This is the third in a series by Bec Sloane, spotlighting experiences of migrant farmworkers in the U.S. amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Social justice and attending to the planet proceed in parallel; the abuse of one entails the exploitation of the other.
- Paul Hawken, “Blessed Unrest”
In a new year, a world stunned by crises remains shaken, its systems undone and notes scattered. It’s a time ripe for the reorganization of rooms and a rewriting of narratives.
Climate and migration: our treatment of the planet is linked to our treatment of the people, and to burn one is to scar the other. While doomsday scenarios are little help, biting depictions may be the jolt we need to snap out of our trance.
So let’s drop one hand from our eyes, and fully realize the might of that big, burning star.
Looking out our window and opening the door.
The U.S.-Mexico border continues to coldly determine the fates of hundreds of thousands. While many cite violence as ignition for the migrations north, the boss dictating who stays and goes may in fact be climate.
“By denying the reality of climate change and taking a hard-line approach to migration, the Trump administration [showed] its unwillingness to address the root causes of migration in the Americas.”
Conversely, President Biden in his first day in office has signed six executive orders on immigration and two on climate change, and could potentially be the first U.S. president to prioritize action on climate migration.
Extreme weather events are diminishing yields, livelihoods and food access throughout the Northern Triangle, where such scenarios breed poverty and tempt corruption. Approaches like the “Remain in Mexico” policy abandon asylum-seekers to true vulnerability.
Refugees fleeing these crises ought to be as prioritized and protected as political asylum seekers, as “these phenomena interact and tend to exacerbate each other.”
Exposed en route, exploited upon arrival.
The journey, the unlikely warm welcome and the conditions once settled are all ridden with threats to the health and safety of migrant families. Those trekking north travel light, insufficiently shielded from the elements. Others, who’ve found work on U.S. farms, are subjected to the same.
The average agricultural worker experiences nearly a month’s worth of working amid unsafe temperatures per year. In the face of COVID-19 and wildfires, the fields this past summer were more menacing than ever before.
Global warming won’t be quelled within the week, but policy makers, commercial growers and pesticide companies can be held to greater scrutiny. As consumers, we have power to question, hold accountable, demand transparency.
We have our own problems to deal with. Don’t we?
The U.S. already has its own climate-migrants, those uprooted as a result of natural disasters or unforgiving weather patterns. Along our coasts, communities are chased from their homes by hurricanes, floods and fires.
By recognizing climate variability - and furthermore its shared path with zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 - alongside climate migration as causes for concern, we can begin to alter the algorithms of our deeply-rooted systems.
Already supported by Vice President Kamala Harris, the Climate Displaced Persons Act is a pioneering piece of legislation explicitly defining climate migrants and acknowledging our country’s legal responsibility to welcome them. This could mean up to 50,000 environmentally-displaced people taken in by the U.S. each year.
Intriguingly, the bill also acknowledges the U.S.’ role in worsening the climate crisis. It aims to develop a resiliency strategy helping improve environments in other countries, thereby preventing mass migration.
This would set a significant example, offering the baton to other wealthy countries with their own obligations to step up.
“The land is turning against them.”
For those who struggle to accept weather crises as threats to be taken as seriously as gang violence, or who downplay the role farming has in making or breaking a region, instances of imperiled communities need to be brought into light.
In Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, the rising frequency of El Niños are running families and livelihoods into the ground with an onslaught of drought and flooding, making it impossible to bring any crops to yield and rapidly draining finances. Half the children in this region are chronically malnourished; Indigenous peoples, largely dependent on the land, are thrust into poverty.
“Maybe a family member is sick. Maybe they are trying to make up for losses from the previous year. But in every situation,” insists Guatemalan forestry expert Yarsinio Palacios, “it has something to do with climate change.”
Unfurling a new map to chart our future.
In a novel, collaborative effort to model how migrations occur across borders, The New York Times Magazine, ProPublica and the Pulitzer Center were able to better observe the scale of- and forces driving climate migration.
Reporter Abrahm Lustgarten emphasizes the need for food and the role of governments in shaping the outcomes of these movements. He echoes warnings by the UN that the nations being hit hardest by climate change “could topple as whole regions devolve into war.”
If governments respond even modestly in reducing emissions, the number of climate migrants between now and 2050 would be nearly halved. “The model shows that the political responses to both climate change and migration can lead to drastically different futures.”
Bec Sloane is a visual arts professional and educator pivoting into the agroecological sphere. Through research, collaboration and content creation, she is building bridges to foster fruitful communications between the general public and those working in the agricultural and environmental sectors.
Photo credit: Marvin Recinos