The last residents of a coastal Mexican town destroyed by climate change

Dec 13, 2023, 7:20 AM

A window frames a portion of the shore littered with debris left from flooding driven by a Gulf of ...

A window frames a portion of the shore littered with debris left from flooding driven by a Gulf of Mexico sea-level rise, in the coastal community of El Bosque, in the state of Tabasco, Mexico, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

(AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

EL BOSQUE, Mexico (AP) — People moved to El Bosque in the 1980s to fish. Setting out into the Gulf of Mexico in threes and fours, fishermen returned with buckets of tarpon and long, streaked snook. There was more than enough to feed them, and build a community — three schools, a small church and a basketball court on the sand.

Then climate change set the sea against the town.

Flooding driven by some of the world’s fastest sea-level rise and by increasingly brutal winter storms has all but destroyed El Bosque, leaving piles of concrete and twisted metal rods where houses used to line the sand. Forced to flee the homes they built, locals are waiting for government aid and living in rentals they can scarcely afford.

The U.N. climate summit known as COP28 finally agreed this month on a multimillion-dollar loss-and-damage fund to help developing countries cope with global warming. It will come too late for the people for El Bosque, caught between Mexico’s economically vital national petroleum company and the environmental peril that it fuels.

A rusting sign at the town’s entrance says over 700 people lived in El Bosque two years ago. Now there are barely a dozen. In between those numbers lie the relics of a lost community. At the old, concrete fishing cooperative, one of the few solid buildings left, enormous, vault-like refrigerators have become makeshift storage units for belongings — pictures, furniture, a DVD of Guinness World Records 3 — that families left behind.

Guadalupe Cobos is one of the few still living in El Bosque. A diabetic, she improvises a cooler for her insulin after each flood cuts power. Residents’ relationship with the sea is “like a toxic marriage,” Cobos said, sitting facing the waves on a recent afternoon.

“I love you when I’m happy, right? And when I’m angry I take away everything that I gave you,” she said.

Up to 8 million Mexicans will be displaced by climate change-driven flooding, drought, storms and landslides within the next three decades, according to the Mayors Migration Council, a coalition researching Mexican internal migration.

Along with rapidly rising water levels, winter storms called “nortes” have eaten more than one-third of a mile (500 meters) inland since 2005, according to Lilia Gama, an ecology professor and coastal vulnerability researcher at Tabasco Juarez State University.

“Before, if a norte came in, it lasted one or two days,” said Gama, sitting above the university’s crocodile enclosure. “The tide would come in, it would go up a little bit and it would go away.”

Now winter storms stay for several days at a time, trapping El Bosque’s few remaining locals in their houses if they don’t evacuate early enough. A warming climate spins up more frequent storms as it slams into ultra-cold polar air, and then storms last longer — fueled by hotter air, which can hold more moisture.

Local scientists say one more powerful storm could destroy El Bosque for good. Relocation, slowed by bureaucracy and a lack of funding, is still months away.

As the sun sets over the beach, Cobos, known as Doña Lupe to neighbors, pointed to a dozen small, orange stars on the line of the horizon — oil platforms burning off gas they have failed to capture.

“There is money here,” she said, “but not for us.”

As El Bosque was settled, state oil company Pemex went on an exploration spree in the Gulf — tripling crude oil production and making Mexico into a major international exporter.

As the international community clamors for countries to wind down fossil fuel use, the single leading cause of climate change, Mexico next year plans to open a new refinery in its biggest oil-producing state, just 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of El Bosque.

Gulf of Mexico sea levels are already rising three times faster than the global average, according to a study co-authored by researchers from the United Kingdom’s National Oceanography Center and universities in New Orleans, Florida and California this March.

The stark difference is partly caused by changing circulation patterns in the Atlantic as the ocean warms and expands.

The acceleration has also strengthened massive coastal storms like hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, researchers said, and doubled records of high-tide flooding from the Gulf up to Florida.

“In the 10 years before the acceleration, you might have had a period of rather slow sea-level rise. So people might have gotten a feeling of safety along the coastline, and then the acceleration kicks in. And things change very rapidly,” said lead scientist Sönke Dangendorf.

When Eglisa Arias Arias, a grandmother of two, moved to El Bosque alone, she was excited to have her own garden for the first time, and it was rarely troubled by the sea. Her house was flooded in a storm on Nov. 3 and she has rented an apartment a short drive inland.

“I miss everything. I miss all the noise of the sea. I mean the noise of this sea,” she said.

Swathes of the coast known as the Emerald Coast in the state of Veracruz are storm-battered, flooded and falling into the sea, and a quarter of neighboring Tabasco state will be inundated by 2050, according to one study.

Around the world, coastal communities facing similar slow-motion battles with the water have begun beating what is called “managed retreat.” Locals on the Gaspé peninsula of Quebec have been gradually fleeing the coast for over a decade, and just last year New Zealand’s government promised financial aid for some of the 70,000 homes it said will soon need to seek higher ground.

Very little, however, seems managed about the retreat from El Bosque. When the Xolo family fled their home on Nov. 21, they left in the middle of the night, all 10 children under a tarpaulin in pouring rain.

Now they practice math on an app. In the carcass of El Bosque’s primary school, attendance books are still on the floor with sodden pages and, in the preschool, alphabet cutouts cling to the wall.

First Áurea Sanchez, the Xolo family matriarch, took her family to a shelter at the local recreation center inland. Then, a few days later, a moving van arrived unannounced to remove the center’s only fridge and the shelter was closed.

“It can’t be,” Sanchez remembers thinking. “They can’t leave us without food without telling us right?”

Later that afternoon, an official arrived to announce the closure.

When The Associated Press visited El Bosque at the end of November, a moderate storm had flooded the one road to the community so that it was accessible only by foot, or motorbike. That same day the shelter was closed, apparently permanently, with papered-over windows and a government sign advertising “8 steps to protect your health in the event of a flood.”

The national housing department, responsible for operating the shelter, did not respond when asked why it was closed, or if it would reopen.

Meanwhile, new houses will not be ready before fall 2024, according to Raúl García, head of Tabasco’s urban development department, who added that, “I wish we could do it faster.”

Advocates, and García himself, said the process is too slow, and that Mexico needs new laws to cut through bureaucracy and quickly make money available for victims of climate change. Mexico does have a fund for climate adaptation, but for 2024 most of it will be spent on a train project already widely criticized for destroying parts of the Yucatan jungle.

Instead, President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, born just a few hours inland, has made oil development a key part of his nationalist platform. That might change if polls prove accurate and former Mexico City Mayor and accomplished scientist Claudia Sheinbaum is elected president next year. Despite being Lopéz Obrador’s protégé, she pledges to commit Mexico to sustainability, a promise which is more urgent than ever.

Since she fled her home on Nov 3. Arias spends some afternoons with her niece, helps her neighbors with the dishes or bakes upside-down pineapple cake with them. These are welcome distractions from the now-daily deliberation between buying food and paying rent.

More difficult still, however, are her memories of El Bosque and her home by the waves.

“I would go to sleep listening to the sea’s noise and I would wake up with that, with that noise. I would always hear his noises and that’s why when I would talk to him I would tell him I know I’m going to miss you because with that noise you taught me how to love you.”

When the flood came for Arias’ house, she only asked the sea for enough time to collect her things, and it gave her that.

“And so, when I left there, I said goodbye to the sea. I gave him thanks for the time he was there for me.”


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The last residents of a coastal Mexican town destroyed by climate change