Migration as a form of adaptation to environmental change

The issue of climate change is heating up. From climate strikes by school children to non-environmental diet shaming, climate discussions are present in our everyday lives. Migration is increasingly recognised as a way to adapt to climate change. The idea is divisive at a time when migration is generating controversy around the world. The premise is simple: the best way to avoid dramatic environmental change taking place is to move away from it, either permanently or temporarily, and this is a legitimate form of adaptation that should be welcomed. Whilst research suggests that migration has always been used to manage environmental changes, this article examines whether such a strategy is in fact effective. To do so, an example of environmental migration will be used to explore how a resettlement policy is being leveraged by the Malawian government as a strategy to manage the increasingly severe and unpredictable flooding occurring in the Lower Shire region.

The Lower Shire region is in the southern, most fertile area of Malawi. Much of this area is a floodplain and residents of this area have always used movement as a way to manage flooding. However, the patterns of flooding are changing due to increased deforestation and changing rainfall patterns. This means that traditional, indigenous methods for predicting flooding have become less reliable. These methods are largely associated with tracking the behaviour of animals such as ants, hippos or birds moving away from the river. Communities that have relied on these methods in the past are being caught off guard by the increasingly severe flooding, which is leading to growing devastation in the area.

Increased flooding is creating  large expenses for the resource strained government of Malawi. The expenses, and the concern for the safety of the population has led the Malawian government to initiate the process of determining a resettlement policy as a way to manage flooding. The policy is still in draft phase and the government is still in the process of deciding what it will entail. The ideal situation for the government is to establish permanent resettlement of communities vulnerable to flooding to the upper lands where they will be safe. However, permanent resettlement is not popular amongst residents. Few communities want to leave the security that fertile land gives them, even for a more flood safe dwelling. Therefore, the Malawian government is suggesting moving vulnerable populations to safer areas of permanent residency in the upper lands but making sure they are close to their previous fertile areas of cultivation, to enable them to continue farming.

The Malawian government is however struggling to find a resettlement solution that will be acceptable to the residents vulnerable to flooding. Currently, the government is not physically forcing residents to move. As such, there is a need for the resettlement proposal to be acceptable and attractive. There are several factors that make this difficult. Firstly, there is the availability of suitable land for the resettlement. There are also issues around connection to land, particularly regarding ancestral links and the importance of proximity to established community graveyards. Moreover, there is the issue of changing of customary leadership. Due to the way customary leadership is organised in Malawi, resettling a community often means moving into a new customary leadership territory which requires a change of village head. This in turn results in reluctance of the original village head to resettle, as they would likely lose their headship and the associated privileges. Communities often feel loyalty towards their village head and may not move without them, making resettlement difficult to implement. Additionally, when the resettlement does occur, there is the issue of acceptance into a host area. If the post resettlement period is not properly managed, and aid is being given to the resettled community and not to the host community, for example, tensions could develop and lead to ostracization of the resettled community.

It is therefore hard for the government to make resettlement attractive to communities. The current government approach to strongly persuade a community to resettle is to declare their area as not fit for human habitation and establish a ‘no-go zone’ for any form of assistance in the area. This means there are no government services there, which means the removal of health or education facilities from the area. Equally, NGOs are not allowed to operate in the area. However, this approach currently does not seem to be persuading anyone in these areas to resettle. If anything, ongoing research suggests it feeds into a public mistrust of government, as residents believe they want to use their fertile land for their own political gain. Additionally, the lack of external involvement in the community creates a sense of autonomy and independence. The fact that residents can survive without external support, which many of their neighbours rely on, appears to empower the residents to continue resisting resettlement.

Whilst the initial scholarship on migration as adaptation suggests it is a more positive outlook on migration, it does not ensure the success of the movement. It leads to the question: who is the framing of migration as adaptation for? Is it for the vulnerable communities who already use migration, or for governments to intervene and gain control over the migration? The example of Malawi’s Lower Shire region has shown how managing environmental migration is extremely complicated. Ultimately, this process will work best when it is led by the people who are most directly impacted. Additionally, whilst most scholarship written on this subject is by Western scholars examining situations in the Global South. Several countries in the West, including  the United States, have recently experienced severe weather events and environmental changes. These have impacted many people, and forced many out of their homes, whether permanently or temporary. Therefore, a more global discussion on how to approach increasing environmental migration is needed.

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