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.

Pope Francis’s Pastoral Mission

By Alexander Wilde*

Photo Credit: Ministério da Defesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Ministério da Defesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

The primary purpose of Pope Francis’s trip to Latin America – like all papal visits since Pope Paul VI made the first in 1968 before the historic meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia – is pastoral.  The media are grasping for the implications of his visiting Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay this week, looking for a theme, for example, in the common factors of their poverty, indigenous populations, and environmental conflicts.  Others wonder if this Argentine pope, well acquainted with Peronism, carries a political message about the dangers of left-wing populism.  Yet others posit this trip in terms of religious “competition” to recapture market share from Evangelicals.

This visit and this extraordinary pope, however, are focused on his broader pastoral message – conveying to the faithful his deepest beliefs about what their faith demands of him and of them.  Francis, in contrast to his immediate predecessors, has given a strongly social orientation to this pastoral ministry, while reinforcing its spiritual foundation in personal faith.  In doing this, he has embraced the renewal wrought by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and what he apparently judges the positive insights of liberation theology.  Christians must live their faith in the world and their times, and that includes engaging with other “men and women of good will” to realize God’s purposes for humanity.  Pope Francis repeats that phrase, taken from Pope John XXIII, in his new environmental encyclical Laudato Si’.  Visiting these three countries – in which conflicts over land, oil, forests, and water have mobilized social protests – presents clear opportunities to speak out about how the encyclical’s analysis and moral judgments may apply in concrete settings.

Pope Francis brings to his pastoral visit a belief that he and the Catholic Church should “meet people where they are.”  During 15 years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, that meant being an active presence among the poor in the villas miserias.  Now he links that pastoral injunction to global issues of poverty, development, and the environment.  He appears to feel a deep responsibility to spur action but at the same time a strong grasp of the intractability of the larger processes, political and natural, involved.  He has said more than once that he expects his papacy to be brief, suggesting that he may view this trip within a God-given responsibility to use his limited time and moral authority to help us confront the most fundamental problems of our future together in this world.  Latin Americans have shown growing awareness of these problems.  Their response to this trip is probably not best judged by Mass attendance but rather by whether they can take concrete steps to link, as Francis does, the “cry of the poor” and the “cry of the earth” in their societies. 

July 7, 2015

* Alexander Wilde is editor of Religious Responses to Violence: Human Rights in Latin America Past and Present (University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming December 2015). 

The Amazon Basin: Rainforests, Oil, Politics, and the U.N. Climate Negotiations

By Todd A. Eisenstadt and Karleen Jones West

Photo by Caroline Bennett / Rainforest Action Network / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Caroline Bennett / Rainforest Action Network / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Research that we have undertaken with National Science Foundation support indicates that rural, indigenous, and impoverished citizens in Latin America mobilize on environmental issues out of simple self-interest.  In daily testimonials at last week’s meeting in Lima of the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCC), activists reaffirmed that they have been mobilizing all across Latin America to protect their land and water.  The conventional argument in the political science scholarly literature is that environmental issues are a post-materialist concern that influence only the relatively affluent populations of advanced democracies, but our research shows that the self-interest of vulnerable populations in developing countries is a powerful motivation for environmental consciousness.

Original data from a national survey we conducted in Ecuador this year point to three interest-driven hypotheses as explaining attitudes towards the environment.  First, similar to literature developing in geography, vulnerability to environmental changes that impact on people’s livelihood greatly enhances interest in environmental issues.  Second, political competition affects individuals’ environmental concerns because politics determine the extent to which citizens will benefit from extraction as a development policy.  Third, we claim – particularly for respondents in the Amazon region subsample – that a respondent’s location on the “extractive frontier” (i.e. whether they live in an area where extraction is under consideration) will affect their level of environmental concern.  Using original survey data from Ecuador, we find that populations threatened by environmental change and who are on extractive frontiers (where mining and oil concessions are being considered) are more likely to express concern over the environment, but that these factors are conditional upon how much citizens trust that the government will use profits from extraction to invest in their communities.

The meetings in Lima and implementation of its results are testing the findings of our research.  The social impact of the 2009 Baguazo – the slaying of some 33 protestors against mining in Peru’s Bagua Province – is still a recent memory to many and is a constant reminder that the “extractive frontier” is long, dynamic, and fraught with social conflict.  For Ecuador, Peru, and the other Amazon Basin nations on the front lines of climate change, our findings imply that in this part of the developing world at least, vulnerability to environmental change has a great impact on public opinion.  Competing political interests and debate over whether to accept mineral or petroleum extraction is also intense because of the trade-offs they entail between environmental conservation and economic growth.  This is not a new debate, but one which is acquiring more precise definition by academics in studies such as ours (click here for full paper) as well as the policymakers who last week pushed the debate onward to Paris in 2015, where a new climate change framework is expected from the UN.

December 16, 2014