Science, Tech & Environment

Guatemala’s changing climate is forcing families to leave their homes, livelihoods

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The Pol Suy family moved to San Juan La Laguna after weather changes in their ancestral home rendered farms unproductive.

Credit:

Deepa Fernandes

Shuffling through the acres of robust green bushes, plucking off the ripe red coffee beans and filling bucket after bucket was what Miguel Pol Suy did best. He didn't earn much in his rural Guatemalan town, but it was enough to buy maize and oil. He could feed his growing family.

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"Before, where we lived we could work and support our families," says Pol Suy.

Then the weather began to change. Too much rain one year and then no rain the next. The coffee plantation owners told Pol Suy and other workers not to come back.

"The harvests turned bad. The farm owners couldn’t grow coffee anymore and they started selling their land."

There was no work in Santa Lucía for a farmhand. "We had no jobs so we had to leave," says Pol Suy.

This father of seven is one example of a global phenomenon — people being displaced by the effects of climate change.

Most commonly, people are fleeing in the wake of big storms or floods or droughts, or just ahead of the lapping waters of rising seas. For the most part, these are difficult stories of damaged homes, lost livelihoods and ravaged communities.

What Pol Suy was facing was a future without a job — no way to feed the many mouths that depended on him.

"When it rains a lot all the crops are affected and we can’t do anything," he says. "We can’t harvest or pick anything."

His family's life was upended by the changing weather, made more extreme by what the country’s experts on the environment say may be linked to climate change. In the past few years, unusual rains in some parts of the country have made it impossible to grow crops. Farms have become unproductive and owners have had to close them down.

Pol Suy has always worked in agriculture. So did his father. But as the weather began changing significantly, he suddenly couldn’t provide for his family.

So he left his wife and children, in search of work — something more Guatemalans are doing.

"Migration is a multidimensional problem," says Edwin Castellanos, a professor in Guatemala City and the country’s leading climate change expert. "Perhaps an extreme weather event might be the straw that breaks the camel's back. ... People were already under a lot of stress and this extreme weather made it so stressful that they ended up deciding on migration."

Miguel Pol Suy had heard that San Juan La Laguna was a place where the farming was better. After trying it out solo for a while, he brought his family to join him.

This family of nine lives in a cramped cinderblock home in a part of town that had been abandoned for years. It's one of a cluster of homes with broken windows and overgrown vegetation. The houses here have filled up in the last year, now occupied by families who, like Pol Suy's, have moved from their ancestral homes in search of work.

"The harvest is good here, thank God," Pol Suy says. "Here we can work and earn well when the harvest is good."

And he's learning a different kind of farming here. "People here are not using fertilizers," Pol Suy says. "It’s all organic farming."

One of the places he has worked since moving is a cooperative farm on the outskirts of San Juan La Laguna.

There are carrots, tomatoes, cilantro and other daily staples all thriving here. The farm also grows medicinal plants that many of the indigenous residents of this town rely on. It was started by Arturo Huerta, whose family goes back generations in San Juan La Laguna. Huerta studied agriculture and wanted his farm to be organic and also a place where growing native plants was prioritized.

There’s another reason migrants like Miguel Pol Suy are drawn to this place. Unlike his previous employers, this farm doesn’t hire workers when things are good and then lay them off when harvests are bad. The farm also gives locals a small plot of land to grow their own crops in organically composted soil. Farmhands here can grow food for their own families' consumption, and even to sell in the market to earn more income.

"My grandfather taught my father and then my father taught me," says Juan Ujpan, a 49-year-old widower, as he spreads organic compost on his lettuce.

Farmer Juan Ujpan

Ujpan says the weather has changed in San Juan La Laguna too, and farmers have been losing some crops. Yet the farm is surviving. He can even sell some produce in the market.

"I support my family with this work," Ujpan says. "I buy the food, and I even put all my children through college."

At Miguel Pol Suy’s cramped house, his young sons are swinging vigorously on a hammock. It’s damp and run-down, but Pol Suy says it’s better than where they were. The family is now making ends meet — something they hadn't been able to do in years, he says.

"I'm happy," he says. He’s been spreading the word to friends back home that there is opportunity here in San Juan. "And they’re coming," he says with a big smile.

The reporting for this story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.