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The Silent Violence of Climate Change in Honduras



In one of the most environmentally vulnerable regions in the world, indigenous and rural communities are fighting to stay in the face of climate-driven displacement. Still, the immediate exodus demands new international forms of protection for climate refugees.
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The Silent Violence of Climate Change in Honduras
In one of the most environmentally vulnerable regions in the world,
indigenous and rural communities are fighting to stay in the face of
climate-driven displacement. Still, the immediate exodus demands new
international forms of protection for climate refugees.
María José Méndez
To cite this article: María José Méndez (2020) The Silent Violence of Climate Change in
Honduras, NACLA Report on the Americas, 52:4, 436-441, DOI: 10.1080/10714839.2021.1840175
To link to this article:
Published online: 05 Nov 2020.
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436 NACLA Report on the Americas | VOL. 52, NO. 4
© 2020 North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) — 436-441,
The Silent Violence of Climate
Change in Honduras
In one of the most environmentally vulnerable regions in the world,
Indigenous and rural communities are fighting to stay in the face of
climate-driven displacement. Still, the immediate exodus demands new
international forms of protection for climate refugees.
At 56 years old, Don Jacinto left Honduras
with only a small backpack and his distinc-
tive straw hat. He used to grow coee in the
western department of Copán but increasing debts
and the spread of a fungus that ravaged his crops
forced him to sell his land. Le with no property,
income, or savings to sustain his family, he headed
north in search of employment.
Don Jacinto told me his story as we sat on a
wooden bench under the shade of a pink bougain-
villea on a sweltering aernoon in March 2018. He
had grabbed my attention when I overheard him
speaking with his friend about Hondurass extortion
economy. But when I realized that Don Jacintos was
a story about “economic” push factors, I turned o
my recorder. His predicament didn’t t the narra-
tive of gang violence that I was documenting in my
interviews with Central American migrants passing
through southern Mexico.
Every day during my volunteer experience at the
Hermanos en el Camino migrant shelter in Oaxaca,
dozens of Central Americans reported that they had
received extortion-related death threats back home.
Don Jacintos friend, for instance, le the northern
Honduran city of Tocoa aer a gang extorted him
for his earnings as a worker on one of the African
palm plantations that cover most of the arable land
in the Aguán Valley. “You get paid every 15 days at
the nca. e gang knows this, and they kill you if
you don’t give them half your income,” he told me. “I
had a daughter in school, and I couldn’t support her
any longer, so I le.” Many bus drivers, shopkeepers,
tortilla makers, and sex workers with whom I spoke
were similarly unable or unwilling to pay the exorbi-
tant fees, and instead they ed Honduras, El Salvador,
and Guatemala like tens of thousands of others.
And yet, on some level, Don Jacinto’s and these
migrants’ testimonies shared a form of violence: the
threat posed by an acute lack of basic food items.
Many Hondurans spoke to me, for instance, about
the excessive price of eggs in the country, which
they attributed to intensied government corrup-
tion since the U.S.-backed 2009 coup and to severe
droughts driving food-price increases. e ability to
purchase an egg, like the ability to pay an extortion
fee, was the litmus test for survival in Honduras.
Despite this reality, the life-threatening repercussions
of economic and environmental harms barely made
it into my recordings or international news stories.
Honduras is one of the most vulnerable coun-
tries in the world to the impacts of climate change,
which has brought shiing weather patterns and a
range of extreme conditions such as severe droughts,
hurricanes, increased flooding, landslides, and
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WINTER 2020 | NACLA Report on the Americas 437
receding coastlines that endanger people’s liveli-
hoods. Capturing the disproportionate effects of
climate change on the world’s poor, scholars such as
Rob Nixon, author of the 2013 book Slow Violence
and the Environmentalism of the Poor, prompt us to
recognize violence in the injuries that quietly accu-
mulate as a result of environmental catastrophes.
Climate change is a silent violence that exposes
millions to displacement, hunger, and disease, con-
demning already vulnerable populations to short and
precarious lives. While many rural and Indigenous
communities are working to combat these conditions
with alternatives to mainstream “green economy”
solutions, in the immediate term, silent violence also
translates to a lack of legal protections for migrants
like Don Jacinto. ese realities underline the need
for humane responses to the climate crisis and new
narratives on migrants and refugees that account for
climate as an increasingly crucial push factor.
Credible Fear and Climate Refugees
Migrants can only seek asylum in the United
States if they prove they have credible fear of
persecution in their country. The more shocking
their evidence of violence, the better their chances
of passing this first hurdle. Before fleeing home,
some of the Central Americans I encountered had
led police reports not because they expected inves-
tigations or results, but because they understood
that ocial documentation could strengthen their
asylum applications. Others had tragic photographs
detailing their suffering. One young Salvadoran
woman fleeing gang violence with her four chil-
dren carried a harrowing picture of her dead baby.
MS-13 members had brutally beaten her when she
was eight months pregnant because her siblings had
visited her neighborhood without the gangs authori-
zation. Her son died of acute renal failure one month
aer his birth, and she had a post-mortem image of
his naked body as proof.
Don Jacinto (wearing a straw hat) participates in a migrant march organized by the Hermanos en El Camino Shelter in
Ixtepec, Mexico. His sign reads: “Mexican authorities, we migrants are not criminals.” (MARÍA JOSÉ MÉNDEZ)
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438 NACLA Report on the Americas | VOL. 52, NO. 4
Asylum seekers must parade the psychological
and physical wounds that scar their bodies or those
of their loved ones, and even then, they are not
guaranteed immigration relief. Asylum policy, like
much mainstream news coverage, favors stories of
brutal death or injury and suppresses the economic
and ecological harms that also drive people to leave
home. is is perhaps why I’m still haunted by the
fact that I turned off my recorder as Don Jacinto
recounted his plight. In pressing the stop button,
I somewhat acted like an immigration ocer who
disqualied his credible fear of harm, silencing his
legitimate anxiety.
Don Jacinto emigrated from a mountainous
region of Honduras where producers of one of the
country’s top agricultural exports, coee, have been
severely hit by declining prices and climate change.
Since the liberalization of the global coee market in
the 1990s, the burden of falling prices has landed on
farmers, pushing them to take out loans to make it
through the harvest. But in recent years, coee rust
disease—a crop-ravaging fungus that has prolifer-
ated as warmer weather reaches the mountains—has
compounded unjust prices. On top of that, an ongo-
ing drought has devastated Copáns maize and bean
crops since 2014, further putting the squeeze on
subsistence farmers and spurring a growing exodus.
Of course, climate change not only unfolds as a
noiseless and gradual calamity. Large-scale disasters
attract heavy media attention, such as Hurricane
Mitch, the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane ever
recorded. I was 10 years old when Hurricane Mitch
struck Honduras in 1998, wreaking havoc and killing
more than 11,000 people across Central America.
Its violence was loud and clear in the rising death
toll on national television, in my relatives’ destroyed
homes, and in the bridges sunk into rivers. However,
unlike the deadly aermath of Hurricane Mitch or
the shocking nature of gang violence, the harms
associated with the environmental changes driving
people like Don Jacinto out of Honduras are more
elusive. How would Don Jacinto evidence these
harms in front of an immigration ocer? Would he
show a coee leaf with yellow spots on its under-
side? Regardless of any evidence of destroyed crops
and overwhelming economic losses farmers flee-
ing home might be able to
provide, from a legal per-
spective “climate refugees
don’t exist.
In late 2018, the United
Nations Global Compact
for Migration recognized
climate change as a driver of
migration. The Honduran
government also increas-
ingly recognizes the ecological harms pushing
people like Don Jacinto to migrate. In a speech at
the COP25 UN Climate Change Conference in
Madrid in 2019, President Juan Orlando Hernández
reproached the international community for fail-
ing to address climate-induced displacements and
urged it to direct funds toward vulnerable countries
like Honduras for mitigation initiatives. His speech,
however, rang very hollow for Honduran grass-
roots activists present at a COP25 counter-summit.
Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, a member of the Council of
Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras
(COPINH), accused Hernández of normalizing the
persecution and killings of “defenders of the Earth”
such as her mother, the world-renowned Indigenous
leader Berta Cáceres.
In recent years, Honduras has been among the
deadliest countries in the world for land and envi-
ronmental defenders, according to Global Witness.
And Hernández’s government has not wavered
Regardless of any evidence of destroyed
crops and overwhelming economic losses
farmers fleeing home might be able to
provide, from a legal perspective “climate
refugees” don’t exist.
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WINTER 2020 | NACLA Report on the Americas 439
from a development model that auctions o terri-
tory to transnational investors with minimal rigor
in assessing the environmental impacts of mining,
hydroelectric dams, mass tourism, and other
extractive industries. At the same time, widespread
government corruption, including high-level embez-
zlement scandals and links to drug tracking, has
le communities distrustful of the government’s abil-
ity to administer international funds in good faith.
Green Development vs. Indigenous Lands
As a party to the UN Framework Convention
on Climate Change, Honduras has com-
mitted to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions
by adopting market-based approaches such as
the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and
the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and
Forest Degradation Program (REDD+). These
climate-mitigation initiatives are part of the UN’s
green economy” solutions. They are based on
the idea that economic growth can be decoupled
from its ecological impacts by assigning a finan-
cial value to nature that incentivizes its protection.
CDM, for instance, encourages the Global North to
oset emissions by purchasing carbon credits from
governments and corporations producing “clean
energy” such as hydropower.
During a 2019 visit to the University of Minnesota
organized by Witness for Peace, grassroots orga-
nizer Miriam Miranda, general coordinator of
the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras
(OFRANEH), called green economy projects “fake
solutions” that leave the underlying causes of cli-
mate change untouched. Miranda argued that
climate-related migration will not decline unless the
accumulation-based system that makes carbon emis-
sions necessary is disrupted. According to Miranda,
the green economy agenda is also a “neocolonial”
tool of land dispossession that, under the guise of
environmental protection, displaces communities
on the frontlines of climate change while rewarding
governments and corporations that commit human
rights violations.
e Afro-Indigenous Garífuna communities that
Miranda represents live along Honduras’s Caribbean
coast, where they have witnessed climate disrup-
tion in real time. “We have entire villages suering
environmental displacements related to the rapidly
encroaching sea,” Miranda said. She pointed to the
village of Tornabé, a Garífuna community on the
outskirts of the coastal city of Tela, where she said
“an unprecedented number of families” had joined
the tens of thousands leaving the region with migrant
caravans beginning in 2018.
During a Witness for Peace delegation to Tornabé
in 2016, inhabitants already spoke about the environ-
mental changes that prompted this massive exodus.
As we gathered on a pristine shore washed by gentle
ocean waves, one young man told us how constant
ooding made it almost impossible to grow and har-
vest cassava, plantain, and coconuts. ese staples
are important sources of nutrition and income, as
well as central to Garífuna cultural identity. Without
them, Garífunas cannot prepare traditional dishes
like ereba (cassava bread), machuca (mashed green
plantains with sh and coconut broth), and pan de
coco (coconut bread). According to a 2017 study by
researcher Fabricio Herrera, the rising sea level is
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440 NACLA Report on the Americas | VOL. 52, NO. 4
also “eating the beaches and displacing entire popu-
lations” in communities such as Barra del Motagua
and Barra de Cuyamel, located farther west along the
coast from Tornabé.
But the sea is not the only one encroaching on the
Garífuna’s land and way of life; powerful green corpo-
rate interests also threaten their territories. Miranda
highlighted the example of the Honduranfood and
agriculturalcompanyGrupo Dinant. Months aer
the 2009 coup, the World Bank dispersed the rst half
of a $30 million loan to Dinant to expand its palm
oil processing facilities, poising it to swell its vast
plantations and cash in on carbon osets. e loan
came under re when human rights groups directly
linked Dinant to forced evictions and the killings of
at least 40 campesinos—out of a total of more than
100—in the Aguán Valley, according to a report by
the World Bank’s private lending watchdog. In 2011,
the CDM Board approved a palm oil biogas-oset
project run by Dinant on lands that, according to
Miranda, had been fraudulently appropriated from
campesino and Garífuna communities. Campesino
movements already contested land ownership in the
Aguán Valley leading up to the 2009 coup, which
aggravated these conicts as the post-coup govern-
ment militarized the zone.
e Garífuna, for their part, won recognition from
the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
(IACHR) in 2015 that the Honduran state had vio-
lated their territorial rights in two communities,
Triunfo de la Cruz and Punta Piedra. A growing
body of research makes the case for recognizing
Indigenous land as a climate adaptation strategy, as
studies have linked collective land rights to reduced
emissions. However, the Honduran government has
refused to comply with the IACHR’s order to return
the land to its ancestral owners. ese demands came
into sharp focus when ve Garífuna men were kid-
napped in Triunfo de la Cruz in July 2020. Among
them was Alberth Sneider Centeno, a land defender
who has spoken out about the impacts of palm plan-
tations on the Punta Izopo wetlands, an area that
overlaps with the Garífuna territories recognized in
the IACHR rulings. In 2019, at least 16 Garífuna were
murdered, according to OFRANEH, and Miranda
has described this violence as part of an “extermina-
tion plan” targeting the community.
Across the country in the southwestern moun-
tains, Berta Cáceres was killed in her home in
2016 for opposing another
sector of the green economy:
hydropower. e construction
of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric
dam threatened to sever Lenca
people from the Gualcarque
River, their material and spir-
itual source of wellbeing.
Funded by international banks,
Agua Zarca was one of dozens
of dams being built across the country as a source of
clean energy.
Struggling to Stay
Concerned about the climate disruptions aect-
ing their coastal homelands, OFRANEH
belongs to a broad grassroots movement in Honduras
centering territorial defense as a strategy to mitigate
climate change, reduce forced migration, and oppose
the government’s green economy agenda. In their
reclaimed lands of Vallecito, which were illegally
seized and held by drug trackers and palm oil elites
until 2012, Garífuna communities have built a cul-
tural and ecological refuge for those displaced by land
grabbing and environmental calamities. In Vallecito
and other Garífuna communities, OFRANEH works
to foster food sovereignty, protect biodiversity, and
A growing body of research makes the
case for recognizing Indigenous land as
a climate adaptation strategy, as studies
have linked collective land rights to
reduced emissions.
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WINTER 2020 | NACLA Report on the Americas 441
rehabilitate ecosystems that can counteract climate
change. This ecological restoration has involved
reforesting watersheds and creating natural barriers
of cocoplums, seagrapes, and mangroves that protect
against storms and coastal erosion.
Rural communities across Honduras are similarly
using collective land-based approaches to adjust to
extreme weather variability. Such strategies include
building mutual support networks, producing
food with sustainable methods, and organizing to
secure land rights. Sonia Isabel Triminio, a coee
farmer like Don Jacinto and a member of La Vía
Campesina—an international peasant organization
that advocates agroecology and land redistribution
as key to ghting the climate crisis—cooperates with
fellow campesinos in the department of Comayagua
to diversify crop production, regenerate the soil,
and build water harvesting systems that can oset
weather hardships.
Although all drivers of migration are deeply entan-
gled, climate change’s eects on human mobility are
undeniable. Indigenous peoples and campesinos
are struggling to remain in Honduras by defending
the land, employing agroecological practices, and
advocating for structural solutions that challenge
the economic growth assumptions at the core of
the international climate agenda. Notwithstanding
their eorts, acute environmental changes will likely
push more and more people to migrate in the imme-
diate future.
e UN holds states of origin primarily respon-
sible for countering environmental migration
by helping their citizens build climate resilience.
However, given the Honduran state’s marked failure
to protect its citizens, the country is not equipped
to absorb climate-displaced populations. People will
continue to ee. is reality demands more thorough
international responses, such as embracing the legal
category of climate refugees. Perhaps then the silent
violence and credible fear that forced Don Jacinto
to migrate could count as grounds for protection. n
María José Méndez is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard
Society of Fellows and will begin as an assistant professor in
the Political Science department at the University of Toronto
in fall 2021. Her book project examines the political and
economic entanglements of transnational gang violence in
Central America. She is a board member of the grassroots
organization Witness for Peace Midwest.
Five Indigenous groups from Honduras joined the Garífuna in Vallecito in 2013 for a solidarity gathering in defence of
Indigenous territories. (TIBURCIA VIDAL / THE NATION REPORT)
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