Monday, June 30, 2014

Environmental crisis, humanitarian crisis, and you

Image of shrimp farms (from top to bottom: 1986, 1999, and 2011) 
in Gulf of Fonseca (from NASA's Earth Observatory)

Small children huddled under blankets on the floor. Women holding babies and toddlers amid scrubby brush in the desert. Border patrol officers looking at kids the age of their own children, who smile at them hopefully, imagining that their journey has ended in a happier place.

All the above are images national media outlets have shared over the last month of young families and “unaccompanied minors,” mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, detained at the southern U.S. border. As a parent, my heart breaks at those pictures and stories, many of which have been shared by friends and colleagues who live in border states. As a Central Americanist by training, I’m relieved realities of the region are confronting more people and hope we do not lose a moment to ask questions that probe a layer deeper than (important, and oft-told) stories of drug violence and poverty. One untold story that begs thoughtful question-asking is the story of the environmental crisis behind the humanitarian crisis of Central American residents at the U.S. border.

What environmental crisis? Consider Honduras, arguably the epicenter of Central American out-migration at the moment. The General Mining Law of 1999, passed in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, paved the way for dramatic expansion of open pit gold mining in Honduras. Since then, 30% of Honduran territory has been granted in mining concessions. My Honduran friend tells me of confiscated lands, high fences, open pits of cyanide-contaminated water, and an epidemic of skin lesions and cancer in her home village. Peer-reviewed, public health articles tell the same story. And while mining expanded in the Siria Valley, shrimp aquaculture expanded in the Gulf of Fonseca, eliminating mangrove habitat, displacing coastal communities, and making the region vulnerable to shifting climate patterns, including strong tropical storms that slosh farmed shrimp (and the chemicals they require) out into vulnerable coastal ecosystems. Meantime, local weather patterns have changed in departments like Olancho, where illegal logging is rampant, streams have died amid deforested hills, and landslide risk increases in a sparsely forested landscape. Mosquito-born diseases like dengue, endemic in Honduras, surge in disturbed environments and in crowded conditions; dengue and dengue hemorrhagic fever has been on the rise in Latin American and the Caribbean over the last 40 years.

Why tell this story behind the story? Unless those of us who read news coverage think about the complexity behind crises, and act on our growing understanding, crises continue unabated. So, here’s a challenge for you (same one I give myself): next time you read a story about an unaccompanied child, from city-or-country-X, Google that location. Read up. Then open your fridge or your jewelry box, and consider what’s there. Think about the place of origin of that beautiful mahogany boardroom table, and ask yourself: what kind of world do I want to live in? What do the dollars I spend say about how much my ideals and my actions match? Then, make one change. Or two. And share that story.


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