Before they became climate migrants, the people of Enseada da Baleia had lived on Cardoso Island, a secluded, wildlife-rich community about 170 southwest of São Paulo, for over a century. As caiçaras, coastal-dwelling descents of Brazil’s indigenous, Black, and Europeans, many of the locals’ traditions were based on their relationship with the surrounding ocean, marshes, and mangroves. But that changed in the 1990s when locals noticed the ocean coming closer and closer to their homes. By 2015, the thin stretch of sand separating the community from the sea was only 72 feet. Less than two years later, the gap had shrunk to 39 feet. 

The government gave the community two options: to relocate to the nearest city — where they risked losing many of their traditions — or move to an unfamiliar community on the same island. Neither situation felt right to many members of the community, who said their identities were too closely linked to their environment.

“I go with my broken heart,” said resident Débora Mendonça, in an interview with the refugee-focused publication Forced Migration Review. “It was here that we created ourselves.” 

Climate migration is already a hot topic in a world that, according to the latest United Nations report, is on track to get much hotter. But a “successful” retreat from rising seas, worsening wildfires and floods, or more severe droughts doesn’t just mean relocating people from point A to point B. Ideally, the transition also includes a certain level of cultural competency and data collection — something that experts say governments in regions like South America should be thinking about sooner rather than later.

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“We know that climate change will increase disasters, and we know that these disasters will merge with pre-existent vulnerabilities [like poverty] and create a breeding soil for migrations,” said Brazilian lawyer Erika Pires Ramos, a co-founder of the South American Network for Environmental Migrations, or Resama. She worked with the Enseada da Baleia community during its climate relocation in 2017. Rather than move to an area chosen by the government, the village wanted to choose a place for itself that they felt was culturally and environmentally appropriate. 

While Enseada da Baleia residents eventually relocated to a new location further inland on the same island, paying for the move themselves, Pires Ramos believes that their dilemma showcased how overlooked climate migrants are throughout much of Latin America: If countries don’t know who climate migrants are — what they need, where they came from, or why they left — they won’t be able to help them, nor prevent new migrations from the same areas, Pires Ramos said. “Right now, climate migrants are invisible in our region.” 

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, report released last week, the northeast corner of South America and the majority of Central America are projected to become even hotter and drier in the coming decades. The report, however, sticks solely to the physical science of climate change; an analysis by the IPCC of the impacts of these changes is expected next year. 

“You can’t say anything definitive about what’s going to happen with migration in the region with these [latest] predictions,” explained Susana Adamo, a research scientist at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University. She said that migrations are complicated processes that respond to multiple factors, including how governments will mitigate those physical changes or how badly droughts will impact things like agriculture and energy production (around half of Latin America’s energy comes from hydropower). 

But advocates like Pires Ramos say there’s already enough evidence to get worried. Previous research has shown that extreme heat and drought are more strongly related to migration than other changes in climate and weather patterns, like increased rains (which, depending on the context, can be a positive thing). And a landmark 2018 World Bank report found that by 2050, between 9.4 and 17 million people will migrate in Latin America due to water scarcity, lost crops, and rising sea levels.

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Central and South America are no strangers to human movements, said Pablo Escribano, the Americas and the Caribbean specialist in Migration, Environment, and Climate Change at the International Organization for Migration, or IOM. Internal migrations — when people relocate within the same country —  are well documented throughout  the region, with nearly 11 million South Americans resettling or temporarily moving intranationally due to natural disasters in the last decade. But that data is almost non-existent when it comes to Latin American migration brought on by low-burn emergencies like droughts, Escribano said. 

Mexico, for example, is the only country in the region with plans to include a question in its national census asking if someone left their home for climate-related reasons, the Latin American Observatory on Human Mobility, Climate Change, and Disasters found in a recent analysis. Similarly, there is no climate-related migratory status in most Latin American countries. Though a few like Argentina and Brazil have a sort of “disaster emergency visa,” the authorizations are temporary and don’t include many details about the reasons for relocation. 

According to the Latin American Observatory on Human Mobility, Climate Change, and Disasters, countries generally fail to collect follow up with migrants beyond the immediate days after a climate-related emergency. That dearth of data makes it impossible to know where displaced groups eventually end up — information that could help with resource management and policy design.  

Gathering better data and anticipating an uptick in extreme weather-related resettlement could help countries respond more effectively to climate migrants’ needs. That shift is already underway in a few Latin American countries. In Perú, for example, a multi-agency group is creating a plan to prevent and manage climate migrations, following a mandate included in the country’s national climate change law. Uruguay, the tiny coastal country tucked between Brazil and Argentina, already has a national resettlement plan; and officials in Chile have created a Migration and Disaster Risk Management Board tasked with using preventive approach to tackle environmental emergencies, including climate change.

While the IPCC’s sixth assessment on climate impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability won’t be released until last year, Pires Ramos said she believes countries shouldn’t wait too long to connect the dots between climate change and climate migration. “Human movement will come with the predicted temperature rise observed by the IPCC,” she said. “And we can’t keep thinking and planning to act in 2030 0r 2040. The report is clear: we need to think now and act now. And with climate migration –well, we needed to have acted by yesterday.”