Environmental degradation and population flows.

Author:Suhrke, Astri
Position:Refugees and International Population Flows

So-called "environmental refugees" have made their appearance in the academic literature and public discourse, accompanied by widely diverging definitions and predictions. Some scholars fear environmental degradation will produce "waves of environmental refugees" with destabilizing effects at home and abroad.(2) Much of the focus is on Africa, presumably the most vulnerable area, where, some argue, the general pressure of people on land and, in particular, deepening desertification have displaced millions of people and will displace more in years to come.(3)

This paper attempts to systematize the links between environmental degradation and population movements by addressing three basic questions: First, is environmental degradation a cause of population movements, or is it even possible to isolate and analyze the impact of the environmental factor? Second, what kinds of population flows are associated with environmental degradation? More specifically, do they correspond to common concepts of migrants and refugees? Third, what are appropriate strategies of response to deal with the problems that may result?

This paper will discuss only environmental degradation in the developing world. The consequences of environmental change are particularly severe -- and the problems most acute -- in poor agricultural communities, where production system are heavily dependent on natural cycles and means to insure against disasters are lacking.(4)


Common forms of environmental degradation associated with out-migration include desertification, land degradation, deforestation and rising sea levels induced by global warming. Recognizing the importance of these processes, the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development identified four fragile ecosystems: regions with severe deforestation, regions with severe desertification, low-lying coastal areas and "vanishing" islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

There is considerable literature dealing with the effects of migration on the environment, including urban pollution attributable to migration-related growth and deforestation caused by new settlers, both readily observable phenomena.(5)

The opposite causality is more obscure, and the literature is meager. Yet two different and opposing perspectives can be discerned. In one, which can be called the minimalist view, environmental change is a contextual variable that can contribute to migration, but analytical difficulties and empirical shortcomings make it hazardous to draw firm conclusions. The other perspective sets out a maximalist view, which posits that environmental degradation is a direct cause of large-scale displacement of people.

The Minimalists

The minimalists are primarily the migration experts.(6) In the general migration literature, environmental change does not figure as a separate, causal variable, although older theories did include natural disasters in the category of "physical" factors. Neoclassical analysts focus on economic factors and rational-choice analysis without allowing for environmental variables per se.(7)

The same applies to migration theorists who, in a neo-Marxist tradition, emphasize the systemic conditioning of individual decisions to move.(8) Among demographers, the case-study literature fares little better. For instance, after observing the recent sharp increase in migration in Indonesia -- a nation with serious environmental problems and known for its large and complex patterns of population movements -- the eminent demographer Graeme Hugo concluded, "Employment-related motives predominate in shaping how many people move, who moves, where they move from and where they move to."(9)

Yet common sense, as well as catastrophes such as the drought in the Sahel of northern Africa, tells us that environmental change can cause out-migration by affecting structural economic conditions. Environmental change, such as the recurring, devastating floods in Bangladesh, also can be the proximate cause of population displacement. One solution Richard Bilsborrow suggests is to treat the environment as a contextual factor that influences the decision making of the potential migrant.(10) Land degradation, for instance, can lead to reduced income; frequent flooding brought about by upstream deforestation translates into higher risk for families living downstream. More systematically, Bilsborrow suggests three categories of manifestations: Environmental change may induce out-migration via income effects (by reducing average income), via risk effects (by increasing the instability of income and, one might add, other utilities) or via social effects (by making the environment less pleasant or healthy).

This is a useful elaboration of a common decision-making model of migration. Here environmental degradation appears as a contextual variable that affects the economic, social and risk calculations of the migrant. The effect may be on the level of the individual, the community or, conceivably, the entire nation.

More narrowly, Mary Kritz focuses on climate change as a cause of migration.(11) Reviewing a series of contemporary case studies from the developing world, she finds it difficult to demonstrate that climate change is a primary engine of migration. For rural people, migration is one of several coping strategies to deal with poverty, which in itself reflects a combination of social, economic and political conditions. The impact of climate change per se on this process cannot be easily isolated. The nature of the data also creates problems, as there are few historically recorded cases of marked climate change, and it is difficult to locate relevant migration data for these periods (for example, the "Little Ice Age" in Europe from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century). For our time, migration effects of the predicted global warming lie in the future. Perhaps the most that can be said about climate change as a cause of population flows, Kritz argues, is that its impact on population movements has been reduced over time by policy intervention. Since the ability to modify climate impact (e.g., through heating and cooling systems and agricultural techniques) is conditioned by the distribution of wealth, poor countries are more vulnerable than rich ones. This conclusion is echoed in the 1991 study Kritz helped prepare for the National Academy of Sciences.(12)

Like Kritz, Bilsborrow makes only a modest claim for the importance of environmental degradation as a cause of out-migration. In two of his three case studies, Indonesia and Guatemala, environmental degradation appears as only one in a cluster of causes, although it is given more weight in the case study of Sudan.

An analysis of this kind, however, tends to fall into a trap of its own. While searching for the impact of a particular process, such as land degradation or climate change, on migration, scholars recognize that migration, like other social processes, is not a monocausal phenomenon. The minimalist premise skews the discussion toward a negative answer: Environmental degradation by itself is not an important cause of migration, nor can it be quantified easily to permit a multiple regression analysis to isolate the relative weight of individual variables. Hence, the search is abandoned.

The Maximalists

The maximalists, by contrast, tend to extract the environmental variable from a cluster of causes and proclaim the associated out-migration to be a direct result of environmental degradation. Evidence of this appears in the early writings of environmental analysts(13) and has been echoed in popularized versions. "Drought in Africa and deforestation in Haiti have resulted in waves of refugees," a recent Time article proclaimed.(14)

The maximalists produced the first generation of literature on what they call "environmental refugees." In a now-classic study prepared for the United Nations Environment Program in 1985, Essam El-Hinnawi wrote that "all displaced people can be described as environmental refugees, having been forced to leave their original habitat (or having left voluntarily) to protect themselves from harm and/ or to seek a better quality of life."(15) He then identified three subcategories: those who temporarily have had to leave their traditional habitat due to a natural disaster or similar event; those who have been permanently displaced and resettled in a new area; and those who have migrated on their own.

A 1988 paper on "environmental refugees," written by Jodi Jacobson for the Worldwatch Institute, dramatized the problem and was given wide publicity. Like El-Hinnawi, Jacobson based her analysis on a very general notion of refugees -- "people fleeing from environmental decline" -- and made no distinction between internally and internationally displaced persons.(16) Nevertheless, the paper moved the debate forward by identifying major types of "unnatural disaster" leading to displacement of people, namely floods, droughts, toxification, deforestation and rising sea levels. At about the same time, the report of the International Panel on Climate Change focused international attention on the greenhouse effect and rising sea levels, suggesting that tens of millions of people might eventually be displaced.

Since broad categorizations invite large numbers, the estimates of so-called environmental refugees ran into the millions. El-Hinnawi reported that 15 million people were affected by flood annually in the 1970s. Jacobson aggregated quite diverse cases, discussing the victims of Love Canal and Chernobyl alongside the 24 million Egyptians who, under a worst-case scenario, might be displaced by rising sea levels by the year 2100.

The problems with these initial studies are obvious. They made no recognition of the customary distinction between refugees and migrants -- that is, between persons who move mostly voluntarily and those who are compelled to flee. Nor...

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