The most common causes of migration in the Mesoamerican countries (the region stretching from southern Mexico to Costa Rica) are conflict and the degradation of the natural environment. In this article we consider both situations and the effect on the region of La Mosquitia in north-east Honduras.
Migration caused by conflict in the region
Civil wars in the 1970s and 1980s in the countries bordering Honduras, such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, forced the migration of several people groups into Honduras. The refugees who crossed the border from Nicaragua into the region of La Mosquitia belonged to the indigenous Miskito and Sumu Mayangna peoples. These people groups share cultural, ethnic and historical links with both countries. As a result, the refugees were initially welcomed into the communities and homes of the Honduran Miskitos. Soon, however, the number of refugees was so large that the Honduran Miskitos could no longer continue to take care of them.
The Nicaraguan refugees later received support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) through the work of an organisation called World Relief. The refugees were gathered together in an assembly and distribution centre in the village of Mocoron. The population of the village grew from 200 to 30,000 people. UNHCR and World Relief provided support in the form of food, housing, water, sanitation and various types of technical assistance.
The refugees were free to live and farm as they wanted. Sadly, this had a severe environmental impact. The refugees began to use the natural resources without considering sustainability or good farming practices. Hundreds of hectares of forest were cut down. Many species of animals, birds and fish started to disappear as a result of over-hunting and the loss of their natural habitat.
The civil war in Nicaragua ended in 1990 and the Nicaraguan refugees began to return to their country. Over the following years, the forest grew back in the areas that had been deforested and then abandoned by the refugees. Animals, birds and fish returned to the area.
Migration caused by degradation of the natural environment
Another major cause of migration in
Mesoamerica is the degradation of
ecosystems and a reduction in the fertility
of the land. The National Geographic
Society has compared vegetation cover
in Mesoamerica between 1950 and 2000.
The areas of forest have been greatly
reduced over this period. In the country of
Honduras itself, around 50 per cent of the
forest has been lost over the same period.
Much rainforest has been cut down so that
the land can be used for agriculture. For
example, large areas of forest have been
converted into land for grazing cattle.
According to a recent satellite analysis by
MOPAWI, the conversion of forests into
land for grazing cattle has nearly tripled
between 2000 and 2007 (see diagram).
Forest resources have also been exploited.
Trees have been cut down, mainly by
wealthy companies, to sell as timber. Land
has been cleared, usually illegally, in order
to build roads to transport the timber.
The non-sustainable practices used have
led to degradation of the land and local
ecosystems. This has increased poverty and
forced people to look for other ways of life.
One of the main destinations for migrants
is the tropical rainforest in the region
of La Mosquitia. Unfortunately, the
migrant families bring with them the non-sustainable environmental practices
that originally caused them to move.
The Mosquitia region itself has therefore
suffered from degradation of the land and
local ecosystems in recent years.
Migration to other areas
Environmental degradation has also
encouraged migration to urban areas, and
towards the United States of America.
Many people go in search of the ‘American
Dream’: employment, better educational
opportunities and better access to health
services for their children. However,
migrants often end up living on the edges
of towns which have limited or nonexistent
basic public health services such as
water and sanitation, and energy supplies.
Migration over land towards the United
States of America from Honduras means
crossing the borders of Guatemala and
Mexico. These crossings are very dangerous,
with high risk to life due to the conditions
in which the migrants are transported.
Hundreds of road accidents have been
recorded, which have left people, mainly
men, with no arms or legs. There have
also been frequent deaths due to falls
from trains or suffocation when hiding in
Responding to the situation
MOPAWI have identified three key ways of
reducing environmental degradation and,
at the same time, providing people with a
- Growing cocoa for markets This
provides families with an income as cocoa is in high demand. Parents are
able to send their children to school. Growing cocoa also helps agroforestry
as cocoa plants require shade from
other trees and plants.
- Export of cosmetics using local tree
products The export of these products
has strengthened the traditions of
the indigenous people to maintain
the forests and the biodiversity found
- Crop rotation Farmers plant the
fast-growing Guama fruit plants.
These are nitrogen-fixing plants and
they improve the soil quality. This
has improved the growth of other
crops such as maize, kidney beans and
There is a link between migration and
environmental deterioration. Where
migration is caused by conflict, the
number of people living in a particular
area increases very rapidly, and they
are dependent on the natural resources
available to them. Where migration occurs
because environmental resources have
been damaged or used up, people migrate
to forested land and often take with them
harmful practices regarding the use of
resources, which affects the environmental
sustainability of this new area. Although
migration and environmental deterioration
are linked, it is important to remember that
there are ways of reducing the impact on
Osvaldo Munguía is the Executive Director
4B 2a Calle
Co. Tres Caminos