POLITICS

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

Dec 13, 2023, 7:49 AM

EL BOSQUE, Mexico (AP) — People moved to El Bosque on the Gulf of Mexico in the 1980s to fish and build a community. 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 twisted piles of concrete where houses used to line the sand. Forced to flee the homes they built, locals are waiting for government aid 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 of El Bosque, but by 2050 millions more Mexicans will be displaced by climate change, according to the Mayors Migration Council, a coalition researching internal migration.

Just two years ago over 700 people lived in El Bosque; barely a dozen are left.

Between those numbers lie the relics of a lost community. At one of the few solid buildings left — the old, concrete fishing cooperative — enormous, vault-like refrigerators have become makeshift storage units for belongings left behind.

Guadalupe Cobos is one of the few still living in El Bosque. 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.

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, coastal vulnerability researcher at Tabasco Juarez State University.

“Before, if a norte came in, it lasted one or two days,” said Gama. “The tide would come in, it would go up a little bit and it would go away.”

Now, fueled by warming air which can hold more moisture, winter storms stay for several days at a time.

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, points to a dozen small, orange stars on the line of the horizon — oil platforms burning off gas.

“There is money here,” she says, “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. Now Mexico plans to open a new refinery in Tabasco, 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, 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.

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, facing similar slow-motion battles with the water, coastal communities from Quebec to New Zealand have begun beating a “managed retreat.”

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.

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

Meanwhile, new houses will not be ready before fall 2024, according to Raúl García, head of Tabasco’s urban development department, who himself said the process is too slow.

While advocates call for specific climate adaptation laws, President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, born just inland, has made oil development a key part of his platform. That might change if former Mexico City Mayor and accomplished scientist Claudia Sheinbaum is elected president next year. Despite being Lopéz Obrador’s protégée, she pledges to commit Mexico to sustainability, a promise more urgent than ever.

Eglisa Arias Arias, a grandmother of two, was forced to flee her home in El Bosque on Nov 3.

“I would go to sleep listening to the sea’s noise,” she said. “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