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Environment Underlying Cause Of Refugee Crisis, UC Professor Says

Moises Castillo
In this photo from May 2019 women wait to collect water in the village of El Tesoro, in Guatemala. Experts say climate change means more extreme weather, and Guatemala lacks the resources, and, critics say, political will to help impoverished areas.

A University of Cincinnati space professor who studies everything from Mars to maps is taking a deeper look into why so many people are coming to the U.S. Twenty-five years of satellite maps show deforestation and subsequent climate change are driving migrants to leave Central America.

Tomasz Stepinski, a geography and space exploration professor, decided to look at data from European space agencies dating back to 1992 to see if he could draw any conclusions.

"When you cut a significant portion of the forest, the climate changes and when the climate changes, you may not be able to grow certain crops and this may be a contributing factor to the crisis which is in these countries," he speculated.

Looking at the satellite images - which you can see in this article - he pointed to Guatemala. "You see this brown means loss of forest, a severe loss of forest. That's a pretty big area, one-third of the country, maybe more in the region." Nicaragua is also suffering from deforestation Stepinski says.

Leila Rodriguez, a UC anthropologist, is an expert on the Central American global refugee crisis. She interviewed people who came to the U.S. "They'll talk to you about extreme poverty. They'll talk to you about hunger. They'll talk to you about violence but all of these approximate causes have these root causes of which the environment is absolutely one of them."

Rodriguez says when it comes to migration there are three classifications. "There's a very small number of highly insular countries where no one enters and no one leaves. Nobody wants to be in one of those. There's the countries that people migrate from and they migrate to. I think you're lucky if you live in one of the countries that people migrate to."

She says there is no easy answer to the refugee crisis, only a true global management where the burden is shared more evenly.

Stepinski has made other observations from looking at satellite data. Here are a few of them:

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.