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Environmental Degradation and Population Flows a Suhrke

Environmental Degradation and Population Flows a Suhrke

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Published by: Ludovic Fansten on Nov 23, 2010
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Environmental Degradation and Population Flows Journal article by Astri Suhrke;Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 47, 1994 Pages: 1-1
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Environmental degradation and population flows
 by Astri SuhrkeSo-called "environmental refugees" have made their appearance in the academicliterature 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 thefocus is on Africa, presumably the most vulnerable area, where, some argue, the general pressure of people on land and, in particular, deepening desertification have displacedmillions 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 andanalyze the impact of the environmental factor? Second, what kinds of population flowsare associated with environmental degradation? More specifically, do they correspond tocommon 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. Theconsequences of environmental change are particularly severe -- and the problems mostacute -- in poor agricultural communities, where production system are heavilydependent on natural cycles and means to insure against disasters are lacking.(4)DOES ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION CAUSE POPULATION FLOWS?Common forms of environmental degradation associated with out-migration includedesertification, land degradation, deforestation and rising sea levels induced by globalwarming. Recognizing the importance of these processes, the 1992 United NationsConference on Environment and Development identified four fragile ecosystems: regionswith 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 deforestationcaused by new settlers, both readily observable phenomena.(5)The opposite causality is more obscure, and the literature is meager. Yet two differentand opposing perspectives can be discerned. In one, which can be called the minimalistview, environmental change is a contextual variable that can contribute to migration, butanalytical difficulties and empirical shortcomings make it hazardous to draw firmconclusions. The other perspective sets out a maximalist view, which posits thatenvironmental degradation is a direct cause of large-scale displacement of people.The MinimalistsThe minimalists are primarily the migration experts.(6) In the general migrationliterature, environmental change does not figure as a separate, causal variable, althougholder 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 thesystemic conditioning of individual decisions to move.(8) Among demographers, thecase-study literature fares little better. For instance, after observing the recent sharpincrease in migration in Indonesia -- a nation with serious environmental problems andknown for its large and complex patterns of population movements -- the eminentdemographer Graeme Hugo concluded, "Employment-related motives predominate inshaping how many people move, who moves, where they move from and where theymove to."(9)Yet common sense, as well as catastrophes such as the drought in the Sahel of northernAfrica, tells us that environmental change can cause out-migration by affecting structuraleconomic conditions. Environmental change, such as the recurring, devastating floods inBangladesh, also can be the proximate cause of population displacement. One solutionRichard Bilsborrow suggests is to treat the environment as a contextual factor thatinfluences the decision making of the potential migrant.(10) Land degradation, for instance, can lead to reduced income; frequent flooding brought about by upstreamdeforestation translates into higher risk for families living downstream. Moresystematically, Bilsborrow suggests three categories of manifestations: Environmentalchange may induce out-migration via income effects (by reducing average income), viarisk 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. Hereenvironmental 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 theindividual, 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 itdifficult 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 climatechange 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 isdifficult to locate relevant migration data for these periods (for example, the "Little IceAge" in Europe from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century). For our time, migrationeffects of the predicted global warming lie in the future. Perhaps the most that can besaid about climate change as a cause of population flows, Kritz argues, is that its impacton population movements has been reduced over time by policy intervention. Since theability to modify climate impact (e.g., through heating and cooling systems andagricultural techniques) is conditioned by the distribution of wealth, poor countries aremore 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 environmentaldegradation as a cause of out-migration. In two of his three case studies, Indonesia andGuatemala, 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, onmigration, scholars recognize that migration, like other social processes, is not amonocausal phenomenon. The minimalist premise skews the discussion toward anegative answer: Environmental degradation by itself is not an important cause of 
migration, nor can it be quantified easily to permit a multiple regression analysis toisolate the relative weight of individual variables. Hence, the search is abandoned.The MaximalistsThe 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 environmentaldegradation. Evidence of this appears in the early writings of environmental analysts(13)and has been echoed in popularized versions. "Drought in Africa and deforestation inHaiti 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 NationsEnvironment 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 havehad to leave their traditional habitat due to a natural disaster or similar event; those whohave been permanently displaced and resettled in a new area; and those who havemigrated on their own.A 1988 paper on "environmental refugees," written by Jodi Jacobson for the WorldwatchInstitute, dramatized the problem and was given wide publicity. Like El-Hinnawi,Jacobson based her analysis on a very general notion of refugees -- "people fleeing fromenvironmental decline" -- and made no distinction between internally and internationallydisplaced persons.(16) Nevertheless, the paper moved the debate forward by identifyingmajor types of "unnatural disaster" leading to displacement of people, namely floods,droughts, toxification, deforestation and rising sea levels. At about the same time, thereport of the International Panel on Climate Change focused international attention onthe greenhouse effect and rising sea levels, suggesting that tens of millions of peoplemight eventually be displaced.Since broad categorizations invite large numbers, the estimates of so-calledenvironmental refugees ran into the millions. El-Hinnawi reported that 15 million peoplewere affected by flood annually in the 1970s. Jacobson aggregated quite diverse cases,discussing the victims of Love Canal and Chernobyl alongside the 24 million Egyptianswho, 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 thecustomary distinction between refugees and migrants -- that is, between persons whomove mostly voluntarily and those who are compelled to flee. Nor was there a distinction between underlying and proximate causes of displacement. Environmental degradationwas cited as the cause of a variety of population flows that were lumped into an immense but vague category of "refugee."Expansive definitions and inflated numbers had a short-lived shock effect on the public but were rejected as trivial by scholars. U.N. and national policy makers feared thatalarmist thinking would frighten a public already suffering from "compassion fatigue"toward refugees. From a policy perspective, it was unclear which organizations had amandate to care for "environmental refugees," and the categorization of beneficiaries wasso broad that it caused unjustified alarm and was therefore useless. For example,institutions and relief measures relevant to industrial pollution in the United States werehardly applicable to cases of peasants displaced by floods in Bangladesh or driven byfamine across state borders in Africa.Since scholars of environmental refugees were unable to marshal a critical mass of socialscientific interest, their discourse nearly died. This was unfortunate, as the studies

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