Carmen knew the family was in trouble when her husband Pedro, a farmer, wore out his work boots.
Those boots were his only pair of shoes. “They literally fell apart,” she explained. “And we couldn’t afford to replace them.”
Juana’s dad was still living with the family, even though many of the other dads in her village had left to find work. “It was a struggle for my parents to provide school uniforms and shoes,” she said. “I know they made sacrifices so that my sisters and I could study.”
And one year, Juana remembers, one of those other girls had a brand-new doll. “Growing up, we never had toys, and to this day, I’ve never had a doll,” she recalled.
When Miguel’s family was sharecropping, having a large family was an advantage, as all the kids could help work the land. But a land grant and land ownership didn’t have the positive effect on families that it should have.
“Suddenly, we had too many sons and not enough land to go around,” he said. “They couldn’t begin and support their own families, and there was no cash to rent or buy more land.”
For decades, many Mexican and Central American families have depended on the land, and subsistence farming has been the norm.
There’s a place to live without paying rent, even though it may be a basic shelter with a dirt floor and no electricity. But it’s home.
The family is safe and together, and the family system supports each other. There’s almost always corn, beans and tortillas, and often mangoes, papayas or yuca, supplemented by rice.
Extremes in the climate are nothing new to this region. Alternating between rainy and dry seasons is the norm, with months of rain followed by months of drought.
Many of these countries are also affected by tropical storms and the accompanying heavy rains and winds. In recent years, the frequency and intensity of the extremes has changed, along with unexpected weather events.
Where farmers could once count on somewhat predictable weather patterns for planting and harvesting, this is no longer the case. This has had devastating consequences for small rural farmers and their families, who often live on the edge of poverty.
The rainy season starts later and has become more irregular and difficult to predict, and the intensity of rainfall has been increasing during the onset season.
Drought is also more frequent, and current trends suggest that the region is in store for a decrease in overall precipitation in the years to come. These changes make things hard for farmers.
Carmen’s husband Pedro calculated the timing for planting. However, rather than a gentle rain falling each day during the onset of the rainy season, the rains came suddenly, hard and heavy, and washed the new seedlings away.
He bought new seed and replanted them. This time, the harsh Central American sun was relentless, and no rains came. Pedro could only watch as his precious seedlings baked in the sun.
Carmen and Pedro watched this cycle over several years until Pedro’s work boots finally gave out. There was no money to replace them, and no money for more seed or for food, for school uniforms and shoes for the kids.
He didn’t want to leave his family, but with no options for loans and no savings left, his only option was to leave home and seek work.
Climate change directly affects small farmers like Pedro, but it also affects the overall economy, particularly in countries where a large percentage of the population works in agriculture.
As market crops like coffee or bananas are negatively affected, there is less work even as overall food prices increase. And migration, both internal and external, is necessary for survival.
The Climate Reality Project reports that “major climate-related displacement isn’t coming – it’s already started. Central Americans are buckling under the weight of soaring heat, powerful storms, changing precipitation patterns, and agricultural worries.”
Add to this the impact of other unexpected and extreme weather events, such as two back-to-back historically strong hurricanes (Eta and Iota) that killed hundreds and forced many from their homes, and the situation is dire.
Widespread poverty and food insecurity is a daily reality for many in this region, and families are forced to make difficult decisions.
With the rising cost of food and scarcity of jobs, people are forced to migrate beyond the boundaries of their own countries. Migration is no longer driven by a desire for “a better life”; migration is necessary for survival.
Juana left home at age 17. Her dad is no longer able to farm. Today, she sends money to support her parents, as well as boxes of used clothing, toys and other items.
Her mother distributes these goods to other families in need in their indigenous village in Guatemala. “The people there have nothing. There’s no work, no food. This is the least I can do,” says Juana.
Miguel, an Indigenous pastor in Chiapas, Mexico, prays regularly for the young men in his village who have “gone north.” He hears the stories from distraught families whose sons or daughters disappeared on the journey, or fell prey to the cartels, or are depressed and alone in the U.S.
He prays for his own sons, that they will not have to make the difficult decision to leave.
And Miguel prays for the weather, for crops and livestock to survive and for floods to not wash out the roads and isolate their remote village.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week highlighting the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The other articles in the series are:
‘Bootstrap Theology’ Offers Flawed Perspective on Poverty | Terrell Carter
Why I Felt Ashamed After Visiting a New Church | Emma Fraley
The Tragedy of Poverty in a Rich Land | Scott Stearman
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel working with LUCHA Ministries in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Sue and her husband, Greg, are also part of CBF’s Advocacy Action Team for Immigrants and Refugees.