From the outside, it looks green Stilt house and canoes in the Togean Islands, Indonesia. Image: Daniela Paredes Grijalva

Navigating at the intersection of climate change and migration

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Introduction

After Umar, aged 46, left Morowali in Indonesia for the big city looking for work, he found his passion in diving, leading to a complementary career in tourism. Lately though, the corals are dying and the fish are fewer, despite the public-private-funded coral restoration program. Tourists have dwindled. 

The ocean is taking the land back. Saltwater is creeping in underneath where it can’t be seen. The waves keep on hitting the concrete foundation of the hotel, never ceasing. It’s been like this for days. A section of the terrace has already collapsed. Umar walks a couple meters further and digs sand from the shore and piles it in buckets that he later deposits on the collapsed foundation. ‘Coastal erosion has become a massive problem and it is due to climate change,’ he tells me. 

‘But climate change,‘ he says, ‘is because of us, humanity.’ Marine ecosystems such as coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to the slightest temperature increase. Overfishing and pollution also contribute to the dwindling marine life. A big port is being built on this bay, which will surely affect the fish and the whole ecosystem. Umar thinks there may not be a future for him much longer here. He may move. Other villagers whose homes have collapsed, like the terrace, relocate further inland when they can. This cycle has been repeating itself for years now. It is not uncommon.  

Will Umar become a climate migrant? Either way, what is the best way to support potential climate migrants like him assisting him in moving, providing resources to stay, fighting the waves back with temporary environmental programs? 

Our article looks at four cases from Indonesia and Morocco to uncover the minutiae involved in people’s decision-making to stay or move in the face of environmental changes and what this means for responses or interventions from governments and NGOs that take into account human rights and justice considerations.

Over the past decade, more attention has been drawn to this phenomenon of people moving, migrating, or even becoming asylum-seekers due to climate change both sudden-onset disasters and slow-onset environmental changes. Scholars have detailed the complexity of the phenomenon contributing to a quickly growing field of specialized research. Durand-Delacre and colleagues remind us that climate migration is about people and not just numbers.

Climate mobility can range in distance (local to national to international) and time, even being temporary or circular as a livelihood strategy. Environmental change that people respond to can be both locally and climatically caused, suggesting the potential for different solutions at different scales. Decisions to move can be voluntary or be forced. Ongoing research examines the range of immobility decisions also on a spectrum of forced to voluntary, with a spectrum of capabilities to stay or move. Additionally, researchers are seeking to understand how habitability and tipping points play a role in spurring decisions to stay or migrate.

In response, more policymakers in government or at NGOs have proposed various solutions towards dealing with environmental migration. Some scholars have pointed out how estimates of mass movement across international borders have triggered further anti-immigration sentiment and securitization of borders, as seen in Europe, the US, and Australia, with policies to deter people’s migration in the first place. Recently, the Special Rapporteur on Climate Change released a report detailing human rights considerations, as well as protection gaps, for people who are displaced internationally. 

However, the majority of people who will move for environmental reasons will do so within their countries borders. National governments, which are also dealing with issues stemming from rural-urban migration and urban growth, have enacted policies to try to reduce migration from rural areas. In the meantime, climate adaptation or sustainable development programs have been lauded as potential solutions for helping people adjust to climate effects where they are located: in essence, attempting to persevere in-situ and bolstering the capability to stay.

The following stories of Umar, Ayoub, Nadia, and Faissal show people’s different responses to environmental changes in the context of other ongoing concerns in their lives. Two of them live near the coast in Indonesia, while the other two live in the mountains of Morocco, but what connects all of them is a given uncertainty towards the future. Will they decide to move from where they are now? Will they stay? What role does the environment play in that decision? 

From teasing out these aspects, one can begin to see specific interventions beyond a general response to climate migration that could help these four people have not only enhanced freedom of choice in their decision-making, but also more opportunities to exercise their rights.

Shaping decisions

Umar’s internal debates whether to move are certainly, but not only, affected by the coral destruction and coastal erosion damaging the diving and tourism industry. But there’s another layer of complexity to add.

Umar’s family still owns lands in his origin province Morowali. Before, it had seemed like a rural place without opportunities, so he had left in search of work. Now, several years later the province has been designated as highly desirable for the placement of, what is likely, one of the world’s largest nickel mines. There are over 100,000 people employed as of now, most of them migrants from within Indonesia, but there are foreigners, too. The number is likely to increase as the larger project of a massive industrial park continues to materialize. Umar has spoken with people who go there to work, friends and relatives. If he could build simple accommodations, there would certainly be no lack of tenants.

Umar looks at the corals, at the waves, at the sky meeting the ocean. He weighs his passion for diving against his imagined future, the future that is being carried away, one sand grain by one sand grain, away from the hotel. And on the other side are probably secure livelihoods. He would definitely prefer staying. He doesn’t need to decide right now, but these things float through his consciousness every now and then. 

Now knowing this, if Umar moved, would he become a climate migrant?

As becomes evident in Umar’s story, climate change is but one of the factors that he takes into consideration when thinking about moving or staying. His mind isn’t made up yet, pointing to the processual dimension of decision-making in the context of climate and migration. The lack of state intervention in his home region has influenced why he left for an urban center offering more possibilities for making a living in the past. Several years later the global transition towards greener economies is transforming the place. Companies race for raw materials to produce batteries for e-vehicles and through state concessions they can do so, converting a rural backland into a bustling economy for thousands of workers. The impact of coral reforestation programs already affected by rising sea temperatures among others, cannot keep up with that pace, even less so when large infrastructure projects immediately adjacent to it continue to negatively impact their recovery.  

Across another continent, in a village in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco, is someone else with a similar ongoing internal debate as Umar. Ayoub is a 30-year-old farmer, youth community leader, and volunteer English tutor. Since he was a child, he had loved learning English. As one of the only in his family to go to university in the nearby city of Fes, he had applied and taken the exams every year to become an English teacher. He was never selected. Now due to governmental reforms changing the background requirements to become a teacher, he cannot apply anymore. That pathway he dreamed of is over.

So he moved back to his village, called Skoura M’Daz, filled with rows of olive trees and irrigation canals cascading down the mountainsides. It is not, though, an idyllic countryside drought, changing seasonal patterns, and rising temperatures have had a detrimental effect on agriculture, the main livelihood of people there. Add to that, issues with land rights, land inheritance, and land size, lead to only a  few youth staying in Skoura anymore to farm.

While back home living with relatives, Ayoub has thrown himself into improving farming techniques based on ideas he saw in other places and on social media, and he grew his network through all the research interviews he helped the first author to conduct. He reconnected with two community leaders with whom he had volunteered as a teenager. They saw his potential, his commitment to agriculture and bettering the community. They are now helping nurture his idea to build up an ecotourism cooperative. This way, another income source could come into Skoura M’Daz, an alternative as agricultural production declines with the changing climate. They’ve told him, we are investing in you, for the good of our community, and it will only work if you stay in Skoura M’Daz.

And for sure, Ayoub sees a future for himself in his hometown, in spite of the environmental changes. But every now and then, he ponders about applying for a job in Germany, living with his friends in Fez, entering the diversity visa lottery to move to the US. Many of his family and friends have already left Skoura M’Daz, and he feels like it’ll be hard to start and raise a family of his own here.

To move or to stay? To be determined.

Here, Ayoub is living in the context of environmental changes constraining the futures of agricultural livelihoods. He has found an alternative ecotourism that has given him motive to stay, but impulses to move lie in wait. While not a classic example of climate change directly pushing migration, Ayoub’s story represents the vast majority of people we met in our fieldwork whose decisions to move or stay lie in the broader context of environmental change as one factor in their decision-making. 

Moreover, what both Umar and Ayoub’s stories show is how states are also shaping futures in other ways. In Indonesia, the concessions for large-scale mining and the relocation of the capital Jakarta have an impact on the well-being of environments and economies elsewhere, and consequently become factors to consider when deciding between leaving or staying. Meanwhile, the teaching reforms, which sparked protests across Morocco in 2021, put a stop to Ayoub’s teaching goals, which would have moved him out of Skoura M’Daz. Now through an overarching COVID-response agricultural strategy, the Green Generation Plan, Morocco’s government has revealed program goals of building youth livelihoods and resources to stay in rural areas. 

Umar and Ayoub live in the same globalized world that you and I live in, too, but at the same time they are connected to particular articulations translocally. What happens there has an impact on what happens here. And that is not always so evident if we enter only through the lens of climate change and migration. 

The outskirts of Skoura M’Daz in the Middle Atlas Mountains, Morocco. Image: Rachael Diniega

Frustrated visions

These next cases detail two young people from Indonesia and Morocco, frustrated in their goals to make changes related to the environmental issues they see in their communities. Nadia, a 23-year-old woman in the Togean islands, and Faissal, a 27-year-old farmer in Skoura M’Daz.

Nadia, the daughter of internal migrants, was born and raised on the island of Sambulake, within a marine national park. We talk after lunch on her porch facing the beach. It’s low tide and several meters of wet sand are exposed. She remembers how until her late teens the mornings were cool and the ocean refreshing. 

“Now it’s really hot. I don’t know how many degrees but it gets really hot and the ocean temperature varies a lot. Sometimes it’s warm and then other times like it used to be.

After graduating from high school, Nadia got a job at a European-owned hotel on a different island. There she learned how to make compost what could be recycled and repurposed. She moved back to her island when the hotel closed and found a job at a different hotel, one that doesn’t concern itself much with environmental issues. At village meetings, or on trips on the canoe or just on the street, Nadia speaks with her neighbors, including her elders, and intervenes, asking people not to throw their cigarette butts into the ocean or their plastic bags onto the fields. Sometimes they listen, other times she goes and picks up litter, piece by piece, step by step. Oftentimes the reactions are not kind and the behavior continues. 

“If you look from a distance the islands look green and the ocean water looks clean, exactly what you expect from a conservation area. But you have to get closer and you will feel the heat, you will see the felled trees and trip on the blasted corals.” Nadia makes global to local connections, jumping scales and knowledge systems. She tells me how she saw NASA imagery on the internet of what would happen if the temperature continued to increase. What does that mean for her island?

This month Nadia received an invitation to join a youth collective for environmental issues. She is considering joining them. She looks out to the ocean with a mix of hope and frustration. Hope for this new group of young people willing to put in the work for protecting the land and the water of their islands. Frustration that change comes too slowly, if at all; frustration that her own people understand that felling trees is connected to the heat and lack of water in the village and yet continue to sell wood from the protected area. She turns around and says, “I have heard of this place on the main island where people who care about the environment can live in a sustainable way. I may go there. I love my island but I do not know if I will be able to take it.”

Similarly to Nadia, Faissal in Morocco has had experiences outside of his hometown of Skoura M’Daz that stay with him, new ideas in the back of his mind. “I grew up in that café” he points at a small establishment as we walk by. “[All my life] I would have only known what was there, so I decided to move. I met people, and I met you, so I have changed my life,” he said. He was 14 years old when he moved away from a turbulent home life, working first for a telecommunications company and then managing labor on Spanish olive farms on the northern coast of Morocco. 

After coming home to Skoura M’Daz in 2018, Faissal returned to farming, taking care of his mother’s lands, and sometimes working with his father on his lands. Faissal doesn’t own any land, and neither do most youths in Skoura. Often, it is too difficult to split the lands of grandparents among their many children, and then their children. Families sometimes feud over who gets what and fail to agree on how to manage crops. The lands, when split, get smaller and smaller, such that they are not sizable enough to make a living.

Thus, Faissal has also worked for his neighbors and aunt through sharecropping: taking a quarter of the olive harvest as payment. But his aunt had demands for how to care for her olive trees, and Faissal got fed up with her calls, by not being allowed to care for them the way he saw they needed. So he stopped working for her.

In fact, what he needed more time for was trying out new agricultural activities for himself. He is currently building a mud rabbit hutch on his mother’s land. He was recently delayed building a well, waiting for permission from local authorities.

But the lands need that additional water. The water table is lowering. There is never any snow past March anymore, like the old days. The irrigation canals built in the 1950s are breaking down. The olives are being affected.

I was thinking about [moving] before. Right now I want to settle down here, but, if there is a good opportunity, I will move,” he said. He’s not happy in Skoura M’Daz, but he’s trying new things, like learning English, to keep him busy. Maybe that will open up more opportunities.

Like Nadia, Faissal is making the best of a situation where he has little support for his goals. Both have expanded their understanding of the world and sustainability through interactions with other places, peoples and ideas. Both love their home villages yet get frustrated when older generations who effectively hold power, be it in terms of land or decision-making, do not listen to their concerns and dismiss their ideas. Will they stay in these conditions or will they move? And if they move what kind of support systems and space for autonomy can they expect?

Conclusion

These four cases highlight the complexity weaving through the relationship between climate change and migration and everything in between. What do they also reveal about interventions that could take place?

Instead of thinking only about post-migration measures, there are several specific actions for each of these people that could be implemented, in advance of a decision to stay or move, to provide broader freedom of choice and guarantee rights. In Ayoub’s case, reforms for the teaching system would again be welcome, as well as mechanisms for supporting the establishment and longevity of youth-led cooperatives, particularly in ecotourism, which could improve his chances of succeeding in conditions where innovation is tough to bring about.

Umar and Nadia would benefit from the actual implementation of already existing policies to protect marine ecosystems and conservation areas. For Faissal a combination of land reforms and safe circular migration pathways could enable him to have better access to land, autonomy to decide over it, and yet the possibility to make an income in decent work and with full rights elsewhere when needed. A holistic approach, too, could transform broader systems and ways of thinking. All of these stories also share a concern for clean air, land and water for themselves, which relates to what is now a human right, the right to a healthy and clean environment. Could this be a way forward?

Finally, the lives of Umar, Ayoub, Nadia, and Faissal continue day-by-day without a 100 percent commitment to either move or stay. They lie in between those choices, continually leaning in one direction or the other, depending on opportunities they hear about and consider. Decisions to move or to stay also may change throughout time and can be seen as a spectrum. What can policymakers do in such anticipation? Policy responses that understand this complexity will go beyond simplistic dichotomies to tackle the climate crisis and ensure that people can exercise their rights whether they move or stay, or are somewhere in-between. 

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Rachael Diniega

Rachael Diniega is a human rights, climate change, and migration researcher. She is currently completing her PhD in Geography at the University of Vienna.

Daniela Paredes Grijalva

Daniela Paredes Grijalva is a visiting scientist at the EMIC division of the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna with a DOC-ÖAW fellowship.

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