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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

 

September-October 2009

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Editors' Picks - September/October 2009

Environmental Change and Forced Migration
Jill Jäger, Johannes Frühmann, Sigrid Grünberger, and Andras Vag, eds., EACH-FOR (Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios) Project Synthesis Report (Budapest, Hungary: Atlas Innoglobe for the EACHFOR Project, 2009)

For more than two decades, academics, intergovernmental policymakers, and other stakeholders have debated the details of environmental change and forced migration, attempting to define the latter term and estimate the scope of the problem. Many environmental scientists have projected that environmental change—in particular, climate change—will result in alarming numbers of future migrants. However, many migration experts have questioned these numbers and suggested that environment plays little or no role as a trigger for migration.
These discrepancies reveal a clear need for interdisciplinary, empirical research on the topic, and the Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios (EACH-FOR) project, funded by the European Commission, was a first attempt to fill this gap. The EACH-FOR project’s two central aims, according to its synthesis report, were “(1) to explore and describe the causes of forced migration in relation to environmental change; and (2) provide plausible future scenarios of environmentally-induced forced migration.” An interdisciplinary consortium of eight partners from six European countries carried out the work from January 2007 until March 2009, when it completed its report.
To achieve the objectives, consortium partners first undertook a general overview of six regions around the world, including relevant natural and anthropogenic processes degrading the environment and the socioeconomic and demographic contexts in which such degradation occurred. The project then examined 23 case study areas, largely in developing and transitioning economies in places as diverse as Niger, Egypt, the Balkans, Tajikistan, Tuvalu, and Mexico. Most of the case studies involved fieldwork, although three (in Spain, the Volga River basin, and the Balkans) relied primarily on desk studies. The project also carried out subsequent scenario development for six of the study areas.
The project found that “manifold” problems—including but not limited to climate change—can trigger migration, which most often occurs when “agriculture or herding is severely affected by environmental degradation or extreme events.” Although migration is a traditional coping mechanism, patterns of migration have been changing over the past few decades.
The study also highlights the importance of funding; networks that support migration; and, based on studies of forced displacement in the case of dam removal, participatory processes. In addition, the report emphasizes in its conclusion that “in some cases there are no ‘winners’ . . . both those who migrate and those who stay—are losers.”
The decision to migrate arises from complex interactions among economic, social, political, cultural, and environmental factors. A key recommendation from almost all the case studies is that sustainable development is essential for the migrants’ areas of origin. This includes development policies that support the protection of natural resources and investment in traditional regional industries, traditional agricultural practices, activities that generate jobs without destroying ecosystems, and programs that reduce vulnerability and improve the capacity of local communities to adapt. Further, the report states that many of the case studies demonstrate
a strong need for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary networks to foster dialogue between experts and a wide range of other stakeholders on questions such as adaptation strategies, the linkages between environmental change and forced migration, and processes of resettlement.

Environmentally forced migration has received considerable media attention in recent years. The EACH-FOR project results cast doubt on the alarming scenarios some environmental scientists have projected, involving hundreds of millions of such migrants in the future, but it also shows that sustainable development pathways would reduce the pressure to migrate and allow migration to become a choice rather than the inevitable result of environmental change.

Jill Jäger
Independent Scholar
Vienna, Austria

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