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Kevin ClarkeDecember 11, 2023

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

Near the border with El Salvador in the department of La Paz, Honduras, the village of Los Hornos is well named. In Los Hornos—“the ovens”—with the midday sun blazing overhead, the heat seems to rise from the earth to envelop everything.

Small farmers here in the middle of Central America’s dry corridor, a mountainous region running from Costa Rica through El Salvador and Honduras to Guatemala, are almost totally reliant on rainfall to water their crops. Sowing and harvesting once followed what has long been the clockwork schedule of the dry corridor’s wet and dry seasons.

In recent years, those seasons have grown dramatically less reliable. Rains come too soon and too heavy, flooding fields; or they do not come at all, leaving the subsistence crops that farmers rely on to feed their families to scorch in the sun.

But on this hot afternoon in late March the farmers of Los Hornos are gathered in a shady, communal meeting place to show off a previously unimaginable abundance: a table crowded with recently harvested corn and beans—two staples of the diet here—but also peppers, plantains, sugar cane, malanga, melon and even pineapple.

A string of crises that have made life in Honduras miserable for its poorest citizens: Covid-19, drought conditions followed by torrential rains. “We have been very affected, very damaged.”

A PVC-pipe irrigation network liberated many of the farmers in this small community from an absolute reliance on rainfall. And as conditions in the dry corridor grow even drier, the farmers of Los Hornos are learning new techniques to conserve water, preserve the soil and protect their crops. Many hope that adopting new farming techniques and technology will save more than just crops; it will help them to stay on their farms and with their families in this Lenca Indigenous community.

“Climate change for me is synonymous with migration,” says Miguel Flores, a senior technical adviser for Catholic Relief Services in Honduras. Farmers here have increasingly experienced floods and droughts over the last three decades, as the climate has become more capricious, Mr. Flores says. He has worked for nearly 40 years on sanitation and water-smart agriculture and helped build the irrigation network used in Los Hornos.

A study published in October backs up his assessment. Looking at data between 2012 and 2018, researchers from the University of Utah and the University of Texas at Austin confirmed that unusually dry conditions during growing seasons led to significant migration spikes—1.7 times higher than usual—from Honduras and other dry corridor states of Central America.

The intervention by Catholic Relief Services in Los Hornos allows the village’s farmers to eat better themselves, generate income and lead more dignified lives. Its young people may begin to imagine lives fulfilled in Honduras instead of dreaming of North America.

The ability to stay put, within a community, did not happen in years past during periods of drought, Mr. Flores says. “When they didn’t have irrigation, almost the entire community [of Los Hornos] went out to look for work in other areas,” Mr. Flores says, “and now they don’t. They work in their own community.”

Migration follows drought

In the mountainside community of Aguanqueterique, Ronny Figueroa is something of an agricultural entrepreneur. He has converted his small mountainside parcels into a vibrant living laboratory of agricultural adaptation to drier conditions. That flexibility is part of the reason he has been able to remain on the land, when so many others have long since departed.

Small farmers in Central America’s dry corridor are almost totally reliant on rainfall to water their crops. As those rains become less reliable because of climate change, crop failures and then migration are the results.

He can list a string of crises that have made life in Honduras miserable for its poorest citizens: Covid-19, drought conditions followed by torrential rains, the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020. “We have been very affected, very damaged,” he says. “Our families have suffered. Many have lost their loved ones.”

“I have lived it; many families have lived it,” he says. Hondurans decide to emigrate “because they lost their homes…. Their assets were [gone] like this,” he says, snapping his fingers, “like nothing.”

A farmer surveys his corn field in Honduras
Ronny Figueroa surveys a drip-irrigated corn field.

Many farmers in Honduras use their parcels as collateral for loans that allow them to pay for agricultural inputs needed to launch a typical growing season: seed, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. A failed harvest because conditions are too wet or too dry or too both means more than going hungry; it means losing the land.

And that means saying goodbye to your family to head to the cities or a larger farm operation for work, or failing to find any work in Honduras and heading north. The farmers then need to earn cash to have any hope of reclaiming their land from predatory lenders. (C.R.S. has begun a micro-lending program, Savings and Internal Lending Communities, to help prevent small farmers from falling into these finance traps.)

Hondurans typically rank among the nationalities most encountered by the U.S. Border Patrol each year. In the 2023 fiscal year, more than 214,000 Hondurans crossed the border without authorization, behind top-ranked Mexico (717,000), Venezuela (266,000) and Guatemala (220,000).

After a fact-finding mission to Honduras at the end of September, Ian Fry, a special rapporteur for the United Nations, concluded that Honduras is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the effects of climate change. Mr. Fry visited one village where communal wells had dried up. He reported that 80 percent of the community had emigrated. People experiencing such climate-related dislocations, he argues, represent a new kind of forced migration and deserve the same status and protections typically afforded refugees from conflict or political oppression.

Many have departed to seek jobs in the cities, but there are few jobs to be had in Honduras. Over 50 percent of the population contends with extreme poverty; underemployment has hovered above 60 percent since 2015.

Mr. Fry also noted a lack of meaningful intervention from the government in Tegucigalpa. “It is very evident that the effects of climate change were not taken into account in the development strategies by the previous government,” he said in his report, adding that the current administration has so far likewise proven unable to address these challenges.

In November 2022, Xiomara Castro—the wife of the former president Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed in a coup in 2009—was elected president of Honduras. Her victory raised expectations that the central government would finally do more to assist the nation’s subsistence farmers and address the root causes of migration, but Ms. Castro has so far been unable to refocus the government’s lumbering bureaucracy.

Nery García describes his highland community of El Cedro in La Paz as “abandoned” by the government. “One government goes and another government comes in and for the Honduran everything remains the same,” he says, fed up with politics even as many other poor Hondurans believe that Ms. Castro represents at least the possibility of change.

On a tour of his small parcel, he frequently expresses his gratitude to Catholic Relief Services and funders from the U.S. Agency for International Development for the technical and material support he has received. It is clear that he understands how reliant El Cedro has become on these outside forces.

Why does he stay when so many others have left? “First, my family,” Mr. García says. “The most beautiful gift in my life is my family, and this place where I live, the house where I live.”

He is standing on the small porch of a two-room, wood slat house. Above its tin roof, a thin line of smoke emerges from a smokestack coming from the wood-burning fogón inside, the oven and grill that dominates the main cooking and living room of the García home, separated by a cloth screen from the family bedroom.

One powerful global voice promoting a comprehensive perspective has been Pope Francis through his pronouncements on a just economy, the climate change emergency and human migration.

“It is not very dignified,” he adds quickly, as if to acknowledge the comparable luxury of North American homes, “but that is the lot of many Hondurans.” Electricity and plumbing would help make the home a better place, but his family is healthy, he says, even if life here, “without comforts,” can be difficult.

A Honduran farmer outside his home
Nery García outside his home

The García home is charmingly improved by a flower and vegetable garden emerging alongside it, a shady and colorful presence. The small homestead is surrounded by bean fields, fed by a drip irrigation system set up with help from C.R.S. The agency administered a program to build a communal reservoir in El Cedro that delivers stored water to the farmers when they need it. A short distance away, Mr. García—like 100,000 other small producers in Honduras—is also growing a few acres of coffee, though this year’s crop has already been staggered by an irregular rainy season that started too dry and has now become too wet and cold.

Many neighbors have departed to seek jobs in the cities, but there are few jobs of any sort to be had in Honduras, he says. Over 50 percent of the population contends with extreme poverty and an underemployment rate that has hovered above 60 percent since 2015. It spiked to 82 percent during the Covid-19 crisis. That is partly why some of Mr. García’s neighbors have journeyed north, he says, though few of them understand what dangers they will face along the way and what kind of welcome awaits them when they reach the United States.

“It is illegal,” he says, nodding somberly and casting a glance to his visitors, as if seeking to confirm the current U.S. position.

How can we promote rootedness?

Honduras is an area of “high climatic risks,” says Gina Castillo, senior climate policy advisor for Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore. “You have a lot of drought, but then you also have the additional dimensions of poverty and [economic and political] insecurity.” The issues intertwine, leading to the phenomenon of population displacement and movement, she says.

Ms. Castillo worries that those dots are not always connected in Washington, where policymakers operate out of ideological silos, focusing on border security or economic development or climate change as individual problems but not as interrelated phenomena.

It is only right that the United States, historically the greatest contributor to the problem of climate change, should take a leading role in addressing its impact.

One powerful global voice promoting a comprehensive perspective has been Pope Francis, she says, through his pronouncements on a just economy, the climate change emergency and human migration. His notions of integral ecology and integral economics cut through a confusion of nationalistic, often self-serving approaches to climate change and migration. In the encyclical “Laudato Si’” and the recent exhortation “Laudate Deum,” he challenges policymakers and consumers, particularly those in the United States, to make the connections—to consider how consumption-driven lifestyles, economic and climate justice, and migration policy interrelate.

A respiratory infection prevented Pope Francis from attending COP28 in Dubai as he had originally intended. But in “Ladaute Deum,” he urged that attendees of this multilateral conference on climate change work toward securing significant practical commitments to respond to the phenomenon.

In the pope’s address to the conference, read in his stead by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, on Dec. 2, Pope Francis reiterated a sense of urgency for a meaningful response from the global community. “The task to which we are called today is not about yesterday, but about tomorrow: a tomorrow that, whether we like it or not, will belong to everyone or else to no one,” the pope wrote in his address.

He reminded the conference that “the poor are the real victims of what is happening: We need think only of the plight of Indigenous peoples, deforestation, the tragedies of hunger, water and food insecurity, and forced migration.”

The pope issues a call, says Ms. Castillo, to respond not in charity but in justice to the plight of growers in countries like Honduras, people with limited options and resources contending with vast economic and environmental forces not of their making. Hondurans contribute less than 0.05 percent to annual global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a U.N. study, but its people suffer significant hardship and dislocation because of climate change.

“The pope says the decision to migrate should always be free, but I don’t think people [in Honduras] are making that decision freely,” Ms. Castillo says. “People don’t want to leave their homes, their communities—all their ties. They’re forced to leave. Climate change will make it harder for them to stay, so the question should be: How can we promote rootedness?”

In a dryer future Honduras’s urban dwellers and its subsistence farmers may be pitted against each other, while big, water-hungry farmers are rewarded with international funding for large development adventures.

Mr. Figueroa was once among those who headed north to work in the United States. He tells you frankly, he arrived without documentation and was eventually deported after he was detained by U.S. immigration officers in North Dakota. But he thanks God for that encounter, sure that it saved him and his family.

Two Honduran children play in a family garden
Nery and Norma García's daughter Emelilaticia (right) enjoys the family garden with a friend.

Like Mr. García, he is now determined to avoid another perilous migration north for work. His resolution is partly divinely inspired. Mr. Figueroa was seriously injured after his deportation. While working as a bricklayer in Tegucigalpa he hit a live wire and fell from scaffolding. He thought he was dying and in those moments he knew he never wanted to be parted from his wife and children again.

“I asked the Lord to forgive me: ‘Give me one more chance at life, Lord, and I promise to serve you.’ When I spoke these words to the Lord in my agony, I felt that he heard me, that he forgave me and said, ‘Of course, yes.’”

When Mr. Figueroa recovered, he was approached by Mr. Flores about creating an irrigation network that would circulate water among the hillside farmers of Aguanqueterique. Try to tell him that was just a coincidence.

His previous work as a laborer in the United States had prepared him to build and maintain that irrigation system. Now “I don’t even dream of going [to the United States] again,” he says, “because here is my life.”

“God has blessed me,” he says. “The Lord has done something so great, something so beautiful and wonderful. He fulfills his word, and he says, ‘You take care of my things and I will worry about yours.’ And I’m seeing that. I’m seeing that in my home, in my family, and I am grateful to God for all the blessings that he showers on our home.”

Some development programs end after just one or two years; others fall out of favor for mysterious reasons thousands of miles away and are abruptly terminated.

He describes C.R.S.’s local partner, Raíces (Restorative Agriculture in Communities for Economic Sustainability) as a different kind of life savior for him, his family and his community. The irrigation system built with technical support from Raíce has allowed him to grow without dependence on rainfall and to diversify his crop.

Now in addition to staples like corn and beans and coffee plants, Mr. Figueroa’s parcels feature rows of bananas, peppers and tomatoes. He has even created fish ponds to raise tilapia. He grows not only enough for his family to eat but a bounty to take to the market.

Other farmers come to him for advice and assistance. His neighbors buy food from him instead of walking hours to the nearest market town in this inaccessible region. The Figueroa family live in comparable comfort; their children seem to lack for nothing. His teenage son does not talk about emigration to the north but about his dream of becoming a soccer star in Honduras.

The dilemma of donor priorities

The irrigation network in Aguanqueterique cost just $1,600, a small investment that has a huge impact on small growers in Honduras, but it is not the kind of project that will attract the attention of big donors when officials from Tegucigalpa seek assistance in Brussels or Washington. That is a pity, Mr. Flores says.

He worries that in a dryer future Honduras’s urban dwellers and its subsistence farmers will be pitted against each other, while big, water-hungry farmers are rewarded with international funding for large development adventures that will not help the most vulnerable. The construction of land-hungry dams, for example, is likely to lead to even greater dislocation among them.

The donors and functionaries running the development N.G.O.s “have to change,” Mr. Flores says. Too often he has seen promising efforts extinguished because short-term funding was not enough to build sustainable momentum.

“The pope reminds us that we have one planet, one common home, and that we’ve got something called global solidarity. Climate change is not a problem that one country can solve [alone].”

Some programs end after just one or two years; others fall out of favor for mysterious reasons thousands of miles away and are abruptly terminated, he says. A new administration in Washington can topple years of progress as personalities and funding priorities suddenly shift.

He calls the current delivery of humanitarian aid “bread today, hunger tomorrow” because it does not lead to structural, sustainable changes.

A farmer stands by a reservoir in Honduras
Warehousing water in El Cedro, Honduras

Not that he wants that aid flow to stop. “I think it is necessary, but it is not the solution,” he says. “The families themselves in the countryside say, ‘We no longer want paternalism; we no longer want to continue getting by because things are being given to us.” The people, he explains, want to be the authors of their own futures.

Autogestion is the word that Mr. García uses, describing a partnership he hopes to see between Honduran farmers and donors from North America. He means a system where the farmers get support but can set and respond to their own priorities.

At the same time, Mr. García asks North Americans to continue to support Hondurans. “They can trust us; we are good people,” he says. “We just need the doors to be opened for us and to be given a little support so that we can stay here and manage our own affairs.”

The kinds of changes Mr. Flores contemplates require “a direct relationship between the community and the institutions that have the financing.”

“It’s not doing projects from an office,” he says, “but with the community.”

That ‘good solidarity’

So far the Biden administration’s efforts to slow migration from the Northern Triangle states of Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—have focused primarily on government reform and creating more jobs in the regional private sector. But to really improve rootedness, Washington will have to contend with the impact of climate change; about 40 percent of Hondurans are subsistence farmers. Mr. Flores says if development architects in Washington sincerely want to make a difference in Honduras and at the Mexico border, they should help him create 10,000 more Ronny Figueroas.

It is only right that the United States, historically the greatest contributor to the problem of climate change, should take a leading role in addressing its impact, says Ms. Castillo. It is also a practical and self-serving response for the nation. Climate change is not a problem affecting people somewhere else, she says, “but in our own backyard.”

“The pope reminds us that we have one planet, one common home, and that we’ve got something called global solidarity,” Ms. Castillo says. “Climate change is not a problem that one country can solve [alone].”

The assistance from Catholic Relief Services has made a world of difference to Mr. García. It has helped him pay for seed, fertilizer and other costly inputs, confirming an intuition that it is better to stay in Honduras than accept the risks of migration. But it is the irrigation project that has done the most to create stability in his life, allowing him to manage multiple harvests this year.

Mr. García is confident that with just a little help, most Honduran farmers would be happy, like him, to remain in their communities with their families. “Why would someone go, if there is an institution that is supporting him?” he asks.

Mr. Figueroa is full of gratitude for the people of the United States he perceives supporting him through C.R.S., the “good solidarity” they are showing him and his community.

“I ask that the Lord continue to give them that good heart to keep supporting these Honduran families, who need it so much, and we thank them very much,” he says.

But the many blessings and gifts he is so grateful for depend in the end on the river, where the irrigation network begins. Mr. Figueroa has been keeping track of water levels in recent years and noticed an alarming decline. He is pondering how to respond if the river fails and its waters dry up. And he has already come to the realization that because of climate change, he can no longer take that resource for granted.

Kevin Clarke reported from Honduras as a participant in the Catholic Relief Services’ 2023 Climate Change Journalism Fellowship. You can find more reporting from around the United States and around the world in America’s Dispatches section.

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