Conor Walsh

Anyone who wants to know why record numbers of Central American migrants have pushed toward the southern U.S. border in recent months should meet beleaguered coffee farmer Alonso Benitez in western Honduras.

I work with subsistence farmers like Alonso, many of whom are being driven from their homes by failed harvests due to environmental degradation and changing weather patterns.

Families in the “dry corridor” of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador lost up to 80 percent of their corn and bean crops in both the first and second harvest seasons of 2018 because of drought, according to a December field assessment conducted by my organization, Catholic Relief Services.

In Guatemala alone, 300,000 subsistence farmers reported crop loss because of low rainfall at the end of the year, according to media reports. Food shortages have now reached crisis levels in some parts of Guatemala and will continue through the summer, according to the Famine Early Systems Warning Network. It’s no surprise that the large majority of recent migrants to the southern border were from the rural western highlands of Guatemala, as reported by the U.S. government.

Farmers’ problems also are compounded by the rock-bottom prices they often receive for their coffee beans. The coffee harvest has just ended in Central America, and the combination of reduced yields and low prices were a one-two punch in the gut to families.

These are poor families who depend on their crops for food. Gang violence often spurs city dwellers in Central America to flee and to migrate north to the United States. But for many people living in rural areas, looming hunger is a primary motivation to leave their farms and seek opportunity elsewhere.

Policy makers in Washington often draw attention to immigration along the southern border. But unfavorable changes in weather patterns, and resulting crop losses, have largely been downplayed as root causes of the exodus of Central American families.

In fact, a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that our government recently rescinded an existing directive that federal agencies study the potential impact of climate change on migration. Not only that, for the third year in a row, the administration has proposed slashing U.S. foreign aid. The President’s FY 2020 budget calls for a 24 percent cut. This could make an already deteriorating situation in Central America even worse.

Foreign aid has helped thousands of Central American families stay on their land by adapting to the challenges of climate change. Using U.S. humanitarian assistance funding, organizations like mine help Central American farmers learn how to retain moisture and build fertility in their soil to avoid slash-and-burn farming, to diversify crops and other conservation practices. Many farmers have thrived by incorporating such practices, increasing their production and profits substantially, while simultaneously reversing environmental degradation of fields.

But investments in these kinds of interventions are woefully inadequate to reach the hundreds of thousands of farm families who are facing the harsh realities of more frequent droughts and changing rainfall patterns.

Addressing the migrant crisis on our border starts 1,000 miles south with more funding to help people thrive in their home communities. Central American farmers need alternatives to caravans, including practices that help them care for their soil so that it yields better harvests in the future.

As a nation, we must take the long view and provide a hand up to the world’s neediest. In the process, we get a remarkable return on investment, including reduced hunger, violence, poverty, and the resulting pressure to migrate. And it may make it easier for people like Alonso Benitez to remain on his coffee farm.

Conor Walsh is the country representative for Catholic Relief Services in Honduras.