Where do immigrants come from? Many are fleeing environmental disasters in their homelands-acts of God compounded by growing population, poverty, and corporate greed.
By Mary Jo McConahay
In the dry, deep-East Texas town of Nacogdoches, Jairo M. usually spends seven days a
week on his assembly-line job, fast-tying the splayed legs of slaughtered chickens and
whipping them onto a revolving ring above his head, filling every third passing hook. On a
recent Sunday afternoon, however, he sat quietly in his rented room among a dozen
bungalows near La Nana Creek, gazing through a screen door into a shared yard filled with
the music of ranchero songs and croaking frogs. But Jairo couldn't relax. "Here if
there's a day off," he said, "you worry about home."
Jairo, 23, is an environmental refugee. He is among the millions, mostly from
developing countries, who are forced from their homelands each year by flood, drought,
hurricane, earthquake, volcanic eruption, or other calamities. Once known as acts of God,
such disasters are no longer necessarily natural; they are often provoked or amplified by
human activities such as damming rivers, clearing forests, over-extracting groundwater, or
building unsafely in hazardous zones. In 1998, for the first time, more people were forced
to leave their homes because of environmental disaster than because of war, according to
the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Environmental
refugees now number 25 million people, 58 percent of the total worldwide population of
Every single one carries mental pictures like those that plague Jairo. In October 1998,
Jairo survived Hurricane Mitch, which killed 15,000 people in Central America, mostly in
Honduras. He remembers hearing rather than seeing the implosion of a treeless hill above
the capital city, Tegucigalpa, covered with the jerry-built houses of landless squatters.
Jairo remembers the muted rumbles as the sodden mountain slipped and shifted and swallowed
houses and people in a series of gulps that lasted hours. "We told each other, 'Don't
move from the house,' " said Jairo, so he and his family-mother, wife, and infant
son, plus two sisters and their three children-huddled on their own hill. The electricity
went out and mortar fell from the walls, but the foundation held.
If they could have seen through the pelting rain they might have watched how tons of
topsoil turned to mud and flowed down from hills and into a river already raging with
branches and boulders. Waters jumped banks to cover the huge Fifth Street Market, where
the clothing stall that supported Jairo's mother and young wife simply disappeared. They
destroyed the factory where one of Jairo's sisters-the one they called Skinny-was
employed. They ripped the roof off the shop where he worked as a refrigerator repairman,
tore down its walls and carried away the hard-won tools of his trade-blowtorch, soldering
iron, manometer, even motors. In the countryside, Mitch transformed the very geography,
altering the course of rivers, creating hills where none had existed, scouring islands
down to a surface of twigs, blowing away trees and entire villages on the Caribbean coast.
In Tegucigalpa, when the rain stopped, there was plenty of work burying bodies. Jairo
earned $5 a day moving mud. But soon the realization came to him that while Mitch might
have spared his life, it had still thrown him up with his roots in the air like the trees
scattered unnaturally on the rivers' banks. "What do I do now?" Jairo remembers
thinking. "Who am I now?"
Mitch left some 2 million homeless, jobless, or otherwise damaged. Even many who still
slept under roofs believed the storm had blown them over a fine line: Now they had to move
or those who depended on them would starve. Many headed for Mexico and the United States,
on foot and at night to avoid the authorities. "I told my sister, 'Look, Skinny,
don't go,' but she had the two small ones to support," said Jairo. So he and his
sister left their children, Jairo's wife, another sister, and their mother at home and
headed north. On a clandestine river-crossing between Guatemala and Mexico they lost their
packs when a dugout overturned. When they could not find food they ate leaves that burned
their throats. They bought off the federales with a wristwatch. Somehow, Jairo became
separated from his sister. He looks drowned in guilt when he speaks of that. Her
whereabouts are unknown. "You think, and you remember how leaving her, and leaving
the others at home, was like removing one of your arms," he said. Jairo's experience
is far from rare.
According to the director of a Houston shelter that welcomes new arrivals from Central
America, "Not many families make it through Mexico intact."
Nacogdoches is a pleasant town, the oldest in Texas, with central streets of red clay
bricks and neighborhoods of fine houses with colonnaded porches. But for Jairo, who has no
legal immigration papers and sends home what he doesn't spend in rent, it is a prison.
"I would have never left home if not for Mitch," he said.
When a hurricane or earthquake hits a country like Honduras-one of the hemisphere's
poorest-there is no safety net for survivors. According to the authoritative annual World
Disasters Report of the Geneva-based Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 96 percent of
the globe's environmental refugees come from such developing countries. Often it is when
relief aid runs out that a serious exodus begins, weeks or months after the disaster, when
people realize they can no longer hope to make a living at home.
More than a year after Hurricane Mitch hit in Tegucigalpa, the shop where Jairo once
worked is a mere impression on the grass among ghostly frames of ruined buildings. Mitch
may have passed through Honduras, but it never really left. One day when I was visiting
Jairo's mother and wife, news flashed through the neighborhood that sand diggers filling
bags on the riverbank had uncovered two bodies. "Mitch," shrugged a neighbor.
Aftereffects continue to crop up in new ways, like the boom in the rat population. Things
are named after the hurricane: Buses that used to be painted with names like
"Devastator" are now "Mitch"; pet dogs found wandering in the
countryside are named Mitch for the great wind that blew them from somewhere else.
If there was a mythic quality attached to the storm, many also believed that a disaster
so punishing must have been the judgment of a dissatisfied God. But others spoke out
against the idea of mere fate. "Mitch would never have been so deadly if our country
hadn't been permeated by inequality and environmental destruction," declared Noemi
Espinoza, executive director of the Christian Commission for Development, an organization
that works with the rural poor. Alicia Almendares, the director of a women's self-help
program, gave me a walking tour of the city one day, railing against the infamous
corruption of some government officials, then stopped near an emergency Bailey bridge and
waved her hand, as if to take in the entire country. "Mitch didn't create the reality
you see," she said. "It revealed the reality."
It is clear that man-made destruction exacerbated Mitch's effects. Once almost entirely
forested, Honduras loses about a quarter million acres annually to logging, burning, and
clearing of the rainforest to create pasture, and to erosion from poor farming practices.
About 80 percent of the land is sloped, so when rain is heavy, without trees to break
rainfall or hold the soil in place, the land turns to sliding mud and the rivers choke,
causing floods. In 1998, the country was soaked even before Mitch hit; some say
precipitation that month was measured by counting the hours when there was none. In the
flooded countryside, not only the food supply but seed stock disappeared. Around
Tegucigalpa, peasants and others who were landless had been arriving for years, creating a
misery belt; one of the unstable slums, Soto, was the one Jairo heard being destroyed.
"Environmental degradation has put people in harm's way," said Anthony
Oliver-Smith, a University of Florida anthropologist who served as a consultant for the
World Bank in Honduras after Mitch. "The human impact on Earth today is responsible
for the displacement of millions." The damage caused by Mitch, he said, was
prefigured by the environmental destruction that has taken place there over the last
several decades. For example, the agricultural sector has been geared to export, partly in
order to pay back loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. But that kind
of large-scale agriculture forces small farmers up hillsides or out of business entirely,
with many ending up in the crowded, unplanned shack communities that circle the cities.
But it's difficult to change long-held patterns of how resources are used, especially
by poor countries in financial crisis. For Honduras, "the fastest way to get on its
feet again is to go into the old system," said Oliver-Smith ruefully. "The World
Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development don't invest in small farmers. In a
way the economy needs the very thing that drives the vulnerability." In other words,
when the next environmental disaster hits, expect more refugees.
The ecologically displaced are coming to be seen as important indicators of Earth's
environmental health. Some observers, like University of New Hampshire environmental
scientist Stuart Leiderman, argue that they should be granted formal refugee status. This
would not necessarily entitle them to economic help; rather, as in the case of the 100,000
Honduran refugees from Mitch estimated to have come to the United States (most illegally),
it might justify legal status while they work. "This is not just migration we are
talking about, but people who must move involuntarily," said Leiderman. The ideal is
prevention, of course, or after a crisis, remedial actions that might return the
environment to a livable state. Meanwhile, recognizing the outcasts also brings attention
to the conditions that sent them from home.
Oliver-Smith, another advocate for environmental refugees, has been working in the
field of disaster vulnerability for 30 years, ever since a postponed return flight to the
city of Yungay, Peru, probably saved him from perishing in the worst natural disaster in
the recorded history of the Western Hemisphere. An earthquake on May 31, 1970, shook loose
enormous pieces of 22,000-foot Mt. Huascaran, raining rock and ice down a vertical mile.
Yungay was destroyed, and 65,000 died. Smith worked in the region for the next ten years,
looking at what makes a disaster besides the natural event: ramshackle housing,
inappropriate use of land, poor families forced to live in risky places. "It was the
beginning of the conversation about vulnerability and underdevelopment," he said.
"It began in a whisper: that after disaster you shouldn't re-create
The first people to be labeled "environmental refugees" were those fleeing
the catastrophic drought in the 1970s in the Sahel region of Africa, which turned the best
cropland in five countries into cracked, barren earth.
Thousands of Mauritanian nomads and their cattle swamped Mali looking for food; nearly
a million and a half others arrived in the Ivory Coast, making every fifth person in that
country a foreigner. Essam El-Hinnawi, a professor of natural resources and environment at
the National Research Centre in Cairo, wrote about their case for the United Nations
Environment Programme in Nairobi in 1985. Today, El-Hinnawi's definition of
"environmental refugee" has become the standard one: people who have been forced
to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked
environmental disruption (natural or human-caused) that jeopardized their existence or
seriously affected their way of life.
By the end of the '80s, the phrase was being heard in conversations among aid workers
and State Department and UN personnel, but not used officially. It remains controversial
because of the specific weight the word "refugee" carries in international law,
a definition elaborated after World War II's mass displacement of Europeans. International
conventions in the 1950s and '60s limited the term to those forced across national borders
because of conflict or persecution, with signatory countries bound to recognize and assist
them. There was no mention of displacement by natural catastrophes. The office of the UN
High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) may use its networks to assist during emergencies
but, bound by the conventions, cannot issue migration papers or help relocate victims of
ecological disaster. Nor is the U.S. State Department bound to give temporary stays to
environmental refugees from neighboring lands. Resistance to the term comes even from some
rights groups, who say consideration for people displaced by dams and floods should not be
on a par with asylum for those fleeing persecution. And recognizing the environmentally
dispossessed would cut into the already precarious funding base for other kinds of
But perceptions of exactly who is a refugee continue to evolve. In the 1980s,
Salvadorans who had returned en masse from Honduran refugee camps were protected for over
a year by the UNHCR, even inside their own country. The agency already recognizes millions
as "internally displaced persons" in Sudan, Angola, Afghanistan, and other
countries; in January, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke proposed
that the UNHCR's mandate should be extended to cover them, too.
The Organization of African States recognizes refugees from war or ecological disaster,
and even the United States does so on occasion-giving special visas to citizens of
Montserrat fleeing volcanic eruptions in 1998, for example. And Hondurans who came to the
United States before December 1998 are eligible to apply for Temporary Protective Status.
This is not exactly a "Mitch visa," insisted a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy
in Tegucigalpa, but is meant to allow even undocumented Hondurans already in the United
States to work legally and send dollars home. Regardless of the intentions, many
environmental refugees benefitted.
University of Nottingham researcher Karla Hatrick notes that the 1951 international
refugee convention-the one the UN and other agencies use to define their mandates-might be
expanded to give those environmentally displaced certain protections short of the full
guarantees that might "dilute" the category. "The emergence of a people's
right to a healthy environment, while its status is contested, illustrates awareness of
the problem," she said. Many nations already have a notion of temporary refuge
("a common thread of humanitarianism," Hatrick calls it) that could be a
starting place for recognizing those fleeing environmental ruin.
Whatever they are called, the numbers of environmental refugees are growing, for
reasons that include weather super-disasters such as Mitch and the El Ni¤o-caused drought
a couple of years ago in Indonesia that destroyed the rice crop and set the countryside
ablaze. Earthquakes cause major dislocation in a world where 40 of the 50 fastest-growing
cities-most ringed by shantytowns-are in earthquake zones. And deforestation contributed
to the flooding that affected 180 million people in China's Yangtze River basin, and to
the catastrophic deluge in Honduras.
"The plight of refugees is often referred to as an indication of man's inability
to live with man," says Karla Hatrick. "Yet we are now faced with a refugee
problem resulting from man's inability to live with nature."
Mary Jo McConahay, a frequent contributor to Sierra, is an editor at Pacific