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We must be careful not to confuse the impact of climate change with the impacts of history. (Photo: Getty)

We must be careful not to confuse the impact of climate change with the impacts of history. (Photo: Getty)

A Climate of Violence: Refugees and Global Warming

While we need to focus on climate change and cutting emissions of greenhouse gases we must not ignore the compelling issues of injustice and violence driving people out of Central America and elsewhere

Steve Minkin

I recently received an appeal from one of my favorite progressive organizations – with the subject line, "What do climate change and immigration have to do with each other?"

The appeal went on to connect the wild fires in California and the refugee crisis in Central America.

"As I'm writing to you, California is experiencing refugee crises at both ends of the state. At the southern border, families are seeking asylum from violence and poverty. They are sheltering in tents and being tear gassed by U.S. officials. In northern California, thousands of people who lost their homes in the Camp Fire are now living in tents and in Walmart parking lots, without adequate housing to meet the scale of this disaster."

So far a clear statement of facts but then this:

"Two of the largest humanitarian and environmental challenges facing our nation are inextricably linked. We cannot continue to ignore the devastating effects of climate change, which is causing thousands of people in Central America to flee their homes. Climate change will soon drive human migration more than any other event."

Wait, wait, wait, WAIT!!  How did the people in Central America  "seeking asylum from violence and poverty" become climate refugees?  I don’t have to be convinced about the causes and perils of  global warming but I do fear the danger of misleading ourselves into believing that everything rotten in the world today is a result of climate change.

Calling asylum seekers "climate refugees" feeds into Trump’s fear-based narrative, while reinforcing ignorance about what has been going in Central America. We must distinguish between the fears faced by refugees fleeing violence and poverty versus the xenophobia stoked by politicians.These refugees are attempting to protect their children and themselves from murderous gangs. 

Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico – all countries that have been flooded with weapons coming from the United States. These are countries where mass shooting are occurring on a daily basis. If I were to claim that climate change was the cause of gun violence in this country and that therefore the best way to fight the epidemic of mass shootings in schools and churches in America is to focus on global warming, I would hope that most readers would reject my analysis and instead focus on the proliferation of assaults weapons and the need for gun control. So why would it be any different with respect to Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico – all countries that have been flooded with weapons coming from the United States. These are countries where mass shooting are occurring on a daily basis. 

Weapons manufactured and sold in the United States are killing people North and South of the border. Gun violence in the United States and the gun violence in Honduras , El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico are inextricably linked to the refugee crisis in ways that are clear, undeniable, and supported by data-driven facts. 

I have not heard an interview with a single refugee from Central America attributing the murder of their relatives or the threats from gangs and security forces to global warming. They have more immediate concerns and it is unconscionable to move the spot light away from the real issues impacting their lives in order to convince us about the dangers of fossil fuels and the need to address global warming.

We are on a dangerously slippery slope. On the one hand, I have no doubt that environmental changes have contributed to the displacement of millions of people around the world by destroying their means of livelihood.  But most of these refugees suffered from  environmental destruction related to resource extraction for oil, metals, minerals, timber and massive agro-industrial projects. In addition, the creation of large dams and other schemes that have either flooded out communities or resulted in desertification unrelated to climate change. 

Malevolent economic forces based to what used to be called "slash and burn capitalism" are heating up the world and therefore we must get serious about the damaging effects caused by the extractions of fossil fuels that not only drive climate change but also pollute vast areas--undermining livelihoods obtained from fisheries and farming.

We must be careful not to confuse the impact of climate change with the impacts of history. The poet Pablo Neruda richly summed up the roots of the refugee crisis in Central America this way: 

“The United Fruit Company 
reserved for itself the most juicy piece, the central coast of my world, the delicate waist of America. It rechristened its territories as the 'Banana Republics’.

In Honduras, The United Fruit Company gobbled up lands in environmentally abundant regions of the country displacing subsistence farmers and small banana growers. It used US banks to finance the construction of railways to open up new lands for exploitation while handing the debt to Honduras.  This model of creating debt to US banks while exploiting national resources was woven into the fabric of development for much of Latin America during the 20th century. The US Marines invaded when people organized and objected too strongly or democratically managed to put in a government that did not fully cooperate .

In the 1970s and 1980s civil wars erupted in Guatemala , El Salvador and Nicaragua where the Somoza dictatorship was overthrown by the Sandinistas. The fear of leftist revolutions led to US support for death squads and the massive infusions of arms into the region. Support for the Contras based in Honduras led to a flood of arms in the country, while further undermining the country’s sovereignty. These wars resulted in a refugee crisis independent  of climate change.

In Honduras, the source of the largest flow of refugees, conditions dramatically worsened after a coup d'état in 2009. The military overthrew a government seeking to bring a modicum of social and economic justice to the country by introducing such measures as a minimum wage and improved land title registration. The State Department, under the leadership of Hilary Clinton, recognized the subsequent sham election in an attempt to bring stability to the country. The decision backfired. The election was followed by heightened levels of violence, corruption and control by powerful criminal syndicates .

Life became hell for the majority after the coup and sham elections, The US provided millions of dollars to the security forces to prop up the right wing Nationalist Party, which unveiled a new policy of "supporting business” and aggressively selling off the country’s rich natural resources. Life became hell for the majority after the coup and sham elections, The US provided millions of dollars to the security forces to prop up the right wing Nationalist Party, which unveiled a new policy of "supporting business” and aggressively selling off the country’s rich natural resources.  Facing widespread public hostility, the government resorted to draconian measures involving arrest, torture and murder. The economy collapsed along with the ratcheting up of violence, fear and intimidation.  Already low wages plunged amid higher unemployment. Environmental activists were slain because of their opposition to the sell-off of mining and hydroelectric concessions that threatened indigenous communities and important habitats.

None of this had to do with climate change. Death squads reappeared and the murder rate soared. By 2010, Honduras had become the most violent country in the world outside an official war zone. By 2012, under the nose of US financed security forces, South American smugglers were freely flying into Honduras, which became the launching pad for 80% of the cocaine destined for the United States.

While we need to focus on climate change and cutting emissions of greenhouse gases we must not ignore the compelling issues of injustice and violence driving people out of Central America and elsewhere. 

Both climate change and the refugee crisis are driven by violence and we need to address the reasons for both. The victims of the wars and violence in Central America are not climate refugees. They are fleeing mayhem and murder from weapons and policies made in the USA. 


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Steve Minkin

Steve Minkin

Steve Minkin is an author and poet based in southern Vermont. Over the last two decades, he has focused his attention on two issues. The first is the impact of internationally funded investments on the environment, health and livelihoods. He was present at the 4th People's Health Assembly held in Bangladesh this past November where he presented research on widespread micronutrient deficiencies in children in Bangladesh resulting from large-scale flood control projects. His other main interest has been clarifying the history of HIV/AIDS. He is currently working on a book on that subject titled “White Plague – Blood, War and the  Missing History of AIDS. ”

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