Millions of people have fled Central America to escape grinding poverty, institutional collapse and untrammeled violence. But another factor behind the exodus has received less attention: conflicts over natural resources which have been intensified by corporate expansion and climate change. Half a million Hondurans heading north have been apprehended by US and Mexican officials since October 2016. The motives for migration are always complex, but in this region, environmental factors are increasingly important. In Honduras, water politics is stark: every year during the rainy season, countless communities are cut off, lives are lost, and roads, bridges and schools are damaged. It is a cycle of environmental destruction that exacerbates poverty and drives migration as families search for food, water and safety.
Vast swathes of mangrove forests have been destroyed to make way for industrial shrimp (prawn) farms which have proliferated even inside protected reserves. Mangroves are essential to healthy, resilient coastlines. The sturdy trees protect shorelines from storms and floods, and help prevent erosion by stabilizing sediments with their intertwined roots. They are key factors in marine biodiversity, providing food, clean water, shelter and safety for fish and invertebrates such as crabs, lobsters and prawns. Sales figures suggest shrimp farms are expanding: $216m of shrimps were exported last year, a figure expected to rise by up to 20% in 2019.
“The industry destroys huge mangrove sites promising development, but actually creates very few jobs – and actually increases poverty by restricting fishing access for locals,” said Dina Morel, director of a local marine conservation organization, known by its acronym Coddeffagolf. According to Morel, shrimp farms are routinely approved in protected areas and environmental violations rarely punished as officials often have vested interests in the profitable industry. Acres and acres of shrimp farms have been built inland in ocean inlets which were once safe havens for tidal waves. But the farms block the natural flow of water, causing high tides and storm surges to immerse beach communities instead.
“The consequences of losing this essential ecosystem are clear,” said biologist Víctor Bocanegra. “Environmental vulnerability, food insecurity, poverty and social decomposition, which all leads to forced migration.”
The shrimp industry in southern Honduras dates back to the 1970s, but grew exponentially in the 1990s. As a result, in 2000, seven mangrove forests covering over 150,000 acres were designated protected reserves. Despite this, half the region’s mangroves were destroyed between 2000 and 2010 – largely as a result of fishing concessions sanctioned before the decree, according to research by Coddeffagolf.
No one knows exactly how much of the protected areas remain intact, but satellite images suggest the situation is critical.
Yet, investment in climate mitigation and adaption programmes such as reforestation and flood defences is falling.
Only 0.5% of the central government budget is allocated to environmental protection this year, down from 1.2% in 2010, according to analysis by economist Hugo Pino, a former finance minister and central bank governor.
“There is more deforestation than reforestation, that’s evident for everyone to see,” said Nelson Martínez, a grassroots organiser from Guapinol, a nearby community badly damaged by a tidal surge three years ago. “Unless the mangroves are saved, Guapinol will disappear too.” Because of rising sea levels and tidal surges. Between 1998 and 2017, Honduras was the second country or territory most affected by extreme weather events such as floods, storms, droughts and wildfires,
Since a 2009 coup, a profusion of water-guzzling megaprojects – including dams, mines, and African palm plantations – has fuelled social conflicts, state repression and migration.
Pedro Landa from Eric, a Jesuits human rights research organisation, said the lessons from Mitch were never learned. “Since the  coup, the state has been increasingly controlled by mafia politicians with no interest in guaranteeing water supplies or economic development for ordinary people, just for themselves.”
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