Climate Change Forces Mexican Farmers to Migrate

  • The hands of a Mexican immigrant who left his farm in Chiapas, Mexico, because it was no longer productive. He is now living and working in Pittsburgh, Pa. Photo: Ashley Murray

  • A Royal United Services Institute study concluded that environmental conditions cause by climate change are increasingly factoring into migrants' decisions to leave. Photo courtesy RUSI Whitehall

  • The drought map included in the latest draft of the National Climate Assessment predicts droughts will become more common over the next century. Photo courtesy U.S. Global Change Research Program

March 28, 2014
First published May 10, 2013

In a café in a Pittsburgh suburb, a Mexican man in his 50s explains that his family farm in Chiapas, a southern Mexican state, would no longer produce. He chose not to reveal his identity for fear of immigration authorities.

“Long ago, we were able to plant more, but now the corn doesn’t grow as much. The plant doesn’t provide as much as it used to,” he said, through a translator.

The man left Mexico to find work in the United States. Today, he’s working a cleaning job at a movie theater and sending money home to his family members, who still live in Chiapas.

This is just one account of many. For a century, migration for economic opportunities has been a strong trend in Mexican culture.

A 2009 study entitled Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios Project found that climate-related scenarios—like increased hurricanes and tropical storms, soil degradation, and deforestation—have factored into many Chiapans’ decisions to leave. The study was funded by the European Commission and is one of many reports exploring the topic of climate change and migration.

In a report published in January, co-author Elizabeth Deheza wrote that Mexicans’ decisions to migrate are becoming more heavily influenced by environmental factors. "The environmental changes continue to effect Mexico. The average temperature is expected to rise up to 4 degrees [Celsius] by the end of the century," she said in February at a panel discussion at The Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Average precipitation is expected to decrease by 11 percent, she said. These numbers illustrate a change in climate that can affect a family's access to food and work, particularly in weather-sensitive jobs like farming, she said.

Mexico is just one of the countries where researchers are examining connections between climate change and migration.

The United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security has partnered with CARE International, a nongovernmental organization, to study the way climate affects populations in eight countries, including Bangladesh, Peru, and Ghana. The results of their study, "Where the Rain Falls," include case studies in each country and maps of average rainfall and types of crops grown regionally.

Koko Warner, one of the study’s researchers, found that while wealthier families can use migration to diversify their livelihoods, poorer families, particularly those with low skill levels, typically cannot.

“What we were concerned to find is that when [poor families] have trouble with the weather, they also use migration, but they do so in ways that erode their base,” Warner said.

One example of this trend is illustrated in Ghana, she said, an area that is highly dependent on rainfall and experiencing erratic seasons. Heads of households of farming families there are leaving during the growing season just to take a chance on finding money elsewhere, Warner said.

Still, exactly how climate influences a person’s decision to migrate is tough to dissect.

“It’s not always easy to distinguish the climate impact from economic pull and push factors,” said Michael Wertz, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. 

He studies the ways climate change, migration, and security intermingle. His organization is talking to representatives around the world to determine what exactly to call people in this situation—environmental refugees, climate migrants, etc. The bigger question, he said, is to determine what protections are available for them.

“This is still an emerging field of research,” he said. “But if you take a step back and ask yourself, ‘Should we be concerned about this from a policy standpoint?’ the answer is a resounding yes.”

Some estimates say that tens or even hundreds of millions of people might have to move across borders or internally because of severe climate changes.

The United Nations estimates there will be 50 million “environmental refugees” by 2020. A 2010 report by Princeton University researchers predicted that future crop failure in Mexico could lead to millions spilling over the U.S.-Mexico border.

Geoff Dabelko of Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Environmental Studies said that the bigger issue for the U.S. lies within its own borders.

“Climate change impacts in the United States have big implications for economics, for agriculture, for jobs. I think most of those are impacts that would be felt here in the United States and might be separate from questions of cross border migration,” he said.

Dabelko cited the latest draft of the National Climate Assessment by the U.S. Global Change Research Program to explain that areas of the country are facing predictions of fiercer wildfire seasons, disappearing coastlines, pest problems, and long-term drought. He said all of these could lead to people moving from one region to another within the U.S.

For now though, the U.S. is proving to be a more profitable place for the one-time farmer from Mexico.

“I want to be here maybe one more or two more years. But when I lived in Florida, that’s what I said. And, it’s been eight years now,” he said. “Only God knows how much time I’ll be here.”