On the northern coast of Honduras, Anabel Nuñez and other leaders from the Afro-Indigenous Garifuna community of Triunfo de la Cruz inspected the damages wrought by Hurricane Eta. Four homes on the collective land title were completely destroyed by the Gamma River, which was created by a tropical storm 15 years ago when a river affected by oil palm plantations overflowed and branched off, running through Triunfo de la Cruz on its way to the Caribbean. Storm surge affected the coast, and uprooted coconut palms now lie along the shoreline. Residents had planted the trees to mitigate increasing coastal erosion, and they had recently started to bear fruit. Nuñez estimates the community lost up to half its traditional dugout canoes used for fishing, and many residents lost subsistence yucca, malanga, plantain, and other crops.
“The crops and little shelters people used when they worked the land were washed away,” Nuñez told The Intercept in a telephone interview. “They are just gone without a trace.”
Hurricane Eta devastated Indigenous communities in Central America this month as the U.S. formally withdrew from the world’s foremost climate accord. While international attention remained focused on the U.S. elections, Hurricane Eta made landfall in northeastern Nicaragua and then proceeded to make its way across Honduras, with severe impacts on Guatemala and other countries in the region as it headed back out to sea and regained hurricane strength before hitting the Florida coast.
With another hurricane, Iota, now bearing down on Central America, Triunfo de la Cruz will use its schools as shelters and is ramping up efforts at the donation distribution center it set up to manage the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. When Nuñez spoke with The Intercept, the community had not received any aid from the municipal government, but food supplies were coming in.
“They are from people with relatives here,” Nuñez said. “They are Garifuna sisters and brothers who live outside the country.”
There are Garifuna communities in Guatemala, Belize, and Nicaragua, but after Honduras, the largest Garifuna population resides in New York City. The Garifuna diaspora in the U.S. maintains close ties with coastal communities in Central America, and cross-border mutual aid networks offer support in the face of disaster. Garifuna have been heading north and sometimes back for decades.
Migration often spikes in the wake of crises, and the only comparable precedent for Eta’s destruction is Hurricane Mitch, which devastated northern Central America in 1998. Within a few months of Mitch’s landfall, U.S. and Mexican authorities reported record numbers of apprehensions of Hondurans fleeing the disaster. The fallout from Eta and Iota may create similar conditions.
As often happens, the populations that least contribute to climate change are bearing the brunt of its impacts. For many, it is disaster upon disaster. Indigenous territories were already under siege from violence, extractive industry and energy projects, tourism development, cattle ranching, and monoculture export crop plantations.
As Eta slowly made its way north, days of rain caused widespread flooding: washing out highways and bridges, submerging entire towns, and generating mass displacement. Millions of people have been affected. There are more than 145 confirmed deaths across Central America so far, but the toll will likely continue to rise. Many of the people missing are buried under landslides.
The populations that least contribute to climate change are bearing the brunt of its impacts.
That is the case in Quejá, an Indigenous Maya Poqomchi’ village north of Guatemala City where a mountainside gave way, burying close to 100 residents. Rescue workers had to call off the search due to increasingly unstable conditions as the rains continued. Several smaller landslides in other Indigenous highland regions also killed villagers.
Some predominantly Maya towns and communities in Guatemala remain partially or even fully submerged. Diversions of rivers by oil palm companies in eastern Guatemala exacerbated the flooding, according to Robin Macloni, director of the Defensoría Q’eqchi’, a Maya Q’eqchi’ rights and development organization based in El Estor, 190 miles east of the capital.
“Maize, bean, chile, and other crops were definitively lost in the Polochic region,” Macloni told The Intercept. “There are communities that lost everything.”
Hurricane Eta made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane before being downgraded to a tropical depression as it advanced overland. For many, it is reminiscent of Hurricane Mitch, which left at least 11,000 people dead and thousands missing. Eta’s death toll does not come close to that, but as with Mitch, Honduras was the hardest hit, and recovery will likely be measured in years or even decades.
Hurricane Mitch was considered a rare event, but that is no longer the case with Eta and Iota. This year’s Atlantic hurricane season has been so extreme that the naming of tropical storms ran through the alphabet well before Eta came along. Iota became a Category 5 hurricane on Monday and is expected to bring dangerous levels of rainfall to the countries hardest hit by Eta. “This rain would lead to significant, life-threatening flash flooding and river flooding, along with mudslides in areas of higher terrain,” according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
Photo: Yoseph Amaya/Getty Images; Seth Sidney Berry/SOPA/AP
In the face of increasingly frequent extreme weather events and rising sea levels, countries worked together to determine global measures to address and slow down climate change. The U.S. was a signatory to the resulting accord, the Paris Agreement, which entered into force in 2016 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In June 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the accord, but because the accord prevented signatories from giving notice of withdrawal for three years following ratification, the U.S. withdrawal officially occurred right when Eta was bearing down on Central America.
Eta made landfall in Nicaragua’s North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, first hitting the predominantly Indigenous Miskito coast before moving inland over more remote Indigenous Mayangna communities. The Mayangna won a groundbreaking collective land rights case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2001, but cattle ranching — linked to Nicaraguan beef exports to the U.S. — has been expanding for years into their territory and a biosphere reserve.
“We are invaded more and more every day,” said Byron Bucardo, a Mayangna leader from the Bosawas region. “Outsiders, who we call the colonos, arrive and they have help from municipal government officials, politicians, certain lawyers, and even some ex-leaders engaged in illegal land sales.”
Non-Indigenous settlers, some of whom work in tandem with large-scale cattle ranchers, clear-cut sections of the largest remaining tract of tropical rainforest in Central America, their cattle contaminate water sources, and they are often armed and aggressive. Dozens of Indigenous people in Nicaragua’s autonomous regions have been killed in recent years, including Mayangna villagers.
“There have been 12 murders this year,” Bucardo told The Intercept. “The authorities do not care.”
Some Mayangna villages are a day’s walk from the nearest road, and most do not have a cell signal. Not everyone got advance warning that Eta was headed their way, Bucardo said, and flooded communities are experiencing outbreaks of high fevers and diarrhea.
“They don’t have potable water resources. They get water from the rivers,” he said. “When the rivers swell, they bring contamination and dead animals.”
More than a week later, Bucardo said, food is scarce, no aid has arrived, and flooding and violent settlers complicate travel in and out of some areas.
Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala are the three most impoverished countries in Central America. Democracy is fragile at best after decades of U.S.-backed military dictatorships and civil wars, and high levels of polarization, corruption, and mistrust in government present severe complications for aid coordination efforts. In Honduras, for example, President Juan Orlando Hernández was an unindicted co-conspirator in a case against his brother, a former congressman convicted last year by a U.S. federal court on drug trafficking charges.
A team from Doctors Without Borders has been providing medical aid, including mental health services, at shelters in Choloma, Honduras. A textile factory-dominated area that is now the country’s third largest city, Choloma experienced severe flooding and displacement during Hurricane Eta, and the government has issued evacuation orders for low-lying areas ahead of Hurricane Iota’s arrival. Prior to Iota, health problems were already apparent in the shelters.
“Skin complications and respiratory symptoms will be continuous,” said Juan Carlos Arteaga, the Doctors Without Borders team leader in Choloma.
Arteaga’s main concerns are related to midterm consequences. Mental health crises are likely to become more acute and the coronavirus will remain a threat, as will a potential epidemic of dengue, chikungunya, or Zika, he said. The mosquito species that can carry the three viruses, all of which can be fatal, breeds in stagnant water, and floodwaters have receded in some areas but not others.
In shelters in northeastern Nicaragua, the government confirmed 354 cases of malaria. In Guatemala, health officials confirmed 86 Covid-19 cases in shelters in the Alta Verapaz department. In Honduras, doctors from a public hospital in San Pedro Sula stated that there have been coronavirus cases in some shelters.
Arteaga is also worried about basic supplies for evacuees, particularly food, given the initial outpouring of contributions in crisis situations often drops off long before the need subsides. “In the early days, there is always a lot of support,” he told The Intercept. “That usually fades.”
Hundreds of thousands of people were internally displaced across the region, and it is unclear how many will be able to return to their homes. The damage and displacement from Hurricane Mitch in 1998 contributed to the rise in Honduran and Salvadoran migration to the U.S. Both nationalities were granted temporary protected status in the wake of Mitch, allowing people already in the U.S. to remain due to conditions back home.
“At present there are no international cross-border protections for people who are displaced by climate-related disaster,” said Kayly Ober, who manages the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International, an NGO based in Washington, D.C.
National and temporary mechanisms such as temporary protected status have significant limitations and drawbacks, according to Ober. TPS only applies to people already in the U.S. when the status is granted, which excludes populations with less social and economic capital. It is a status that has to be renewed every six to 18 months and is often under threat of sudden termination.
Guatemala’s government has made a formal request for TPS for Guatemalans in the U.S. in the wake of Eta. “I very much doubt that this administration would take that request seriously,” Ober told The Intercept, noting that the U.S. government’s stance on TPS is likely to shift drastically in January. “Biden says he wants to ensure a pathway to citizenship for TPS holders.”
A spokesperson for Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to The Intercept’s query as to whether the Guatemalan government would consider making a second request for TPS after Biden takes office, should the Trump administration reject the request.
In Panama, most Indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé community residents have no intention of migrating to the U.S. or any other country. Many have been trying to defend their lands from mining and hydroelectric dam projects in recent years. But now, in the wake of Eta, some residents will need to be relocated within the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca, the most populous Indigenous jurisdiction in Panama and one of the country’s most impoverished regions.
“The national government did not respond immediately,” said Ricardo Miranda, a member of the National Council of Ngäbe-Buglé Youth. “It reacted late and made things more chaotic.”
Although Eta’s path was nowhere near Panama, rains from the storm caused extensive damages in the western province of Chiriquí, including Ngäbe-Buglé territory. Seventeen people in Panama died and two dozen are missing. In the Ngäbe-Buglé village of Boca de Remedio, a landslide buried a family of six. The bodies of a 35-year-old man and two children were recovered, but the search for the remaining three was halted due to risk, Miranda told The Intercept.
Hundreds of families have taken shelter in schools in Boca de Remedio and other villages in two Ngäbe-Buglé districts. In one area, the land is sinking and collapsing. In another, an overflowing river washed away homes. Key roads were destroyed, and now some villages that did not suffer damage from Eta’s rains are cut off and running out of food.
“An immediate response is urgent,” said Miranda, who has been helping coordinate aid efforts as part of his work with the youth council.
Some 850 miles away, Triunfo de la Cruz has pressing needs too, such as sleeping mats and sheets for the local school shelters, said Nuñez. When the pandemic hit, elected community council president Sneider Centeno had approached Nuñez, a nurse, about getting involved with the community aid center, and the two began working together closely.
But in July, Centeno and four other community men, including Garifuna federation members who were active in land rights struggles, were abducted from their homes by armed men wearing uniforms of the police directorate of criminal investigation. No one has heard from them since.
“To me it feels like it just happened today,” said Nuñez, her voice breaking. “As Garifuna we demand justice, and we demand they be brought back alive.”
After Centeno’s forced disappearance, a few people withdrew from the community aid efforts out of fear, but Nuñez never took a step back. If anything, she is even more committed to the initiative. Upon hearing the news late last month of Eta’s imminent arrival, Nuñez coordinated with a group of young women, and they are now working overtime as Hurricane Iota approaches. Centeno is often on her mind.
“I am doing this work in his memory,” she said.