Central America, and especially its Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, are front and center in the Biden administration’s foreign policy priorities. These countries face major challenges in terms of insecurity, corruption, joblessness and vulnerability to natural disasters, which collectively drive mass migration of Central Americans to the United States.
As we continue to face a refugee crisis on the U.S. southern border, it is imperative to address the destabilizing threat posed by environmental degradation in the region. In particular, climate change and illegal cattle ranching—often by organized crime and narcotrafficking entities—is driving forest destruction and lawlessness within Central America’s largest wildernesses, directly imperiling the physical, cultural, food and water security of local communities and Indigenous peoples.
The Biden administration has pledged to recommit the U.S. to Central America through a strategy that targets the rule of law, endemic corruption and economic growth. The U.S.–Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act, signed into law in December, appropriated $577 million to Central America, requiring the development in the next six months of a five-year strategy to support inclusive economic growth in Northern Triangle countries.
In order to achieve its goals, the U.S. government must incorporate nature conservation and climate change resilience into the plan.
Central America is a globally important biodiversity hotspot. With 0.5 percent of the world’s land surface, it holds 7 percent of its biological diversity, including rare and endangered species like jaguar, Baird’s tapir and harpy eagle. It’s also one of the world’s regions most vulnerable to climate change—with increasingly extreme storms and droughts that threaten national economies and the livelihoods of rural communities already suffering through COVID.
The countries of Central America want a new development pathway that protects their forests and biodiversity and mitigates the worst impacts of climate change. At the 2019 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Madrid, Central American countries announced their commitment to achieving carbon neutrality in the forest and agricultural sectors by 2040, including the protection of Central America’s five great forests. Yet they need help.
The Biden Administration recently signed an executive order announcing that the climate crisis will be at the forefront of the United States’ foreign policy and national security investments, including a climate finance plan. And wisely, the Biden plan for Central America includes a focus on “promoting transitions to clean energy, climate change adaptation and resilience.” However, the specific plan to achieve this still needs to be developed.
By implementing four critical nature-based development solutions, the Biden administration can ensure that climate resilience and nature conservation are an integral part of tackling the region’s challenges, thereby maximizing foreign assistance while improving security, prosperity, climate resilience and biodiversity conservation.
First, we must protect Central America’s last five great intact forests. Through executive action, the Biden administration committed to the 30 by 30 initiative—an ambitious plan to conserve at least 30 percent of the world’s lands and oceans by 2030. There is a groundswell of government support from around the world for these targets. The U.S. must extend its own policy priorities to a broader focus on forest conservation in Central America.
Spanning more than 12 million hectares, Central America’s five great forests hold half the region’s forest carbon stocks. They also provide water and other life-giving natural resources to five million people and are home to 500,000 Indigenous, Afro-descendant and mestizo people, whose land tenure and active involvement are critical in curbing climate change, preserving wildlife habitat and sustaining local livelihoods and cultures.
Second, we must crack down on narco-ranching. President Biden’s strategy commits to address organized crime, corruption and illegally acquired lands. In the five great forests, illegal cattle ranching accounts for some 90 percent of recent deforestation, driven largely by criminals who grab land from Indigenous and local communities and use it to launder drug money. An estimated 1–2 million head of cattle are trafficked as contraband from Central America to Mexico each year, many carrying transmissible diseases.
By bringing narco-ranchers to justice and removing cattle from key protected areas, the U.S. can address local insecurity, organized crime and deforestation all at the same time.
Third, we must embrace nature-based solutions and forest-compatible livelihoods: The Biden administration has rejoined the Paris Accord and recommitted to supporting the Green Climate Fund. In Central America there is opportunity to rebuild from the impacts of COVID-19 and 2020’s two major hurricanes in a qualitatively different manner, with a focus on nature-based economies and community resilience.
The region is well-positioned to migrate away from forest-harming activities. Costa Rica exemplifies the possibilities, having doubled its forest cover while growing its economy through decarbonization and direct payments for conservation that can outcompete cattle. The Biden administration can use government, bank and development agency mechanisms to remove incentives for ranching in forests, and embrace income streams that support Indigenous peoples.
Finally, we must rebuild more resiliently. New infrastructure and development projects should consider climate-sensitive practices like protecting forests, mangroves and coral reefs to buffer the impacts of hurricanes; preventing and combating forest fires; and maintaining vital ecosystem services to help Indigenous communities and national economies adapt to climate change.
By reforming two of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions—the agriculture and forest sectors—Central America can keep the five great forests’ CO2 out of the atmosphere while also conserving the region’s rich biodiversity. The U.S. should condition funding to help Central America build back better with climate-resilient development.
By following these suggestions, the Biden administration has a tremendous opportunity to catalyze meaningful and lasting change for a safer and more prosperous Central America – a critical step towards stemming out-migration from the region toward the U.S. border.
This is an opinion and analysis article.