After a year of global upheaval, one question is on all our minds: What lies beyond the horizon?
WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUAN BRENNER
Climate catastrophe is not just one event—it’s a force that reverberates. This has been the heartbreaking reality for Nicaragua’s Miskito communities, many of whom are seeking refuge north after Hurricanes Eta and Iota hit in 2020.
The journey to Haulover, Nicaragua, is grueling. You can’t walk or drive; you have to travel by boat. On the water, there’s no escape from the sun’s heat. You sit in the boat, sweat trickling down your back, fidgeting to find comfort until you reach your destination. From Puerto Cabezas—a city home to a largely Indigenous community of more than 127,000—the ride can take up to eight hours. At least the voyage includes views of elegant white egrets and speedy black swallows.
The only ones who really ever make this expedition are Miskito, members of one of Nicaragua’s Indigenous groups, but most don’t have access to motorboats, which would reduce the trip to a few hours. When they head in and out of Puerto Cabezas—where some go for medical assistance and pantry items like rice and sugar—it’s a one- or two-day event.
Along the way, you’d be remiss not to notice the cemetery of trees that sit gray where there was once a vibrant green forest. The sight is startling, but it’s only the beginning. The real ruin lies among the communities themselves.
In Haulover, where about 1,300 Miskito live right along the Caribbean Sea, thousands of coconut trees used to dot the beach. They provided essential shade, as well as food. Now, the beach feels like a desert. If the boat ride is hot, well, Haulover is hellish. Hurricanes Eta and Iota tore through the town and other surrounding Miskito communities over a year ago, bringing enough force to flatten the beach, the church, the clinic, and people’s homes.
Adaluz Benjamín, 33—who is using a different name to protect her identity and family from the Nicaraguan government—has lived in Haulover for almost all her life. Her mother and father spent about $10,000 over two years building their perfect beachside home. It was pink and white and made out of concrete. It was built to last, even running on a solar panel that kept their home bright when night would fall. The house’s four bedrooms were enough for everyone to live comfortably.
Now, all that’s left of that house is chunks of debris. Hurricane Eta destroyed it. Two weeks later, Hurricane Iota left it unrecognizable. Benjamín sat outside the simple wooden shack her family now calls home, pointing to the remnants unflinchingly. The family hasn’t been able to rebuild.
“We used to be good,” said Benjamín in Spanish as her Rottweiler puppy playfully tugged on her hair, a single dark long braid that she stroked as she recalled her old life. “Everything was normal. Now, nothing is.”
Benjamín’s four children are another story. They don’t stay in Haulover anymore. They can’t stand the heat. Plus, pools of water have formed around the village where the hurricane bore down and ate through the land. There’s one just a few feet in front of Benjamín’s place—her two-year-old almost drowned in it last year. So Benjamín, a single mom, leaves her kids in Puerto Cabezas, where they stay with her sister.
“My son didn’t like it here,” she said. “He’d get sick, and we don’t even have water to make his bottle.”
And, now, her children will be staying in the city full-time. Benjamín set off for the U.S. on September 7, 2021. The hurricanes left her no other choice. She’s one of many: over 74,000 Nicaraguans left the country in 2020.
The climate disaster isn’t only a crisis of our planet and its weather; it’s also a crisis of our people and their wherewithal. When the means run out at home, many in Central America are forced to look beyond their borders. Like Benjamín, they leave behind their families, their culture, and potentially even their freedom. They have to search for a life beyond disaster, which seems never-ending these days. First, came President Daniel Ortega, a politician with a history of violence against the Miskito. Then, the pandemic. The 2020 hurricane season was the disaster to top them all.
There’s no guarantee migrants will successfully make it into the U.S. when they leave their borders—or that they’ll easily return home should they fail. Migrants can wind up stranded near the U.S.-Mexico border if they don’t have enough money to cross—or if the U.S. Border Patrol catches and detains them. But this punitive, unforgiving immigration strategy on the part of the U.S. doesn’t deter anyone from taking the risk. Benjamín herself hopped on a bus with only $200 for food, three outfits, a towel, and a blanket.
“I’m praying for this journey. I’m going to see how far I can get. The situation here isn’t getting any better.”
The coyote, who helps move migrants illegally across borders, charged her $3,800—a major expense but one that was worth it for her. The journey wasn’t easy. Benjamín had to throw away some clothes: laundry wasn’t an option. While on the road, she wasn’t allowed to make phone calls. Instead, she’d send whispered messages via WhatsApp. Her little ones, however, can barely talk. Leaving them has been the hardest part of the trip.
“I don’t feel great, but what can I do?” she asked from the road via WhatsApp. “My family can’t keep living this way. It’s not fair to my kids. They’re used to living in a big house with whatever they need. We can’t live this way.”
While eyes were on the Haitian refugee crisis unfolding at the Texas-Mexico border in September, Benjamín was cooped up in a hotel in Monterrey, Mexico. She couldn’t risk Mexican authorities deporting her. She was worried about how the border crisis would affect her own ability to cross: “This might be hard,” she wrote on WhatsApp. Life back in Haulover without an American income would be even harder. And, ultimately, that’s why she chased this dream: to make enough money to help the family she left behind in Nicaragua. She is thinking of her father who needs an operation for his prostate and her mother who can’t afford to rebuild her home. And, of course, her kids.
She couldn’t possibly pay for any of this had she stayed. Before Hurricanes Eta and Iota, Benjamín primarily worked cooking fast food to sell alongside natural fruit drinks and sodas. After? There was no work—for anyone. The lagoons where people used to catch shrimp and lobster are still coming up dry. Farmers and ranchers who lost crops and livestock have resorted to loans to start over. What else was she supposed to do?
“I’m praying for this journey,” Benjamín said days before she left home. “I’m going to see how far I can get. The situation here isn’t getting any better.”
Norman Molina Chaw, 60, walks barefoot around his house in Layasiksa, some 100 miles north of Haulover. There’s a light drizzle outside, but the reverberations of the raindrops on the metal roof make it sound louder. Outside, the house sits on stilts that help keep out pests. Most houses here do. The beige walls inside are decorated with photos of Molina’s five children—all of whom have migrated, some only domestically. “It’s not just my kids,” he said in Spanish as his wife, Concha Rivera Jhanarth, sat beside him, mostly silent and solemn. “Many other young people from our communities leave, hoping to reach the U.S.”
The table across from them is decorated with a cloth printed with fruit—which no one can find in Layasiksa since the hurricanes. The children still ask when the fruit trees will return. Molina’s three-bedroom house is one of the larger ones in the village, which is home to about 1,400 Miskito people. There’s always the faint sound of a hammer slamming down in the distance. The road to recovery is long.
In fact, Molina’s 28-year-old house is one of the few structures that survived the hurricanes. It remained standing despite 144 mile per hour winds when Iota hit—with him still inside.
He was forced to brave the category-five storm in his house with his wife, his grandson, and 10 others who arrived from surrounding Miskito communities to take shelter in Layasiksa. They included three young girls and a pregnant woman. They lay on the floor, soaked, as the hurricane tore the roof off. The cacophony of the world ending around them was chilling. It wasn’t thunder. It was wind at its most wicked.
“I told everyone, We’re going to die here,” said Molina, whose eyes crinkled as he spoke. Rivera Jhanarth recalled that all she could do was cry and pray that they’d survive the storm.
After nine hours, the sky grew eerily silent. It was nearly midnight, and it seemed the nightmare was over. Molina stepped outside to assess the damage. At least his animals were still alive. There was hope. Then, he heard a roar even worse than before. “The sound was enough to make a grown man cry,” Molina said. With it came a cloud blacker than the night sky. He ran back inside and realized that the night was far from over. The eye was crossing over their little town. The animals wouldn’t survive this.
“They all drowned,” Molina said. “We lost everything.”
“During hurricanes, no one can escape. It’s worse than war.”
Few in the community even mention Eta. Though Hurricane Eta came first, it was Iota that left a permanent scar. Surviving that first storm, however, did prepare them for the next. Molina sat on Layasiksa’s emergency response commission during both. The commission, made up of about 10 men, decided where and how families would shelter. Evacuation wasn’t an option for most. There are six boats in Layasiksa, one privately owned and five others communally owned, but that isn’t enough to get everyone out. The government didn’t arrive to evacuate anyone, either. In fact, no one arrived at the community to alert them of the torment to come. They were on their own.
“The government talks but takes no action,” Molina said. “When they finally came, they didn’t even do anything. They just came to look, and then they left.”
Despite the odds, everyone survived. What kept them alive? Some simple wooden structures no taller than five feet. They were windowless, with a single entryway. They flooded about two feet, but they stood strong. The wood had to be dug deep into the ground to ensure the winds wouldn’t blow the shelters away. Only one out of 15 failed—but the community didn’t abandon their own.
Simplicio Rivera Jhonathan, 56, a pastor in town, rushed out to rescue the family in the shelter that collapsed. He barely made it out alive himself. He’s a man with soft eyes and an even softer voice. He speaks intensely with his hands, except that he can’t move his left arm much anymore. In his rescue efforts, Rivera was struck in the shoulder by a tree branch. He doesn’t remember much—just that everything went black. Others came to his aid, helping him and the family into their shelter, which remained safe.
“I was unconscious, nearly dead,” Rivera said in Miskito through a translator. “What I’ll always remember is how great God is. Without God, everyone would’ve died.”
The commission nearly chose to shelter the families in the primary school where they likely would have died. The school, which sits behind Molina’s sister’s house, is now desolate. The windows were blown out, as was the roof. Glass shards still lie on the dark soil outside. On the whiteboard remains black ink from the previous year’s lessons. Mud still smears the school’s yellow walls.
The younger and older kids now share the space of the surviving secondary school, a 10-minute walk from the defunct primary school. Some children receive their lessons outside in the shade while others study inside. The teachers make do, but they still need books and markers, said Norma Rivera, the primary school director. Rivera and the other teachers offer lessons in Spanish, English, and their native Miskito tongue.
The youth still remember the storms. When there’s rain, they sometimes flee the school, running home out of sheer fear, Rivera explained. And she gets it. She remembers, too. She’s also afraid. “The rain felt like rocks,” she recalled.
The damage at the school is but a tiny snippet of the destruction these hurricanes unleashed. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the most active in history. Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala accumulated some $2.6 billion in damages. Over 8 million people in Central America were affected. Over 2 million acres of crops were lost, hampering not only food security but economic security, too. While the lives of those in Layasiksa and Haulover were spared, at least 200 people died across Latin America.
Today, life is still hard. The Miskito continue to rebuild. Many homes remain in shambles. Giant, centuries-old trees lie dead on the ground, roots exposed. Hearts are still shattered. People can’t quite wrap their heads around the level of global abandonment they’ve faced. Their list of needs runs long: medicine to help the sick, boats to evacuate, walkie-talkies to communicate, school supplies to educate the kids, construction materials to build a permanent shelter, seeds to replant the dozens of trees lost.
A church group came immediately following the storms to provide food and water. Its volunteers helped rebuild drinking-water wells that the hurricanes contaminated. All the government offered some families were 12 zinc sheets, not nearly enough to rebuild their homes. Molina didn’t benefit from that; he fixed his home with his children’s help.
He hopes the house can stay safe for years to come, but he knows the planet is heating. And he knows his community is at risk—despite doing damn near nothing to contribute to the climate crisis. Layasiksa has no electricity grid or roads. It’s a place that relies on the sun and the stars for light. The Miskito here burn wood to cook their meals and gather rainwater to wash their clothes and bodies. They won’t let the climate crisis take their world away from them.
“We’ve been here hundreds of years,” Molina said, “and we’ll be here when Jesus comes. We’re never leaving our land.”
Molina’s seen a lot in his 60 years of life—he was a soldier for 10 years, during a period of great violence in Nicaragua in the 1980s—but nothing can quite measure up to the nights of Hurricanes Eta and Iota.
“In war, there’s destruction, but it’s different,” Molina said. “Bombs and gunpowder can kill you, but you can always hide. During hurricanes, no one can escape. It’s worse than war.”
Marcela Foster Simons might not be tall, but she’s a woman with one hell of a presence. The 40-year-old spoke unabashedly—a stark difference from other Miskito women. When her husband suggested he’d head into town, she quickly raised her eyebrows and said, “Not without me.”
Foster is a human rights defender and coordinator with Yatama, an Indigenous political party with a stronghold on the coast. She’s not afraid of the Ortega dictatorship and the Sandinistas who continue to rot her country.
Options for work may be limited, but she would never succumb to working for the Sandinista government. No respectable Miskito would. This is, after all, the same government that bombed and terrorized their communities in the 1980s. The state-sponsored violence continues today—especially on Miskito land, which has become a prized commodity for settlers supported by the president.
Foster won’t sit back and let that happen. In fact, her fearlessness nearly got her killed.
“People used to talk a lot about the future—not just with climate migration but also with climate change—but the reality is that the climate crisis is here.”
Two summers ago, after days of rallying to demand the government allow local elections near a university in Kamla, Nicaragua (where she lives), armed assailants, likely paid by the Sandinista party, arrived. And Foster was their target. On June 26, 2019, they nearly killed her. She pointed to a scar on her left arm where the assailants fractured her arm. She still can’t see well from her left eye, which required surgery to save. Though two men were arrested, she said only one went to jail—and the police didn’t take long to release him.
“We just wanted to have a vote and elect our leaders,” Foster said. “And all my people saw when the men came around 3 a.m. with knives and guns, but we weren’t armed. The police investigated, but nothing came from it. I’m still waiting for justice.”
This is the reality for those who choose to stay in Nicaragua. They can opt to be outspoken like Foster and risk death—or they can watch as the government and its allies take advantage of their people. This is all taking place before a backdrop of global heating, which only makes the Miskito more vulnerable. For Foster, there’s no other choice. Her daughter wants her to retire, but she won’t. “I can’t betray my people,” she said as she sat in front of her home.
President Ortega’s violent escapades carry a deep and dark history. He kicked off his career by robbing a bank, which landed him in jail. Upon his release in 1974, the Nicaraguan government exiled him to Cuba, where the Sandinistas found much of their inspiration. Not long after Ortega made his way back to Nicaragua, his reign began. As one of the heads of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, also known as FSLN, he led the revolution against the Nicaraguan dictatorship.
By 1984, he was president. Back then, the Sandinista party was built on a revolutionary ethos to liberate the people and help the poor. But that didn’t last long. Ortega lost the presidency for some 17 years before winning an election again in 2007. This time, he didn’t pretend to care about the people or the Sandinistas’ original socialist platform. Since then, he has refused to give up power, going as far as to order the killings of those who oppose him. The 2017 elections, for instance, resulted in the massacre of seven protesters along the Miskito Caribbean Coast.
The political situation in Nicaragua reached a fever pitch in 2018. It started with peasant farmers and environmental activists who were outraged at the government’s inaction on forest fires in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Then, more protesters joined after Ortega cut social security benefits. Opponents saw this as corrupt, but the Sandinistas wouldn’t let them peacefully take to the streets. By the end of the uprising, Sandinista militants had killed about 300 people—including infants—and injured 2,000 others.
“It’s really hard to overstate the brutality of the regime in Nicaragua,” said Toby Stirling Hill, an investigator with human rights group Global Witness who spent time on the ground reporting on Nicaragua in 2018. “They’ll do absolutely anything to hold onto power.”
Many of the Miskito blame Ortega for their current situation. They talk about their country in two phases: before 2018 and after. The hurricanes are only the most recent blow. This reality isn’t lost on Foster, who wears her battle scars proudly. She might have been safe from the 2020 hurricane season, but she knows danger lurks in the thick of the brush. She won’t hide, though. Her people deserve more.
Before the hurricanes, at least there were tourists and jobs. There was freedom. For many Miskito people, Nicaragua offers little opportunity anymore—especially for those who want a life beyond subsistence. And that’s barely an option anymore. The land and the water are now barren as they also recover from the hurricanes. That’s the thing about climate change: it’s a threat multiplier. It makes bad situations worse and can completely shatter already fragile ones.
The numbers don’t lie, either: the world could see up to 1 billion migrants moving due to environmental issues. Some of these folks may look like Benjamín, crossing multiple borders to reach their final destination. Others may wind up moving around within their country’s borders, like Molina’s children who left Laysiksa for other regions of Nicaragua. Either way, people can’t stay where there’s no help or hope.
Beatriz Felipe Pérez, an investigator focused on climate migration with CICrA Justicia Ambiental—a feminist collaborative dedicated to researching and providing legal aid around enviornmental justice issues—recognizes that researchers’ predictions about the future of climate migration are already happening. “People used to talk a lot about the future—not just with climate migration but also with climate change—but the reality is that the climate crisis is here,” she said in Spanish. “Migration is induced by disasters like hurricanes and droughts that slowly affect food security, and then this becomes another factor alongside political instability, conflicts, and inequalities. Together, these factors create a cocktail that leads to more migration north.”
In the U.S., the discourse around Central American migration often ignores a whole range of identities—such as Indigenous or Afro-Latine people. Some Miskito, like Benjamín and Molina, can speak Spanish, but many along the Caribbean Coast speak only Miskito. Actually, they speak Miskito Coast Creole, which has heavy English influence due to the British colonization of the region in the eighteenth century. An English speaker could pick up on a word here and there while never fully understanding what’s being said. These language barriers are proving complicated for the U.S. government when Indigenous migrants arrive at its borders.
Luis López Reséndiz, director of the Center for Indigenous Languages and Power at CIELO, sees this lack of preparedness firsthand. CIELO is one of the few organizations in the U.S. that works directly with Indigenous migrants—from providing cultural programming in local communities to offering interpretation services at U.S. detention facilities housing Indigenous migrants. The group primarily serves Mexican and Guatemalan migrants, which already covers 91 languages and even more dialects, but López Reséndiz has seen how the demand for interpreters is exploding. In 2021, CIELO was tasked with finding a Miskito interpreter for the first time. The link to climate and environmental issues is clear, López Reséndiz said.
“When we talk to the community, people are saying, Because of the hurricanes, there’s nothing left back home. Everything was destroyed,” López Reséndiz said. “So people are migrating—not because they want to but because regions are not stable.”
And that instability bleeds into all parts of life. It breeds opportunities for private companies to exploit the people and their precious resources. López Reséndiz hears from Indigenous people who have lost their land to giant development projects, including mines and dams. While he didn’t provide specific examples, López Reséndiz claims to have seen instances where companies take advantage of disaster zones by buying up the land that’s been pummeled, forcing families to move. López Reséndiz believes that some governments in Latin America choose to not rebuild because “the land is already for sale,” as he said.
When these private actors enter Indigenous territories, conflict is inevitable. Industry fuels the murder of Indigenous land defenders throughout Latin America: at least 227 environmental and land defenders were killed in 2020—a record that’s broken nearly year after year. Most of the deaths were in Latin America. Nicaragua saw the highest number of killings per capita. In August 2021, settlers massacred 12 Miskito and Mayanga people (another Indigenous group of Nicaragua) in an attempt to steal their land. It was only the latest in a string of massacres that have rocked the coast in recent years.
“Currently in Latin America, Indigenous leaders are being killed for protecting their land,” López Reséndiz said. “Some would argue this is the fourth conquest of Latin America.”
Foster is still alive, but she’s ready to die for her people if she must. She won’t give up her people’s land so easily. She won’t surrender to modern-day colonizers. They’ve taken enough.
Molina knows his community of Layasiksa isn’t ready for the next hurricane. The Miskito of Nicaragua aren’t mountain people, though. He doesn’t want to retreat to higher ground. He wants to continue his life surrounded by rivers and lagoons. “This land is ours,” he said.
Even so, Molina knows his people must prepare. If they won’t move their entire community, they must make changes to survive the temperatures and storms to come. Layasiksa needs a permanent shelter at a higher altitude to avoid the floods of before. The village can only be afforded so many miracles before they run out. While many young and able-bodied Miskitos dream of a new life abroad, that isn’t an option for the majority—especially the elderly and the sick. Leaving isn’t an option for leaders like Foster, either. The community needs them.
Benjamín is the exception. After days hiding near the border in September, she finally crossed into Texas. She didn’t have enough money for the coyote to smuggle her to her family in Port Arthur, Texas, so she turned herself into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The mother of four spent eight days in detention after she refused to sign a deportation order. She spent most days without a shower or toothbrush. She did get food. She was asking for asylum.
On October 7, 2021, ICE released her to her family in Port Arthur, Texas—a poster child of environmental racism due to its concentration of toxic facilities in Black and Latine communities. Paperwork shared with Atmos suggests the agency has let Benjamín go until her court case is determined, due to the risk COVID-19 poses to her in detention. She’s currently out on parole until a court hearing in a few months when a judge may determine whether to deport her. In the meantime, she’s working at a hotel off the books.
Three options currently exist for the Miskito: stay and speak out, stay and remain silent, or leave. No option is easy, and they all come with risk. For those who opt to be outspoken like Foster, death is a very real threat. Those who turn the other cheek must bear witness to the abuse the government and its allies impose on their people. Global heating only makes the Miskito more vulnerable, whether they speak out or remain silent.
Those who leave, however, are forced to abandon the only life they’ve ever known—and families they may never see again. And they risk death in different ways. They risk it traversing dark foreign roads. They dance with death as they squeeze, dozens at a time, into airtight trailers meant to conceal them. They suffocate. They sweat. They hide in mountains, where they await their fates. Death is never far when making this journey.
Death is all that’s certain in this limited life. Freedom is a different story. It’s not promised, but it’s always missed. It’s something the Miskito have learned they must defend. And yet freedom is always, always, worth the risk—even when that risk may mean death.
Consequently, some Miskito flee north. Others stay in Nicaragua and fight. Their goal is the same: to save the ones they love. The climate crisis won’t make that easy. The real struggle has only begun.
Editor's note: We initially intended to photograph the Miskito communities living along the Nicaraguan coast. We hoped to show you, our readers, firsthand what lies beyond disaster. However, that became impossible. Juan Brenner, the photographer on assignment for the story, wasn’t allowed into the country. When he arrived, immigration officials at the airport asked if he and his assistant knew anyone in Nicaragua. From there, their suspicions led them to believe the team was there to cover the Sandinista government. After about six hours of interrogation and threats to withhold the team’s equipment, the Nicaraguan government allowed the photographer and his assistant to return to Guatemala, where they’re based. This is but one example of how the Nicaraguan government is attacking the country’s democracy and preventing so-called “outsiders” from seeing what’s actually going on. In response to this, we opted to have Brenner and his assistant instead focus on Adaluz Benjamín and her journey north. We weren’t sure how her trip would turn out, but we were lucky she made it to the U.S. safely. That’s why you see photos from her journey rather than of others who were also affected by the hurricanes.