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Guatemalan farmer weighs leaving family behind to go to U.S. as climate change, poverty forces migrants from homes

How climate change drives migration to U.S.
How climate change drives migration to U.S. 03:00

Ruben Che is a farmer in the hillsides of Guatemala. However, the crops that have supported generations of his family in the area are gone due to natural disasters made worse by climate change — leaving him with a desperate choice that so many in Central America are facing.

"This is the coffee bean," he told CBS News' Manuel Bojorquez, showing him a lifeless plant.

Those and his cardamom crops stood no chance when the valley he farmed in turned into a lake, after back-to-back hurricanes lashed the region with intensity and rainfall. 

Like many in the area, Che was lured by billboards advertising a farmer's dream. He took out a loan to get the operation running again. Still, nothing has grown.

Speaking in Spanish, Che told Bojorquez that he has no way of repaying his debt now that his crops are ruined.

The ad drawing his attention now is a smuggler's, advertising a trip to the U.S.

Che said he does not want to leave his wife and five-year-old son behind, but he struggles to envision a future for them on the hillside.

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A handful of dried coffee beans from farmer Ruben Che's flooded out farm.  Photos by Gilad Thaler

Professor Edwin Castellanos, a climate expert at the University of the Valley of Guatemala, said the prevalent issues for people in the region such as poverty and food insecurity are being compounded by climate change. 

"The problem is that not only we are seeing these extreme weather events in terms of too much rain, we are also seeing the opposite in terms of too little rain," he said. "We have seen a huge increase in extreme events, including flooding, storms, but also drought."

His research shows a dramatic spike in severe weather events in the region over the last decade compared to those past. 

And while climate change continues to be a highly-debated topic in the U.S., Castellanos said Guatemalans have a different lived experience.

"I think that if you ask most people here in Guatemala, it will be evident that most people believe in climate change because they have seen the change in the climate," he said.

Asked what could be done to keep people from fleeing to other countries, Castellanos' answer was modest improvement.

"These are families who have lived in extreme poverty for many years. And so they are not really expecting big changes," he said. "Small changes, a small amount of help would make a huge difference for these families."

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Professor Edwin Castellanos shows correspondent Manuel Bojorquez his research on how extreme weather exacerbated by climate change is fueling immigration. Photos by Gilad Thaler
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