26 April 2023

Adressing Climate Security Risks in Central America

Latin America is experiencing a confluence of insecurity and migration challenges that are increasingly intertwined with climate change. High levels of ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic inequality are ubiquitous, and populism and authoritarianism are gaining traction. In the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, in particular, chronic conflict, violence, and weak governance are key constructs undermining human security. Insecurity in this region has for years been fueled by extreme rates of homicide, gang violence, and extortion, failing democratic governance and ineffective institutions, pervasive corruption, and drug trafficking. More recently, insecurity has also been propelled by the expansion of illicit networks, the limited capacity of cities and urban informal settlements to constructively absorb a growing number of migrants, and the compounding effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and recurrent natural disasters.

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is the second-most disaster-prone region in the world. 2 Between 2000 and 2019, 152 million people were affected by 1,205 disasters in the region. Then came the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season—the most active Atlantic hurricane season and seventh costliest on record. Back-to-back Hurricanes Iota and Eta compounded the region’s existing insecurity and economic strains and played a role in the larger wave of out-migration from the region in 2021. The agricultural sector in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras contributes substantially to GDP, employment, and domestic food security in the three countries, 3 making them particularly susceptible to the impacts of changing precipitation, rising heat, climate change-related disasters, and other stressors.

One of the hallmarks of climate-related events, including both sudden on-set and slow-onset disasters, is that they do not operate as individual shocks but instead tend to weaken resilience and hinder preparedness for future disasters. The Central American region is ill-equipped to address these challenges for many reasons, not least of which is that multi-hazard risk-information systems and climate services are underdeveloped.

In the face of these complex dynamics, a focus on prevention can yield exponential resilience outcomes. This can be done by supporting relevant communities of practice and decision-makers at different levels to work together to strengthen and enhance predictive capabilities around climate, security, and migration in the region. Risk is socially constructed, meaning that it is the product of social conditions—and is often systemic— as opposed to an inevitable state of vulnerability in the face of environmental, climate, and other stressors. Thus, there is a need to be more user-centered in all risk assessments, including efforts to better understand affected population needs and interests. With stakeholder participation and buy-in, improved predictive capabilities can lead to more effective, strategic, and long-lasting policies and programming that recognize and address complex risks and vulnerabilities, generating co-benefits across issue areas and concerned groups.

In an effort to move quickly from identifying regional climate, migration, and insecurity risks towards informing interventions, the workshop series highlighted several necessary avenues for change: strengthening citizen-state relationships; investing in community-level resilience—especially urban informal settlements and other migrant-receiving communities; centering the rights of vulnerable populations; and leveraging existing place-based knowledge and efforts in climate, security, and migration, including recognizing vulnerable populations as agents of change and elevating existing local resilience efforts. Ensuring attention to different levels of decision-making—from the hyper-local to international—draws attention to specific points of entry and opportunities for action. For example, useful policies can range from addressing individual victim-perpetrators to investment in community level adaptation or negotiations around multilateral development initiatives.

Understanding the nexus: key takeaways for the region:

Complexity is real, solutions must account for it. The impacts of a changing climate are not only another layer on top of other factors that might result in instability or poor human development outcomes; climate change is the context in which economic, social, political, and other forces are acting in Central America. Climate change both influences and is influenced by these factors. Worsening climate risks are compounding pressures on communities already reeling from high levels of instability and violence. Climate variability and extreme weather can entrench existing vulnerabilities by magnifying economic hardship, food and water insecurity, and health crises. Therefore, there must be a multidimensional approach to risk management that incorporates understanding of both vulnerability and resilience and utilizes reliable information on social, economic, environmental, institutional, and governance in early warning systems.

There is a danger in modeling and predictive analytics of relying on climate change and its available data as a proxy for other vulnerabilities and variables that impact instability and security. Input from the dynamics of migration, food and water insecurity, and other factors affected by climate but beyond traditionally captured climate variables need attention when assessing climate risks. Certainly, data availability and collection methods in the region are highly imperfect and must be improved to measure and account for both the heterogeneous and more aggregate impacts on different populations. With a focus on the science of climate change and climate-risk analytics we see rapid improvement and models evolving to generate more accurate predictive outcomes, creating an opportunity to better inform not just climate action but a range of local and regional action and policy. No matter how good the climate science and data is, however, without considering the context to which the models are applied and without considering the existing capacity in the region to utilize the data, the science itself falls flat and will never alone be enough to motivate early action. Part of the answer is in the need to be more user-centered in climate-risk analysis efforts, including better understanding user needs and incentives.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As insecurity, migration, and climate change increasingly compound one another in Central America, a singular focus on response—without considering prevention—is a sure way to overwhelm response capacities. Instability, weak government institutions, and marginalization in the region means that communities are less able to respond and be resilient to climate stressors; at the same time, worsening climate conditions also threaten to reinforce poor governance and inequality, further destabilizing the region. Direct, short-term displacement from disasters has been and will continue to be a significant concern in the region. In addition, slower-onset climate impacts are projected to further exacerbate both instability and fragility in Central America. The region’s vulnerability to climate change’s effect on the ecological cycle and its dependence on subsistence agriculture, combined with ongoing land pressures, is severely affecting the current and future context of both livelihoods and food security in the region.

In light of the growing climate risks faced by already-vulnerable communities and people, such as small-holder farmers, there is a need for more robust national and regional efforts to establish shock-responsive social protection systems that are adaptive enough to help people cope with future shocks. Further, by applying a more systems-based approach to investments in disaster risk reduction and humanitarian response to acute crises, these investments could open up potential pathways to working with formal and informal local institutions in ways that strengthen governance and reduce corruption. Rebuilding from disasters with improved climate-resilience at the forefront and making investments in ways that benefit social cohesion and increase equitable distribution of resources can interrupt the feedback loop between climate and instability, ultimately strengthening the resilience of communities.

Local partnership and inclusion are not discretionary. Risks are distributed unequally across populations in the region. Women, youth, Indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups regularly bear the brunt of regional challenges like climate impacts and violence. At the same time, as holders of knowledge of local perceptions of risk and resilience they can be key agents of change. To understand these dynamics, it is useful to apply an intersectional lens—looking at how climate, migration, violence, and different forms of marginalization interact, as well as the intersectionality of individual and organizational identities.

External support and investment should recognize the ways in which affected populations and communities think about their own priorities around the impacts of climate change, including understanding how climate impacts are affecting lives and livelihoods beyond the physical impacts of climate change. Outside actors may not always readily identify a community’s adaptive behaviors and existing sources of resilience, especially when local communities do not frame their adaptive, resilience-building strategies as such. Yet, learning what these existing local approaches to resilience are and how they can be strengthened is a critical piece of addressing vulnerability in the region. Greater attention to local community insights and priorities, participation of government bodies, attention to the needs of vulnerable communities, and reliable access to appropriately communicated data are all critical components of a robust regional response. From migration to climate-vulnerability, it is important to move past looking at people as potential victims and instead view them as empowered actors who can contribute to and enhance system resilience.

This article has originally been published by Wilson Center, and can be found here.

By Cynthia Brady and Lauren Risi

Photo credit: Flickr/Michael Sale