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Climate change has emerged as an increasingly forceful driver of migration in Latin America, one that exacerbates the humanitarian crisis for people fleeing social, economic and political instability. Mayors in the region cited this collision of migrations as a top concern at the recent Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver, as some cities absorb new residents they are ill-equipped to support, while others struggle to retain population.
Rising temperatures and extreme weather stand to increase the number of displaced families not only by making entire neighborhoods vulnerable to disaster, but also by threatening food and water security — and upending people’s livelihoods. In some cases, some of the most socioeconomically vulnerable migrants end up moving from one risky area to another.
“Where do they find a home? They encroach on areas that are the most vulnerable to climate change,” said Mayor Jaime Pumarejo of Barranquilla, Colombia.
The port city is a popular destination for migrants and refugees displaced by political instability, with a tenth of its population made up of people who migrated in just the last three years. Many fleeing political violence in Venezuela have ended up moving to informal settlements that are susceptible to storm surges and sea level rise, he said.
In a 2022 report from the Mixed Migration Centre examining migrant reception and inclusion in the city, 65% of over 300 migrants surveyed reported living in informal housing, and 44% cited the lack of financial resources as a barrier to finding formal shelter.
Pumarejo, who also serves on advocacy groups like Climate Migration Council and the Mayors Migration Council, spoke to Bloomberg CityLab at the Denver summit, where USAID announced a $1 million investment to help cities across the Latin America and Caribbean region find solutions to climate migration. They include creating green jobs, reducing displacement and moving migrants out of risk-prone areas.
As in many places, rapid urbanization and population growth have driven the expansion of Barranquilla’s informal housing developments, with some of the riskiest communities located along the river. “These are areas that are near the coast that often experience flooding and landslides,” said Pumarejo. Density, shoddy structures and a lack of basic infrastructure in these neighborhoods further exacerbate its climate vulnerability.
“We just had, in Barranquilla, the highest precipitation [level] in our history last year, and we expect that next year we’re going to have a severe drought,” he said, adding the size of the city’s informal settlements will only continue to grow as these events displace more people. That in turn, further encroaches on the region’s forests, worsening the impacts of climate change. “In a sense, the biggest threat to biodiversity and our forests in Latin America is not mining of oil and gas — it’s illegal agriculture, it’s illegal mining [of minerals], and it’s illegal housing,” he said.
Among Pumarejo’s top climate priorities is preserving what’s left of the surrounding natural environment and implementing adaptation measures. That includes efforts to restore the city’s marshlands and mangrove forests, which can protect the coastline from strong winds, floods and coastal erosion.
Pumarejo also emphasized the need to put migrants on a “road map to employment” and “self-sustainability” to help them move out of vulnerable areas. The majority of migrants surveyed by the Mixed Migration Centre reported securing only informal employment in Barranquilla, and not earning enough to cover basic household needs. More than 80% cited lacking documents like a diploma or employment records as a barrier to finding steady jobs, and 55% cited the lack of opportunities.
The same initiatives to protect the city against climate change can help and preserve and create job opportunities, Pumarejo said. Restoring marshland can help preserve livelihoods of fishermen, for example, and adding urban parks can create space for local markets to flourish. “No less important is making sure that these people who come to our city find inclusion, so that they become part of the economic motor — and, therefore, are not a burden,” he said.
Population Loss in La Palma
The impacts of climate change have played out differently in La Palma, a small mountainous town in El Salvador where farmers — like many across Central America — have been migrating elsewhere as extreme rain and drought devastate their harvest. Many have left for the capital, San Salvador, while others have crossed over to the US, leading to a rapid population loss, said Mayor Maribel Escobar through an interpreter at the Denver summit.
Her main challenge now is convincing residents to stay by helping them find jobs in La Palma’s other sectors, namely tourism and the production of local crafts, which include wood and copinol seeds painted in the town’s distinct Naïf style.
She’s also established programs that teach job-related skills, including English as a second language, for dozens of young people that could either help attract foreign companies to the city, or enable them to start their own business. But she says she needs to secure more funding for such initiatives, and seed capital to help program participants establish their businesses.
At the same time, Escobar acknowledges that to retain people, the city also has to upgrade basic services like their water infrastructure. La Palma relies on the Lempa River, which provides water to over a million people across three countries, but is heavily polluted by inadequate waste management in nearby urban centers.
“There is no treatment for the water we use, and that also affects agricultural production,” she said. Her other top priority is to install a water treatment plant, which will cost at least $40 million.
Escobar will soon run for re-election, and the outcome will affect how much of her goals she can accomplish. “There is a big risk that all this will be a waste of time and effort if nobody continues looking for those opportunities,” she said, “especially in terms of the environment.”
Linda Poon is a writer for CityLab in Washington, D.C., focused on climate change and urban life. She also writes the CityLab Daily newsletter.