Climate refugees–who’s next?

This week it was reported that thousands of people of the Tarahumara indigenous group, who live in the Sierra Madre range in northwest Mexico, have been coming down out of the mountains to seek food aid, because after two years of severe drought, coupled with unusual cold this winter, they are reaching their breaking point.  Faced with starvation, they have become climate refugees.

The Tarahumara are known in Mexico for their incredible endurance in long-distance running.  They are a proud people who have held themselves aloof from modernized Mexican culture, still keeping their ancient traditions of weaving, hunting and farming.  They still speak their ancestral language, and they have always been able to take care of themselves.

Until now.

In what is sure to be a trend in the coming years, it is the people who live furthest out on the margins of Empire who are affected first and most harshly by climate change.  People living on South Sea atoll islands or on the Arctic tundra are already seeing the effects of the rising seas and thawing permafrost.  Mountain people who depend on glacial melt for their freshwater are coming up dry.

We here in the heart of modern Western civilization are still feeling no pain.  In fact, I can’t count how many people have grinned at me this week as they celebrated the lovely spring weather we’re having in January—in the fifties, Farenheit, in midwinter.

Yes, it’s just grand—until summer comes and we’re still 40 degrees above normal, roasting at 120 degrees F on a typical August day.

In Mexico, the severe drought has left some two million people without access to potable water and basic food supplies, and authorities say they expect the situation to worsen.

This is bad enough, but it gets worse:

“The drought, which has been compounded by freezing temperatures, has already pushed up the cost of some produce, including corn and beans….But government officials have said they do not expect the price of exports to be affected.”

I am sure all readers of that NY Times article were reassured to hear that the cost of their imported avocados, tomatoes and other vegetables will be unaffected.  Who cares that corn and beans, the staff of life for millions of Mexicans, will cost poor people more?  That’s their problem!

Until it becomes ours.  If corn and beans become unaffordable in Mexico, and sustenance farming is no longer an option in a drought-stricken landscape, what comes next?  You guessed it, illegal emigration al Norte.  What other choice do these people have but to take the risk of trying to cross the border?

Up here, anti-immigrant fervor continues to burn.  Just this week House Republicans passed a law seeking to deny cash refunds under the child tax credit to anyone filing tax returns using “individual taxpayer identification numbers” rather than Social Security numbers.

Most of the people filing taxes without Social Security numbers are hardworking Latino immigrants who are paying taxes even though their earnings are at or below the poverty level.  Their children, many of whom are American-born citizens, will pay the brunt of their parents’ loss of the child care tax credit.

But really–who cares? Who gives a good goddamn if the poor can eat?  Just so long as we can still buy gleaming fresh produce year-round, and no one messes with our electricity or gasoline, let the rest of the world go to hell.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m being sarcastic.  Seriously, this arrogant attitude is only going to be able to go so far.  Today’s climate refugees, tomorrow’s undocumented workers, are the harbinger of what may very well befall all of us as the climate keeps spinning out of control.

Just as in our forests, it is often the oldest, most majestic trees that are under the greatest strain from climate change, our oldest, proudest ethnic groups are also under tremendous strain now.  The Tarahumara managed to survive the Spanish Conquest, the Mexican Revolutionary War and the Industrial Revolution…but if they can no longer grow crops in their homeland, they must move or die.

Indigenous people like the Tarahumara have the best chance of actually surviving a catastrophic climate shift, because they still know how to live a low-consumption lifestyle, close to the earth.  We would do well to learn from them, and other indigenous groups worldwide, while their cultural traditions are still intact.

Those of us still enjoying the luxuries of Empire should be cognizant that for us too, it’s only a matter of time.

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