Latin America: Grappling with Environmental Displacement

The Honduran refugee caravan crowds a bridge in October 2018

Honduran Refugee Caravan/ October 21, 2018/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/boyitchy/31600503428/

By Robert Albro*

Latin America and its faith-based organizations, seeking to expand the definition of refugee beyond just people forced to leave their countries in the face of political persecution, are making slow but steady progress promoting policies that deal with the increasingly serious issue of human displacement as a consequence of environmental change.

  • Since 1951, a large majority of Latin American countries have enshrined the right to asylum in their national constitutions, and the region emerged in the 1980s as a leader in efforts to broaden international standards for refugees and migrants. In 1984, the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, for example, enlarged the concept of refugees to include people “who have fled their country because their lives, safety, or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence.” A series of conferences organized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) produced further breakthroughs during conferences in San José and San Salvador, including rights-based criteria involving, for example, gender and indigenous identity.

Over this decade, the coincidence of surges in migration from the “Northern Triangle” of Central America and international action on the environment – including Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si – have encouraged reassessment of the traditional distinction between “refugee” and “migrant.” Among similar initiatives in the Andean region, in 2014 Bolivia’s migration law introduced legal protections for “groups of people displaced from one country to another for climate reasons, when there exists a risk to life, as a result of nature, environmental, nuclear or chemical disaster, or famine.” What to do about people displaced across international borders as a result of life-threatening rapid-onset natural disasters has become an increasing focus of attention.

  • Discussions in conjunction with the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a major component of the 2016 Paris Accord – have given new momentum to addressing environmental migration. Participants called for greater understanding of “climate change induced displacement, migration, and planned relocation,” even though emphasis in multilateral deliberations has shifted to “disasters” and away from “climate change.” 
  • Observers have credited Latin American church groups – as “specialists in the language of ethics” and “sources of moral authority” – with playing an important role in normative deliberations during the UNFCCC processes. A hemispheric dialogue led by the Organization of American States, called the “Protecting Our Home” initiative, was jointly launched with the Holy See after the Pope’s encyclical.

Faith-based responses both to environmental conflict and to the plight of migrants have been significant. Religion’s impact upon international deliberations regarding environmental migration is likely to continue growing as long as religious values are translatable to secular humanitarian efforts. Even when members of religious communities are lumped in with the rest of “civil society,” their emphasis on moral values, their ability to intervene on behalf of affected populations, and their role as service providers serve them well as proponents of efforts to include victims of environmental disaster and climate change as deserving recognition and support from governments and the international community. The “moral authority of faith leaders” is also less about the introduction of alternative moral valuations than a strategic advantage in efforts to gain access to and build trust with victims of humanitarian emergencies. 

  • There is, however, an additional role that faith-based actors have yet to embrace as the international response to increasing numbers of environmental migrants evolves. As multilateral deliberations increasingly consider “loss and damage” as a result of environmental disasters, including climate change, they are unsurprisingly limited to accounting for the loss of livelihoods and material assets, such as farms or homes. To date, little attention has been given to the consequences of non-economic or intangible loss, including loss of community identity, social cohesion, and traditional knowledge. Religion’s focus on moral and cultural questions of meaning and value make it a potential resource in coming to terms with the consequences of intangible loss. 

November 1, 2019

* Robert Albro is the Research Associate Professor at CLALS.

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