How Can We Reduce Migration Out of Central America?

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Last week on Colorado Public Radio, I heard about a Pew Research Center study on U.S. immigration from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — an area known as the Northern Triangle. The study shows that while annual immigration to the U.S. from Mexico fell by 5% after the Great Recession, migration from the Northern Triangle rose by almost 30% during that same period.

Most of this migration is attributed to a lack of economic opportunity, political instability, or the threat of violence that chronically affects the region. But peeling the layers back from these conclusions reveals other culprits, with severe implications for the future.

Roughly 60% Central Americans now live in cities, and this number is expected to grow to over 70% during the next few decades. Overcrowded cities force newcomers to live in marginal neighborhoods that lack basic services and business opportunities, and which are all but governed by organized gangs. The inherent challenges encountered in these harsh urban environments lead to the more visible outbound migration — to Mexico, the U.S., or beyond.

Improving the lives of people living in rural areas of Central America can reduce the pressures caused by migration to cities.

The second concern raised by this trend is that as more people arrive in cities, food-producing regions of the country become depopulated. Traditional agriculture is not supporting rural populations while shifting weather patterns, crop diseases, depleted soils, and poor market access are driving the next generation of farmers to throw in the towel and leave the countryside.

Rural farm communities, most of them indigenous, are the de facto stewards of their watersheds, the producers of food for urban centers, and the last line of defense against industries (mining, timber, hydropower, etc.) that seek access to land and natural resources. Making life in rural areas more livable by diversifying agricultural production, rebuilding soils with agroforestry, and helping create new, sustainable sources of income is a practical and cost-effective way to slow outbound migration. These strategies can breathe life back into ailing Central American rural communities and the ecosystems they depend on.

International Director, Gemara Gifford (right), works closely with our partners in rural communities in Central America, like local leader Doña Norma (left), to improve life through sustainable alternatives.

While the current debate on immigration here in the U.S. focuses on migrants once they make to our border, there are far too few questions being asked about why people leave in the first place. It may be more difficult to change the political environment or the macro economies of these countries, but keeping rural communities thriving is one way that TWP can contribute to future stability and sustainability in the region and another way that your support can create real and lasting impact.

By donating to Trees, Water & People, you can help rural communities in Central America build more resilient futures. 

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A Third Proposal to the Border Crisis

fuelwood central america

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

Sometime in 2006 I stopped for gas as night fell close to the Palmerola U.S. military base in Central Honduras, and a man approached me from the highway. The man explained that he had just arrived from being deported from the U.S., and asked if I could spare some funds for him to catch a bus home to Northern Honduras – I gave him the equivalent of $0.50, and he thanked me and moved on. This was my first direct exposure to the impending crisis that has now reached astoundingly unsustainable levels in Central America.

This was the same year that Mexico escalated its drug war against narcotraffickers in that country, squeezing many of the lucrative drug routes out of the country and into Central America, seeking to take advantage of notoriously weak institutions, chronic poverty and the second biggest contiguous jungle in the Americas after the Amazon. Since then, murder rates from narco and gang activity in Honduras have tripled, deforestation rates have quintupled, and roughly 90% of the cocaine flights headed to U.S. markets have made Honduras their first stop.

Last week the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador met with U.S. political leaders in Washington D.C. to discuss the massive growth in migration to the U.S. from these countries, which has almost tripled in the past 10 years based on deportation rates. Now on the table are two politically contentious proposals – one is to increase U.S. counter-narcotics activities in the country, akin to the incredibly costly military pushes in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, and the other is to extend refugee status to thousands of fleeing Hondurans, which some argue would increase the flow of migrants, not stem it.  Neither are ideal. Neither address the root of the problem.  Neither will come easily or without loss of additional life.

For 16 years, Trees, Water & People has been working in Central America to improve environmental stewardship, economic opportunities and quality of life in marginalized communities. The people fleeing the region are the relatives, neighbors and friends of the communities that we have worked with and supported through these years, and with them they take the potential to develop and heal their country from the inside. The programs that TWP implements are a third proposal to the current border crisis – creating the conditions under which people want to stay and seek a sustainable future in their country, rather than take the colossal risk and cost of traveling the long road north.

Your support makes these programs possible, and contributes to the potential for a sustainable future in Central America. To all those who have donated to Trees, Water & People’s programs in the past, know that you have an advocate in this current crisis, and know that we are working tirelessly to expand alternatives to migration for the tens of thousands of Central Americans we reach every year.  Thank you.