seibert is relentless, lining up one meeting or project after the next. The only allowance he gives himself are a daily nap and a bed at the clinic so he can plug in a machine for his sleep apnea.
Some of the volunteers note that he’s especially unflagging on this trip.
As a doctor and educator, Seibert has focused on growing and improving the medical facilities and schools in El Rosario and the surrounding villages. Now there’s a full-time nurse, pharmacy, visiting surgeons, a new dental office with big white teeth painted around the perimeter. His namesake library is stocked with books; the school has computers and an internet connection.
But a couple of years ago, Ronis Martinez, the farmer, delivered news that came as a shock to Siebert, who hadn’t visited the village since the onset of the drought: There had been little rain and crops had been failing for several years. Now Seibert is attempting to shift ACTS’ work toward agriculture, knowing that decades of progress could collapse if the people of El Rosario can’t grow their own food.
“Things have changed, and we’re really not geared for that,” he said.
Siebert realizes a huge challenge lies ahead, one that goes beyond corralling U.S. dollars to support ACTS’ modest budget or persuading volunteers to spend their vacation time schlepping to Central America.
So, he has combed Honduras for every agricultural expert or group he can find, and is trying to organize a local committee to tackle the problem — to find new varieties of drought-resistant crops, new ways of irrigating, new ways of treating the soil so it’s more resilient.
And he worries about his friends in El Rosario. At home in Vermont, Seibert keeps up with the news about Central America and the plight of people in its Dry Corridor, where hunger rates are climbing, driving people to migrate.
He calls El Rosario regularly to check in.
Has the new community vegetable garden been planted? (No. Water’s being rationed.)
How’s the weather? (Dry and hot. A little bit of rain.)
Are people leaving? (Not yet.)
“For decades, everybody had a sense of optimism and progress,” he says, weeks after returning from his most recent trip. “Some of our accomplishments — their accomplishments — were terrific in terms of water systems, education, medicine. Real progress was being made. But now there’s a different feeling creeping in. They’re realistic enough to appreciate there may be no resolving this problem.”
Drought in the Dry Corridor Drives Migration
In Los Planes, where a smattering of mud-walled houses perch along a road to El Rosario’s north, Hilda Vieda depends on donated food and on the skinny chickens and pigs that roam into her one-room house. Her husband was shot and killed for his cell phone, leaving her to take care of their four children, two of whom have a genetic disease that blinds and kills at an early age.
A short walk away, there’s a one-room school with caged windows and a scattering of pastel-colored benches on a concrete floor. Faded pictures of the alphabet and math symbols are taped to the walls. In one corner hangs a map of the world. In another, a hand-drawn poster with pictures of children, walking in groups or talking to a police officer.
It says “Mural del Emigrante Retornado” — Mural of the Returned Emigrant. What it means is: Don’t Leave.
Migration to the United States from Honduras and from its neighboring Northern Triangle countries, El Salvador and Guatemala, has climbed in recent years. Apprehensions of migrants from these countries at the U.S.-Mexico border, a metric often used to track migration rates, have risen from about 52,000 in 2007 to 224,000 last year. (2014 had the highest number of apprehensions in the last decade, with a total of nearly 240,000. Of that number, nearly 91,000 were Hondurans.)
The reasons are complex, but the increase in migration coincides with the drought, which began in 2014, and the United Nations World Food Program says the drought is directly tied to higher migration from the region. In emergency surveys, people living in the Dry Corridor told UN officials that a lack of food was the primary driver. Poverty, unemployment and violence were also reasons people left the area — all three reasons being linked to drought, they said.
Last summer, the Honduran government declared a national emergency because of food shortages, joining governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, which issued similar alerts. Nearly 100,000 families in Honduras and 2 million people across the region lacked adequate food.
After that, conditions deteriorated.
In the Dry Corridor, there are two growing seasons— the first stretching from spring through summer, the second from summer into late fall. The second can help make up for crop losses in the first.
“They’re supposed to replace the food stocks with the second harvest, but they also had a crop failure in the second harvest” last year, explained Herbert Yanes, a Honduras-based program officer with the World Food Program. “And the situation is getting worse because we have a forecast for El Niño. It’s a very difficult situation.”
Many farmers from the Dry Corridor travel each year to work in the country’s coffee-growing areas, earning wages that are critical for their survival. But in recent years, a pathogen has damaged the coffee crop, Honduras’ biggest export. Some research has found that climate change has worsened the spread of the pathogen and will likely stoke its expansion.
“We need to pay attention to the coffee crisis, because, for sure, that’s going to increase food insecurity, not only in the coffee areas, but in the Dry Corridor, because a lot of people go to those areas from the Dry Corridor,” Yanes explained. “It’s their main source of income.”
Without income and food supplies, and with an uncertain outlook for this coming growing season, 2019 could see yet higher levels of food insecurity. The Famine Early Warning System says food shortages have reached, or will reach, crisis levels, mostly among poorer households across Central America.
In El Rosario, people know about the migrant caravans, which started last fall in San Pedro Sula, a city overrun by drug gangs and violence a few hours to the northwest. They also know that people in the Dry Corridor, just to their south and west, are going hungry, unable to produce or buy food.
Jacobo Suazo and his colleagues at Sustainable Harvest International are based in Siguatepeque, in the mountainous center of the country about two hours southwest of El Rosario. Every day he hears about the struggles of farmers in the area and says he’s not just worried, but convinced that the region around El Rosario will be next.
“We haven’t felt hunger in the region, but we’re in a drought,” he said. “The small production and the bad crops — they are going to make the hunger season come.”
An Urgent Need to Aid Small Farmers
On a sunny morning, John Chater sat at a table with a view of Lake Yojoa in the near distance. A Vermonter like Seibert, Chater started coming to Honduras in the 1960s and spent decades with a non-profit development group called Partners of the Americas, mostly working on farming and conservation. He’s married to a Honduran and now owns a small hotel at the lake’s edge — what Chater calls paradise.
Chater’s been watching for years as the U.S. government wields power over its southern neighbor, sending millions in aid dollars over the past several decades to support its military and applauding a 2009 coup against the country’s elected leader.
Like many critics, he’s watched as aid dollars flow toward government, security and drug- and border-control programs, rather than programs designed to help small farmers cope with climate change
“Farmers are losing their crops,” he explained. “They need to learn new techniques for planting drought-tolerant crops, and very few organizations are providing that training.”
Under the Obama administration, Congress doubled funding to the region from $338 million in 2014 to $754 million in 2016, and began directing more funding to climate and agriculture programs, which critics said was a welcome improvement, though still inadequate.
“Central American governments, as well as the donor community, particularly USAID, have abandoned small and mid-sized agriculture for years,” said Geoff Thale, vice president of programs for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group. “If you want to address migration from rural areas, you have to address livelihoods, and that means addressing sustainability of small-farm agriculture and rural development, and those are intimately connected with climate change.”
As the effects of climate change make farming more precarious and destabilizing, the need for support is becoming more urgent.
“You’re looking at countries that are extremely fragile, and they just don’t have the resources to help their rural farming communities,” said Oliver-Leighton Barrett, a research fellow with the Center for Climate and Security. “These farmers don’t have the kind of economic resilience to weather a season with no crops. They’re usually the first casualties. They can’t feed their families. They’re going to migrate.”
Since taking office, U.S. President Donald Trump has called for slashing foreign aid in general — proposals that Congress has rejected.
In March, Trump said his administration would cut aid to Central American countries to punish them for failing to stop migration flows. (The administration isn’t legally obligated to spend the full amount of aid approved by Congress and has wide discretion on how funds are committed.) In June, the administration made the cuts official, saying it would withhold some of the funds allocated by Congress for the 2017 fiscal year and would suspend all funds Congress approved for 2018. The administration said it would also make 2019 and 2020 funds conditional.
Critics have said that any suspension of funds will only stoke migration further.
“They’re focusing on the symptoms, not the causes,” Barrett said.
For small organizations, like ACTS, the administration’s moves send a signal: They’re in this alone.
But, Seibert worries: “Are we a realistic hope?”
Nobody’s Asking to See Permits
A few miles from El Rosario, a semi-truck with a Marvin Windows & Doors logo on its side idles at the edge of the road while men load logs into the back.
Whether it’s legitimate or legal hardly matters. No one’s paying attention to the forests around El Rosario, tucked away, miles from a paved road or any major city.
For the past 10 or 15 years, maybe longer, people here have watched as loggers cut down the pine forests around them. Under law, anyone who cuts a tree needs a permit and is required to plant a replacement, but nobody’s asking to see permits. If the loggers replace the trees, most of the saplings die in the dry heat anyway.
For farmers in El Rosario, the loss of the forests around them is as much of a problem as the lack of rain and heat. In fact, the deforestation, lack of water and increasing heat are inseparable challenges, bearing down on this area with equally unforgiving force.
The vast subtropical pine forests surrounding the village, which are now seriously diminished, once helped lower temperatures, controlled erosion and created a natural irrigation system that kept rainfall from running down the hillsides and taking precious soil with it.
When that soil slides down the mountainsides, it chokes streams and rivers, slowing them to a trickle. Temperatures rise when tree cover disappears.
Honduran pine forests are under pressure on all fronts. Massive logging of pine occurred decades ago. (The country lost an estimated 30 percent of its tree cover between 1990 and 2005.) And in the following years, the pine forests were so badly managed that the newer generations of trees aren’t as desirable, lowering prices and demand. As the value of Honduran pine has declined, so has illegal or unregulated trade, simply because there’s not as much at stake financially.
“Forestry isn’t a business right now because of the illegal trade,” said René Zamora-Cristales, a research coordinator with the World Resources Institute who specializes in forestry and Latin America. “So there’s no incentive to manage the problem.”
Drug traffickers are among the culprits driving today’s deforestation, cutting huge swaths of the remaining forest to create covert landing operations or to run cattle ranches, through which they can launder money.
“Honduras has had a serious deforestation problem,” said Andrea Johnson, a consultant with the Environmental Investigation Agency which published a report on illegal logging in Honduras. “It’s a result of both industrial logging, industrial agriculture and the expansion of the farming frontier as poor, campesino farmers get pushed out of better agricultural lands by palm oil, by large ranches, into virgin forests.”
In 2014, as the drought began, a bark-munching beetle — whose presence scientists have blamed in part on warming temperatures — ravaged the forests of Honduras. The president declared a “forest emergency” while the country lost a quarter or more of its pine trees.
Around El Rosario residents say indigenous tribal leaders make deals with timber companies, who buy the trees at cut-rate prices. They never see any benefits, they say.
“The rule was simple: You cut a tree, you plant a tree,” said Gloria Castro, who has lived in the area since birth. “But now it’s only cut, cut, cut.”
Long before his stint at the textile factory in San Pedro Sula, Nelson Mejia remembers a river running through the village 35 or 40 years ago.
“We have only one-and-a-half inches of water now. In the 1980s, the river was full,” he said, explaining that tree roots hold water in the soil, which means more water in streams and rivers. “Before, people said: I’ll only cut this tree. Only this one. Then they started to cut it all.”
Dionisio Cabrera, another farmer, thinks he has at least a partial solution: Plant a tree on every child’s birthday. “After about 20 years, our community will be green,” he says, standing in the doorway of the building where the village’s farmers store their pesticides. “Plant a tree and keep track of your child and his tree. … Little by little, we will achieve it and improve the climate.”
But trees cost money, and so far no one’s planted any birthday trees.
A New Way to Farm
Inside a sprawling office space at the Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation near San Pedro Sula, a handful of El Rosarians sit around a horseshoe-shaped table. They listen as the foundation’s experts present ideas on how they might find a way to farm — to survive — in their parched valley.
Nelson Mejia describes their challenges: lack of water, erosion, poor soil. “The land never rests,” he says.
The foundation, launched with money from American fruit companies and USAID in 1984, is sprawled across an old plantation that once housed a swanky club, with a massive mahogany bar, for the bigwigs of Big Fruit — the industry that turned Honduras into the original “banana republic” in the late 1800s. The legacy of those companies is very much alive. Critics say they took the best Honduran farmland, pushing farmers into the hills, to places like El Rosario where the soil is poor, sloped and difficult to farm.
Victor Gonzales, the organization’s head of research, suggests the farmers plant drought-resistant crops, like sorghum, or plant deep-rooted crops to control erosion. They can create drainage canals to contain water in the rainy season, he says. They can rotate crops, so the soil can recover from the continuous planting of corn and beans. He shows them a “water box” — a moat of sorts — that they can place at the base of trees.
He understands, he says, that farmers in the region might be skeptical of trying anything new. “When you have nothing, risk aversion is very high,” he admits.
Mejia listens especially carefully and takes notes. It will be his job to tell everyone what the group has learned when he gets back to El Rosario.
Hours later the group piles into a pickup truck, Mejia in the cab with the water box on his lap. They begin the trip back home.
A Changed World
Two days later, Mejia stands before his neighbors and friends outside the health clinic. He knows some of them will need convincing.
He talks about new cash crops like avocados and plantains, and about crops that can survive in the heat with less water. He mentions that farmers can plant certain grasses to hold the soil in place or trees to create windbreaks. He says they can do a better job of channeling and holding on to the little rain they’ve been getting.
Dionisio Cabrera, who advocates the tree-planting plan, says new crops, diversity and technology are important, but they won’t mean much without rain.
“This community lives because of water,” he says.
After Mejia concludes, the crowd gets up and gathers into clusters, chatting and mulling what they’ve heard. Bony horses and cattle wander by. Chickens peck at the dirt. Their owners started rationing food a couple years ago.
Soon everyone leaves to make it home in time for the last of the running water, which gets turned off as a conservation measure around 6 or so every evening. Some people are talking about extending those hours because the spring was dry and hotter than normal. The drought is getting predictable.
El Rosario used to feel like a rainforest, with misty, cool nights and vapory mornings, everyone says. Now it feels like a savannah. This world has changed.
“I won’t say yet there’s a sense of hopelessness,” Seibert says. “They don’t ever give up.”
InsideClimate News reporter Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report.