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Climate change causes more refugees than an armed conflict

October 10, 2014


Miguel Ochavano, Paoyhan shaman (Peru)

L. Florez (Action4Climate)

Latin America faces a mass exodus of rural inhabitants and indigenous peoples

When the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – created to aid refugees during World War II – begins to address climate change, it seems clear that forced migration will be one of the main consequences of this phenomenon.

The UNHCR estimates that between 250 million and one billion people throughout the world will lose their homes or be forced to move from their region or even country over the next 50 years. In Latin America, an increasing number of people are facing the difficult choice of whether to stay or to emigrate.

It is a decision that Atahualpa Valdez and the other 40,000 residents of Cartí Sugtupu are already facing as sea levels rise and threaten both their and the other islands of the Kuna Yala Archipelago, located off the Panamanian coast,. Some people want to stay but others prefer the solid ground of the mainland.

 “I used to have a house here but it collapsed,” says Valdez. “The waves took almost everything.”

 Pablo Preciado, one of the elders on Cartí Sugtupu, says: “It is not easy just to cross over [to the mainland] because many people are not used to living there. It is a drastic change.”

Latin America at risk

The global climate is changing and the effects are already being seen throughout Latin America. Sea levels are rising, droughts are threatening food production in Central America and the Caribbean, and heavy rains are causing serious flooding in the south.

If the average global temperature continues to rise, Latin America will be one of the world’s most affected regions in a few years. Climate change could lead to mass migrations all over the world, driving people from their homes and communities, just as they were during the major wars of the last century.

In Peru, for example, major flooding in recent years has destroyed crops belonging to indigenous peoples living in the Amazon region and has also increased the spread of disease. Nonetheless, Paoyhan residents are not willing to leave their ancestral lands.

 “It is a major concern for the community; previously, these types of disasters did not happen,” says Miguel Ochavano, a local shaman. “It worries me when my family has no food. What will happen to us?” he wondered.

" I remember I used to have a house here, but it collapsed. The waves took almost everything. "

Atahualpa Valdez

Resident, island of Cartí Sugtupa, Panama

The most vulnerable

In the first three months of 2014, nearly 1.5 million Latin Americans suffered the consequences of extreme climate events, mainly floods, according to the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

In addition to floods, water shortages are also affecting Latin America. The region, which has extensive agricultural lands, could play a key role in the food security of millions of people, but rising temperatures have caused severe droughts in recent years.

Worldwide, last August was the hottest on record. What’s more, August was the 354th consecutive month with higher-than-average temperatures, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

These high temperatures have left their mark on Usain Bolt’s hometown of Sherwood Content, Jamaica, which depends on sweet potato, banana and cocoa production.

“When I arrived in 1967, there was a lot of water,” recalls Lilian Bolt. “Today it is only windy and dry. If it doesn’t rain during the season, the harvest is lost.”

The stories of Lilian, Miguel, Atahualpa and other Latin Americans affected by climate change were collected in a series of documentaries that were entered into a global contest organized by the World Bank.

 “We wanted people (especially youth) to connect, to raise awareness about the issues and then promote solutions at all levels,” says Francis Dobbs, one of the organizers of the Action4Climate competition. “Climate change is here and now. We all have a global responsibility to change course,” he said.

More than 230 documentary filmmakers from 70 countries responded to the call. Eight of the finalists are from Latin America. The hope is that through their videos, they can help prevent millions of people from having to flee their homes and lands due to the effects of climate change.