New maps of land destruction show why people flee Central America

November 30, 2018
A portion of new world map shows changing landscapes in North and South America. White indicates little or no change. Darker shades indicate the highest rate of change in each category.

A new map developed at the University of Cincinnati illustrates one motivating force behind migrant caravans leaving Guatemala and Honduras to reach the United States.

UC geography professor Tomasz Stepinski has turned high-resolution satellite images from the European Space Agency into one of the most detailed looks so far at how people are reshaping the planet.

Stepinski said: “Right now there are caravans of people walking to the United States. Many of them are coming from Guatemala.”

News agencies such as The Guardian have called some of the Central American migrants “climate-change refugees” since many are fleeing successive years of crop failure. Stepinski says climate change tells only part of the story. His map shows how Guatemala has seen widespread deforestation. 

“They’ve lost the forest because people use wood for fuel,” he said. “It’s one part of the refugee crisis.”

The map illustrates how 22% of the Earth’s habitable surface has been altered in measurable ways, primarily from forest to agriculture, between 1992 and 2015.

The map shows how finite natural resources are being exploited on a global scale. “What makes this so depressing is that it’s examining a timescale that is shorter than our lifetime,” Stepinski said.

UC geography researcher Pawel Netzel, who also contributed to the project, says western China has been impacted by vast urbanisation while India’s most obvious development has been in its smaller cities. 

“As a society, we need to be better informed of the scale of changes we make to the Earth and, in my opinion, this awareness can influence future changes in environmental policies,” Netzel said.

While the map tells the story of development in broad strokes, researchers can examine any portion of it in fine detail. The map presents data from each 300-square-meter pixel. The project was published in the International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation.

[Abridged from Climate and Capitalism and adapted from materials provided by the University of Cincinnati.]

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