Migrants and miners: gender, age and precarious labour in a Tajik resource extractive landscape

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Negar Elodie Behzadi.

Migration is both gendered and aged. It is also deeply tied to the emergence of new extractive landscapes around the world, marked by extractive frontiers pushing into already stressed and fragile environments.  The story of the village of Kante in Tajikistan, of its male migrants and its coal miners – men, women and children – illustrates the ways in which multiple forms of precarious labour appear alongside these new landscapes.

The village of Kante, Tajikistan, 2014

In Tajikistan, a landlocked country in post-Soviet Muslim Central Asia, men started migrating seasonally for work following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In Kante, a village of 1,500 inhabitants on the slopes of the Fann Mountains, 2,000m above sea level, the men gradually began leaving a derelict landscape and a run-down collective tobacco farm. Like most Tajik male seasonal migrants, they left for Russia to find new livelihoods and to escape a country torn by civil war. During the seven years of conflict, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, men who did not fight travelled as far as the Kamchatka peninsula in search of work. Some Kantegui mountaineers became fishermen. Others went to Moscow, Sverlovsk, Irskuk and other big Russian cities to do ‘mardikor’ (the work of men) on construction sites.

Young boys coming back from the mines with coal bags on donkeys, 2014

When the war ended, some men came back to Kante, only to find destroyed infrastructure, abandoned fields and an uncertain future. So most returned to Russia. In Kante, as in the rest of Tajikistan, migration became a way of life and a rite of passage – every real man in Tajikistan has migrated, provided for his family back home, drunk alcohol in overcrowded compounds, travelled illegally through borders. Some have slept with Russian women, fallen in love, even taken a second Russian wife, leaving a Tajik wife back home (Behzadi, 2019). Life has also changed for those referred to as ‘the left-behind’. Women, children and the elderly live without husbands, fathers or sons for most of the year. Men become absences, photos, voices down the phone, heroic stories, the amount of remittances arriving at the Western Union in the local town.

Unlike villages in the rest of the country, however, Kantegui men have an alternative to migration. The village lies on one of the largest coal reserves in the country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, families started digging up the mountain with pickaxes to extract coal, using donkeys to haul their load. At first, families extracted the coal for subsistence, but later they started selling it on a growing informal market. This coincided with a broader turn to coal as a major source of energy across the country. Following Uzbek/Tajik resource conflicts, Uzbekistan shut off the pipeline providing Tajikistan with gas in 2012/13, leading to a new Tajikistani coal development strategy (Behzadi, 2019). The same year, a formal Sino-Tajik mine was established in the village, which blew up the Southern slope of the mountain with dynamite. The rolling stones and big machinery crushed some of the donkeys of the informal miners and damaged their houses. The company brought in engineers and managers from China and pushed informal miners away.

Map of informal and formal mining areas in Kante, 2018

In 2014, around 300 men from Kante and neighbouring villages worked in the formal Sino-Tajik mine. Most Kantegui miners in the ‘Chinese’ mine were men who had retired from migration, tired of the back and forth between Russia and the village. In their 30s and 40s, these men had nothing to prove anymore – they were the ‘djahon didir’ (those who have seen the world) who had come back to a quieter life (Behzadi, 2019). But the formal mine does not offer jobs to all. Those who do not work for the Chinese carry on splitting their year between labour migration to Russia in spring and summer and informal coal mining in autumn and winter. In 2014, around 500 men were working in the informal mines. The hardship of their labour and the simplicity of their tools contrasted with the relative ease of labour in the Chinese mine. Although less arduous, however, work for the Chinese project is a mixed blessing: precarious contracts, unpaid salaries and difficult relationships with Chinese managers take their toll in other ways. And the trade-off is significant: men who accept work for the Chinese mine know it is threatening the very existence of their village. The Chinese are ‘taking all our coal’, many villagers say, in particular the informal miners. Part of the informal mines have already been destroyed, and they fear that the whole village might follow.

Sino-Tajik mine containers in Kante, 2014

Like migration, extractive labour in mines is gendered and aged. Women and children cannot work in the Sino-Tajik mine, but they do work in informal mines. In the past decade about 20 women have been going mining every day high above the village, and sometimes at night when they know they can go unseen. Some of their husbands, like Nadirah’s (a female miner in her 30s), left the country straight after their wedding and took a second wife in Russia. Now he sends only sporadic remittances. Nadirah goes mining with a friend and her daughter who is 13. Her work is considered ‘ayb’ (shameful) in the village and, as a result, Nadirah is stigmatised and excluded from social networks. But while it is considered unacceptable for women to work underground, it is tolerated for children. Most children start at the age of five, leading the donkey in and out of the coal galleries to the market while their parents extract the mineral on the coalface. ‘Coal,’ says Gulnissar, a mother of a 10-year-old child coal miner, ‘there is only coal in children’s heads today.’

Male seasonal labour migration, the ‘shameful’ work of female miners and the spread of child mining comprise a few of the many precarious forms of labour that emerge in new extractive landscapes around the world. The story of Kante illustrates the fragmentation of societies along gendered and aged lines that occurs in such extractive landscapes. These new extractive frontiers also often emerge in places that are already socio-ecologically stressed, such as in the countries that emerged following the fall of the Soviet Union.  

Negar Elodie Behzadi is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. She is a feminist political geographer and political ecologist who explores questions of resource extraction and migration in Tajikistan and France. She has also co-directed two ethnographic films on resource extraction in Tajikistan: Komor: Journeys through the Tajik Underground and Nadirah: Coal Woman.

(All images by the author.)

What protections are available to people displaced by climate change?

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Kathryn Allinson.

Climate change will impact all our lives in the coming years and many people will experience extreme events due to climate  change resulting in displacement, both internally and across international borders. This has become the reality for some already within low-lying archipelago islands within the South Pacific, such as Tuvalu and Kiribati. Despite the certainty of increased climate change-related displacement, there is still no specific frameworks which protect those moving for climate related reasons (see a detailed discussion here).

The site of the village of Tebunginako, Kiribati – relocated due to severe coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion (image: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia

Are people displaced by climate change refugees?

Under Article 1(A) of the 1951 Refugee Convention, climate-related displacement does not constitute grounds for international protection. I will take the essential elements of Article 1(A) in turn. First, a refugee must have crossed an international border, whereas climate-related displacement is expected to be predominantly internal.

Second, a refugee must have a well-founded fear of persecution. Persecution requires an egregious violation of human rights, which is assessed in light of the nature of the right and the severity of the violation (see here for further discussion). It also requires that the fear of persecution must be well-founded – this does not require certainty – but it must not be far-fetched and should be based upon both an objective assessment of the likelihood of persecution and the subjective nature of the individual’s fear (see Chan v Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 1989). Climate change is unlikely to fulfil this requirement despite the detriment it can have on an individual’s access to human rights. It is unlikely to meet the severity threshold even in relation to socio-economic rights and, as McAdam (2016) highlights, it is difficult to identify a ‘persecutor’ that the refugee fears; instead, many refugees are likely to be moving to states that are major greenhouse gas contributors.

Third, persecution must be related to a reason given by the Convention of ‘race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…’ The impacts of climate change do not discriminate. Even if an individual did establish persecution based upon an egregious socio-economic rights violation caused by climate change, they would need to argue that this affected them because of their membership of one of these groups. At best, an individual could argue that a government had consciously withheld assistance to address the impacts of climate change to a specific group, amounting to persecution (see here) but the group must be connected by an immutable characteristic (Applicant A v Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 1997), not just the impact of the climate change.

Courts have firmly established that the Refugee Convention does not protect victims of natural disasters, slow-onset degradation, poor economic conditions or famine – even when the country of origin is unable or unwilling to provide protection (Canada (Attorney General) v Ward, 1993; Horvath v Secretary of State for the Home Department, 2001). UNHCR has echoed this in its own discussions of how to respond to climate-related displacement (see here and here).

What protections are available to people displaced by climate change?

A response to climate-change related displacement must therefore be sought through other international legal mechanisms. In 2009, the UN Human Rights Council recognised under resolution 10/4 that there is a ‘core inter-linkage between human rights and climate change’ such that those displaced by climate change would be able to rely on the obligations outlined in the ICCPR and the ICESCR. In particular, this would include state’s non-refoulment obligations as the cumulative effect of socio-economic harms can amount to inhumane and degrading treatment such that an individual cannot be returned to such conditions (see Sufi v Elmi, 2011). However, courts may require an immediacy to the rights violation such that future fear of climate-related impacts is insufficient grounds to provide protection from return (see AF(Kiribati), 2013).

In the specific situation of small island states whose territory is threatened by climate change, the law relating to statelessness may also be able to provide some protection and a remedy (see the 1954 Statelessness Convention; Rayfuse 2009). UNHCR has a mandate to prevent and reduce statelessness enabling them to work with states to respond, including coordinating international cooperation, providing protection and resettlement. However, issues concerning when a state will have ceased to exist under international law remains unsettled. For example, for a state to be recognised by international law, Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention requires a permanent population, territory, government and capacity to enter international relations (see Lauterpacht, 1944, and Crawford, 2007, for further discussion). However, there is a lack of clarity on when these criteria will cease to be fulfilled. The problem that international law has grappled with until now has been when new states are formed, not when existing ones have disappeared. As a result, it is unclear when protection for stateless persons of ‘disappeared’ states will be triggered.

There are also regional frameworks that provide broader protections to displaced people, beyond the narrow 1951 definition. In particular, the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration both contain provisions relating to ‘events seriously disturbing public order’, which could be taken to include the events resulting from the effects of climate change. These are both non-binding instruments, whereas Article 5(4) of the Kampala Convention is within a binding instrument and explicitly includes protection for those affected by climate change:

 ‘States parties shall take measures to protect and assist persons who have been internally displaced due to natural or human made disasters, including climate change.’

This focusses protection on internally displaced individuals and ensures that signatory states are required to provides protection and assist those displaced by climate change.

The Kampala Convention is largely based upon the UN Guiding Principles on internal displacement which, under Principle 6(d), outlines that internal displacement is prohibited including in the context of disasters. The principles then provide a framework for states to respond to internal displacement, including that resulting from disasters. The extension of human rights protections to those fleeing climate change is echoed in the Global Compact on Migration, which calls for humanitarian visas for people migrating due to natural disasters and climate change (see objective 2 and 5), as well as similar commitments in the Sustainable Development Goals. Such a response to climate-change related displacement is required under the commitments of Article 14(f) of the Cancun Adaptation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This aims to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement…’ These instruments represent moves by the international community to consolidate existing legal frameworks to respond to climate-change related displacement. However, they are not binding treaty law. They demonstrate political commitments not legal obligations. It is evident that, outside the Africa region, mechanisms for protecting individuals from climate-change related displacement are often non-binding and ad-hoc.

The future of climate-related displacement

The term ‘climate refugee’ is conceptually flawed. Such individuals will not constitute refugees for the term ignores the complex causation involved in any displacement, let alone that related to climate change, which in itself is a multi-causal phenomenon. Whilst human rights law, the law relating to statelessness and regional arrangements do provide for some protections to individuals displaced by climate change, these approaches remain disparate and uncoordinated. A lack of clarity can lead to legal loopholes that are abused by states to limit protections.

To respond to this complexity, there are calls for a separate framework for cross-border climate migrants. Commitments within the Global Compact on Migration and the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Cancun Agreement, represent attempts by the international community to start to coordinate and elucidate protection for climate-related displacement. However, much more must be done to ensure clarity on the personal, material and temporal scope of protections and obligations for climate change-related displacement.

Kathryn Allinson is a Lecturer in Law, University of Bristol Law School. Her research concerns the establishment of state responsibility for breaches of international law focussing on the interaction of human rights and humanitarian law in relation to displacement, and the protection of socio-economic human rights during conflict.

For more on climate change and displacement see the MMB blog by Ignacio Odriozola about at a landmark decision by the United Nations Human Rights Committee on people seeking international protection due to the effects of climate change: Climate-change displacement: a step closer to human rights protection.

Eurofisch: hyper-mobility, cosmopolitanism and the European eel’s appeal

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Peter Coates.

Unlike the Atlantic salmon, the snake-like European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is widely perceived as devoid of charisma. An epic reproductive journey is integral to the salmon’s appeal. But an equally spectacular migration, if in reverse, defines the European eel. The sea-dwelling salmon returns to its freshwater origins. The freshwater-inhabiting eel goes back to its oceanic birthplace. Natural distribution represents another key point of similarity and difference. The salmon spans the North Atlantic, its European breeding grounds confined to more northerly freshwaters. The European eel, with its broader temperature tolerance, populates a wider latitude. Its habitat ranges from southern Iceland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula to the southern Mediterranean – despite the name, North Africa’s rivers and lagoons contain this eel species – and, on the Atlantic coast, as far down as the Canaries. From west to east, they are distributed from the Azores to Georgia.

‘Artisanal’ dipnet fishing for elvers from the bank of the River Severn at Wainlode, Gloucestershire, on a spring evening in 2017 (Image: Environment Agency. Reproduced by permission of the Sustainable Eel Group).

The eel’s Europeanness is most vividly demonstrated by its genes. Whereas the salmon displays high genetic diversity and reproductively discrete local populations, European eels all belong to the same breeding population. This singular, panmictic identity is rooted in a shared birthplace: the West Central Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea is a melting pot where every eel of the opposite sex is a potential breeding partner. And the place the next generation calls home could be anywhere within the species’ European range. Lacking the salmon’s homing instinct, the offspring of eel parents that spent their adult lives in Norwegian and Tunisian waterbodies respectively might settle in Wales. Alternatively, this progeny could end up in Portuguese freshwaters, or wherever the currents carry the tiny larvae (leptocephali) during their up-to-three-year odyssey. The European eel is the only truly pan-European fish: a paragon of cosmopolitanism I call ‘Eurofisch’.

On reaching western Europe, leptocephali metamorphose into glass eels. Shoals of these transparent mini-eels – also known as elvers in the UK – start entering southern Europe’s estuaries in December. But in 2012, fisheries scientists reported that ‘recruitment’ had fallen by up to 95 per cent since 1970. An Extinction Rebellion event in Yeovil, Somerset, in the summer of 2019, underscored the species’ critically endangered status. Protestors dressed as eels participated in a ‘drown in’ and a ‘European eel’ addressed South Somerset District Council.

I’ve recently examined the reasons for this drastic decline; tracked the emergence of concern; considered the remedies; looked at trafficking in glass eels for East Asia’s ‘grow-out’ farms that a Plymouth University project has characterized as an ‘unnatural migration’; and reflected on the prospects of eel appeal spreading. Mobilising popular support for eels is more difficult than drumming up enthusiasm for mammals, either terrestrial and marine (for example, ‘T-shirt’ animals such as pandas, polar bears, whales and dolphins). Few who have seen the 1979 movie version of Günter Grass’ novel, The Tin Drum (1959), will forget the stomach-churning scene on the Baltic beach near Danzig (Gdansk) where a fisherman hauls in a horse’s head writhing with eels that he pulls from ears, nostrils and throat.

Elvers wriggling upstream at Bradford on Tone, Somerset Levels, UK in April 2014. (Image: Andrew Kerr. Reproduced by permission of the Sustainable Eel Group).

What I’d like to convey here is the richness of Europe’s eel heritage and how Eurofisch illuminates what it means to be European. The silver eel (the final, Sargasso-ready life stage) has the highest calorific value of any European fish. A venerable and varied culture of consumption unites Europe, from Spain to Sweden and from Ireland to Italy. Since early Christianity, roast eel has been the dish customarily served at midnight on Christmas Eve in Rome and Naples. The epicentre of Italian eel gastronomy, though, is Comacchio. Since the 1300s, this town in the Po Delta has hosted a silver eel fishery based on lagoons stocked with glass eels entering from the Adriatic. Eels are skewered and roasted, marinated in barrels, then canned. La Donna del Fiume (1955) starred Sophia Loren as an impossibly glamorous worker in a Comacchio cannery that’s now a museum.

In the early 1900s, glass eels were swept up hyper-tidal estuaries such as the Severn, Loire, Gironde, Minho and Tagus in tremendous quantities: surpluses were fed to pigs, fertilised vegetable plots and made into glue. In France, glass eels were boiled and served cold (‘spaghetti with eyes’). Meanwhile, in Severn estuary villages, super-abundant elvers were fried in butter or bacon fat, scrambled with eggs, or boiled and pressed into gelatinous, fried cakes. In Victorian London’s East End, whose labouring population could not afford salmon or meat, itinerant vendors of stewed and jellied eel and the ‘eel and pie’ shop were odoriferous fixtures of the cityscape. Dutch traders were supplying London by 1400 and in the late 1600s schuyts – ships fitted with wells for live export – established a mooring near Billingsgate fish market. Squirming cargos arrived almost daily until the early 1900s; the last schuyt docked in 1938.

In Frampton-on-Severn, the Easter Monday elver eating competition was woven deeply into village life. Male contestants gobbled down a pound of fried elvers. A contest for women (only required to consume half a pound) was founded in 1973. With steeply declining numbers and sharply rising prices, the contest was cancelled in 1990. Revival followed in 2015 – with ersatz elvers known as gulas, produced in Spain’s Basque country. Dubbed ‘elvers’ locally, gulas consist of surimi, blocks of fish paste from Alaskan pollack and Pacific whiting.

In June 2019, the Sustainable Eel Group, a science-led, Europe-wide campaign organisation, marked its tenth anniversary with a two-day meeting at the Natural History Museum and a week-long eel celebration. A highlight was the arrival at ‘Dutch Mooring’ of a reconstructed schuyt, absent from London’s riverscape for over 80 years. My visit coincided with that of Pieter Hak, proprietor of the Noted Eel & Pie House, Leytonstone. Hak told the Dutch crew that his great grandfather, a schuyt captain,sent his youngest son to London to learn the eel pie business in the 1890s. After he met and married the daughter of an English eel and pie shop owner, they opened their own place in Bow in 1926. Hak gave the crew a copy of Stuart Freedman’s paean to this hallowed Cockney institution, The Englishman and the Eel (2017); Hak appears on the cover, grasping a live eel. (Note, however, that an Italian immigrant established London’s oldest surviving eel and pie shops in 1902.)

Two years after leaving the EU, this sort of fishy connection can help, in a small way, to conserve a sense of Britain’s Europeanness. Britain’s eels belong to a wider European family, biologically and culturally. Our migratory eel also has a resounding message in an age of mass trans-border movements, reminding us that where we call home is not always where we, or our parents, were born.

Peter Coates is Emeritus Professor of Environmental History at the University of Bristol. Some of the material in this post appeared in ‘Protecting Eurofisch: An Environmental History of the European Eel and its Europeanness’ in Greening Europe: Environmental Protection in the Long Twentieth Century – A Handbook (2022). Peter wrote a book on Salmon (2006) in Reaktion’s ‘Animal’ series and is currently writing a squirrel history of the UK.

For more on the European eel and its migration read the MMB blog by Michael Malay about the movement of the human and non-human in the Severn Estuary near Bristol: ‘Above the mud, the oystercatchers wheel with their sharp cries.’

Digital home working and its sustainability potential: human immobility and the mobilities of stuff

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Chris Preist and Dale Southerton.

Despite the huge human and economic costs of the COVID pandemic, many commentators have observed that this disruption – or shock – to our resource-intensive daily lives could offer a catalyst for the great societal transformations necessary to meet the climate emergency.

Radical growth of home working is an oft-cited example. According to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures 50% of those in employment did some work from home in April 2020. This mainstreaming of home working has been facilitated by the rapid appropriation of digital devices and services into our everyday lives. It has been accompanied by equally rapid development of cultural skills and competencies required to (collectively) use those devices and services in a satisfactory way. And has led to major adjustments in how we work but also how we shop, interact, use our homes, engage with our local communities, learn, care for others and so on.

Home working during the pandemic, March 2020 (image: Simon Evans on flickr)

The question is whether these shifts could lead to systemic environmental gains. Is it an environmental ‘good’ or ‘bad’? As ever with academics, our answer is ‘it’s not straightforward…’, but when viewed from a systemic perspective it does offer an opportunity to re-imagine sustainable ways of life.

When considering the environmental impacts of any technology or practice, understanding will be shaped by the scope of the analysis: what is considered inside the system being studied and what is ignored. A narrow scope, focused only on the technological parts of the system, makes it more straightforward to quantify the results (such as a ‘carbon footprint’ of something) but means missing out the broader implications – such as how any technology interacts with diverse social practices. One approach to this problem is to consider different scopes for analysis that address the direct, indirect and systemic impacts of a technology. We apply this framing to home working to consider some possibilities.

Direct impacts are the environmental costs of constructing, using and disposing of a technology. Engineering methods, such as life cycle assessment (LCA) (or more colloquially, ‘carbon footprinting’) can be used to model the technology’s life cycle, systematically collect the relevant data and then apportion the ‘environmental burden’ to the different applications of that technology. In the case of digital home working, this will include the impacts of manufacturing the equipment used and providing the electricity to keep it operational: both the home laptops and Wi-Fi, but also a share of the networking equipment used to connect workers with their offices and each other, and the data centres used to power the applications they use. Accounting for this ‘hidden materiality’, and the large consumption of energy used by data centres, has led to some fearing that the impacts of digital home working are substantial. Applying University of Bristol models developed for digital services to video conferencing suggests that the truth is somewhere between the two. A ballpark estimate for the climate impact of a one-hour video conference, for example, would be about 50-100g CO2e depending on the setup used – roughly equivalent to driving 400-800m in a typical family car. This suggests that we should not let concerns about the direct environmental impact of digital services put us off a move to home working.

Indirect impacts are the environmental costs of changing social practices related to the digital service. What do people stop doing? What do they start doing? Again, LCA can be used to quantify these – but only if one understands the nature of these changes. Social science insights are essential here, both to identify what changes to practice might occur, and to collect the data to quantify the extent to which they change across diverse populations.

In the case of home working, the most obvious changes to practice are reduction in travel to work and decreases in energy use within workplaces. These two factors will potentially be substantially larger than the direct impacts of technology use – but will be more variable and harder to predict across the population. Reductions in heating and lighting in the workplace were, it would appear, largely offset by rises of domestic energy use (Hook et al., 2020). The most dramatic potential environmental savings are from the sharp reduction in commuting, with the Department for Transport reporting a 60% reduction in private car usage during 2020 and a 90% decline in the use of public transport. But even here we must consider a range of related indirect effects of the apparent immobility of people. During the same period, we witnessed a huge increase in online shopping as people ordered their goods for home delivery. The ONS shows that online retail sales increased from just under 19% of total retail sales in November 2019 to almost 40% within a year. Groceries, clothing, household products and takeaway foods saw the largest growth.

The digital devices and services that allowed us to adapt so quickly to conditions of apparent human immobility also offered the technological affordances and cultural skills necessary for a commensurate growth in the circulation of goods, ordered online and delivered (often as individual items) to the homes of the immobile. Measuring these effects – especially if trying to capture the relative weighting of a trip to the shopping mall to purchase multiple items versus delivery of multiple individual items purchased online – would be necessary to estimate indirect impacts.

Systemic impacts consist of a huge range of elements that shape, and are shaped by, technologies and social practices. In the case of home working, we pick out three core elements: infrastructures, cultures, and modes of provision. To consider the impact and potential of home working we need to recognise the changing home to include the re-purposing of space for home offices and the technologies required, from the high tech (digital devices and networks) to the low tech (desks and storage). Local communities are also changing, and development of local service infrastructures to support mass home working (for example, the re-invention of the local high street) together with a corresponding decline of city-based office infrastructures will be required if home working is to be viable over the longer term. Each of these changes come with their own direct and indirect environmental impacts.

Cultural shifts must also be considered. Workplace cultures of presenteeism, long working hours, the status of private offices, and daily meetings are all challenged by home-working regimes. In addition, the rising use of digital platforms shows signs of fostering modes of provision through informal networks (such as familial and community based) that have, in recent history, been marginalised by the dominance of market modes of provision. Community sharing initiatives (such as food box schemes, local delivery hubs, community stores) coupled with the accumulating practical challenges of privately owned goods (as symbolised by the increasing percentage of domestic space devoted to storing seldomly used consumer goods and the decreasing use of expensive private cars) have been argued to indicate a shift towards collaborative consumption: the rejection of privately owned goods in favour of sharing (Southerton and Warde, forthcoming). While the direct and indirect environmental impacts of such systemic shifts are unknown, the potential to reduce the material flows of goods and reduce the impacts of human mobility are clear.

Thinking in terms of the systemic implications of home working – symbolised by the immobility of people and rising mobility of goods during COVID – is more important than only measuring direct and indirect impacts. As things stand, we are moving in the direction of ‘hybrid’ working, presumably on the grounds of a ‘best of both worlds’ assumption. From a systems level perspective there is a huge risk that we end up with two systems: workplaces and home working. Whether this ends up being the worst of both worlds, layering new resource-efficient systems over old resource-intensive systems, will largely depend on whether debates regarding the post-COVID world takes the opportunity to re-imagine and re-configure the systemic impacts of technology and human practice on the environment (Geels et al., 2015).

Chris Preist is Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems at the University of Bristol. His research focuses on the environmental impact of digital technology and consumer electronic goods. Dale Southerton is Professor in Sociology of Consumption and Organisation at the University of Bristol. He studies consumption, its role in organising everyday lives and its significance in processes of societal change.

Migration, mobilities and the ecological context

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Jane Memmott.

Migration can make you happy. When I see the first swifts arrive in the spring, I stop in my tracks and smile broadly at all and everyone. I have to restrain myself from telling people walking down the street that ‘they’ are back. Swifts are one of the wonders of the world – they make Concorde look clunky, they hurtle down streets in towns screaming wildly at dusk seemingly just for the fun of it, and scientists have calculated that the distance they fly over their lifetime is equivalent to flying to the moon and back seven times!

Pineapple lily (Eucomis pole-evans)

Migratory species like swifts have two homes and they are generally well regarded in both places. It’s a bit more touch and go whether alien species are welcome or not, and highly context dependent. For example, we deliberately introduce species from all around the world into our gardens without qualm – looking out the window onto my front garden, I’ve got honey bush and pineapple lilies from South Africa, dahlias from Mexico, a hebe from New Zealand, devil’s tobacco from Chile and foxgloves from seed collected down the road! In contrast, my local nature reserves are doing their best to remove rhododendron, cotoneaster and Himalayan balsam.

Context really is key here. Thus, gardens are grown for colour, relaxation, fruit, vegetables, and art (and I consider gardening as much of an art as a science) and they are highly managed and artificial habitats. In fact, they are increasingly considered as outdoor rooms in the media, and no one worries what countries their botanical furniture is from. In contrast, nature reserves are usually more natural settings where we want to capture natural patterns and processes, so there is an expectation that the species present should be native. And there is good evidence that while most alien species are harmless, some species (approximately 1%) can be very damaging to the environment and the economy.

Dahlia (Bishop of Llandaff)

Migration is about mobility, and mobility is a key part of the scientific process. Thus, universities are ecosystems which provide intellectual homes to academics from all over the world. My own department is home to scientists from Africa, Germany, Brazil, Switzerland, Brazil, Italy and China and those are just the people I’ve bumped into over the last few days. COVID has put a bit of a spanner in the works on the mobility front, but mobility is so key to business that academics have quickly found other ways to be mobile. For example, in my own research group, we have been running a large project in a remote part of Nepal entirely by Zoom for the last two years. But, by dint of the internet and some incredible UK staff and amazing project partners in Nepal, we have trained field staff in ten remote villages in the Himalayas to collect diet data for both bees and villagers, using protocols that would have been very new to them. The data is then uploaded by the field staff to the internet and arrives on the computers the other side of the world as if by magic.

Honey bush leaves (Melianthus major)

Mobility is such a large part of a scientist’s life that when it goes wrong it can feel shocking. I’ve had two encounters with mobility of scientists being blocked, one involving myself, another a visiting scientist. Mine was, I suspect, a straightforward random immigration check, but it did leave me rather shaken. I was travelling to Canada for the first time and got taken out of the queue and then grilled for 30 minutes on the nature of my visit. I was giving a plenary talk at a conference and had fortunately remembered to print out my letter of invitation. Unfortunately, I hadn’t actually read it for six months and so I probably did sound a bit suspicious. They did eventually let me in and it was an excellent trip thereafter. The second time was when a restoration ecologist from Latin America, who was visiting my research group for six months, went to Spain with his family for a weekend and upon return his whole family was issued with deportation papers. There is something deeply shocking about seeing the hostile environment process in action, especially when mobility is simply part of normal academic interchange. After some high-level work by an international lawyer this too was fixed. Restoration ecology is much more of a long-term process, but the restoration of mobility was much faster in this instance, if a lot more stressful.

Devil’s tobacco (Lobelia tupa)

Migration and mobility are everyday events in the environment. They can be natural such as the return of swifts each year, or they can be assisted such as the reintroduction programmes for species that have become extinct in the UK. One of the biggest reintroduction success stories is the red kite, a bird that you are almost guaranteed to see now if you drive down the M4 motorway or look out of the train window from Didcot to London. These are big and very beautiful predatory birds – imagine a paprika coloured swallow with a 6ft wingspan! My last few Saturdays have been spent driving from Bristol to a hospital in Hampshire to visit a sick relative and one of the things that has made this less stressful is counting the red kites along the motorway. Last Saturday was a 12-kite day, my highest count yet.

To end, migration, mobility and the environment are inextricably linked. There is both natural and human assisted movement of species in the environment. Species can be both welcome and unwelcome depending on the context. It’s complicated, but it’s the everyday bread and butter of ecologists around the world. With alien plants bringing colour and bizazz to our gardens and swifts bringing happiness as they return to their second homes in the UK, there is a lot to like about migration and mobility in the environment.

Jane Memmott is Professor of Community Ecology in the School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol. Her research interests include pollination ecology, invasion ecology, biological control and restoration ecology. In each case she considers how ecological networks can be used as a tool to answer environmental questions.

Images are all the author’s own.

Previous MMB blogposts on ecosystems and nonhuman migrations include ‘Creating hospitable environments – growth on the (de)Bordering plots’ by Paul Hurley and Charli Clark.

How water stress impacts on migration

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Anita Etale.

In 2015, Ioane Teitiota and his family were deported from New Zealand to the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. His asylum application had been based on the grounds that water, due to sea level rise, had made the island uninhabitable in various ways: there was a shortage of clean drinking water; the available habitable land had decreased, which had led to increased insecurity because of violent land disputes; and the main activity, subsistence farming, was impeded.

Water has always had a major influence on where we live. Whether drawing us to new locations or forcing us from existing ones, water has always been intricately connected to the movement of people. As soon as it was possible to navigate the wide-open sea, water facilitated exploration to new lands. Later, being on these wide, open seas offered hope to millions fleeing world wars, presenting a somewhat invincible fortress protecting them from persecution, suffering and premature demise. More recently, the drowning of at least 27 men, women and children attempting to make the crossing from France to England brought into sharp focus how some things have not changed since those world wars: many are still crossing seas to flee persecution, suffering and premature demise.

In recent times, it is increasingly recognised that climate change will be a significant driver of migration. Island states such as Tonga and Micronesia already have negative net migration rates and projections are that stressed freshwater resources and water-related extreme events (such as floods) will drive more migration from island states because of food insecurity and habitat loss. Some states are already purchasing land to relocate citizens, as this is considered the only reliable adaptive response. By 2014, Kiribati had purchased 6,000 acres of forest land from Fiji: ahead of the UN climate summit that year, Anote Tong, Kiribati’s president at the time, said that buying land abroad was the way to ensure ‘migration with dignity’. Meanwhile, 6,000 km to the east, the world’s ‘first environmental refugees’ were already setting up new homes in Bougainville, an autonomous island of Papua New Guinea. They had left islands that were becoming increasingly uninhabitable as sea water ingress led to shortages in arable land and clean drinking water.

It is debatable, however, whether the islanders migrating to Bougainville are indeed the world’s first group of people forced to leave their ancestral lands due to climatic changes. Lake Chad, in west Africa was once the sixth largest inland water body, with an open water area of 25,000 km2 in the 1960s. By the 1980s, over 90% of the lake had been lost due to decreased precipitation, sparking significant internal and international migration. By 2015, more than 71,000 people from Nigeria and North Cameroon had moved towards the lake’s receding shores. As the ever-growing numbers scrambled for a portion of the limited water resources to farm, water their livestock and maintain their livelihoods, violence erupted that led to further migration out of the region. With limited non-agricultural skills and no source of capital to engage in alternative livelihood strategies the situation for these people is extremely precarious.

These two case studies challenge the narrative that climate change will drive migration in the future. They show that it already does. The situation is only likely to get worse as more regions of the world are affected, and yet, the impact of water crises on migration is not well documented.

Environmental migrants

No legal definition exists to date, for people on the move due to environmental drivers. However, the International Organisation for Migration put forward the following definition in 2007:

‘… persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.’
(IOM, 2007:1)

Water scarcity is bound to be a major driver of migration given that 17 countries, home to 25% of the global population, are already experiencing water stress (see Figure 1). The poorest of the global population will be the most adversely affected, but, without the necessary resources, they are also the least able to leave their homelands to seek livelihoods elsewhere. It is therefore unlikely that the world will see waves of impoverished ‘water refugees’ crossing oceans and landing on the shores of wealthy nations. The World Bank estimates that residents of poor countries are four times less likely to move than residents of middle-income countries. But their inability to move will severely impact their chances of survival.

Figure 1: Predicted global water stress between 2030 and 2040 (Image: OpenStreetMap)

Conceptualising water as a driver of migration

Water has always been both a push and pull factor for migration: places with adequate sources will attract migrants while diminishing reserves have the opposite effect. To assess the interconnection between water and migration, a 3D model encompassing water quantity, water quality and water-related extremes has been suggested (see Figure 2). Deterioration of water quality – for example, resulting from chemical contamination or increased salinity – will push people away from habitats due to adverse health impacts. Increased salinity can also significantly impact food security, leading to out-migration. The third factor, water extremes – such as floods or droughts – impact both quality and quantity, but their impact on the nature of migration (whether it is temporary or permanent) depends on how frequently these events occur.

Figure 2: Three-dimensional framework conceptualising the links between water and migration (Image: Nagabhatla et al., 2020).

Which way forward?

It is important to acknowledge the ways in which water migration results in unfair outcomes both for those with means to escape water-scarce areas and those without. In developing countries, wages of workers who move from rural to urban areas due to drier climates may be up to 3.4% lower than that of a typical immigrant – a significant amount for those already on a very low income. For those unable to leave their water-scarce homes, diminished food security and loss of income from agriculture present significant blows to already disadvantaged communities.

In urban areas water supplies are also under threat from climate change. Doing nothing could prove extremely costly to local and global economies, both increasing involuntary migration and severely impacting on communities without resources to fund migration. It is therefore crucial to invest in infrastructure and policies that enhance resilience within cities as well as rural areas. Water recycling, rainwater harvesting and incentives for efficient water use are tools that can be employed to this end. Evidence shows that while people may initially be resistant to using recycled water, their willingness increases when all available options are weighed up.

Finally, protecting livelihoods at the place of origin needs to be a key strategy for addressing water-induced population movement. In rural areas climate-smart agriculture can help towards reducing the vulnerability of communities and their livelihoods to diminished water resources. In Senegal, for example, high yielding, early maturing and drought resistant varieties of sorghum, millet, cowpeas and groundnuts are being developed as an adjustment to the shorter rain seasons. Traditional varieties required at least 120 days and plenty of rain to harvest, but new varieties require less than 110 days and can withstand two to three week stretches without rain. Instead of giving up farming therefore, farmers can stay on their lands and farm in ways that are adaptable to water scarcity and a variable climate.

Anita Etale is a Research Associate at the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Bristol. Her research focuses on finding sustainable materials for water treatment using sustainable resources as well as the environmental and social implications of water stress on communities. Anita is MMB’s Early Career Representative.

You can find out more about this blog series and read previous posts on the Migration, Mobilities and the Environment webpage.

The politics of climate justice, migration and mobility

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment

Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) and the Cabot Institute for the Environment bring together researchers from across the University of Bristol to explore connections between movement and the environment from a multi-disciplinary perspective. These diverse approaches highlight the importance of developing frames that incorporate both migration and environment, and in so doing benefit our understandings of both. Here, the directors of MMB and the Cabot Institute introduce the blog series.

By Bridget Anderson and Guy Howard.

Migration is often mobilised to illustrate the enormity of the challenge of climate change. Some Small Island States in the Pacific, for instance, may become uninhabitable with sea-level rise. Highly vulnerable countries in South Asia, including Bangladesh and the Maldives, may see large proportions of their populations forced to move because of sea-level rise, floods and salinisation of water. US climate envoy John Kerry recently fuelled fears of a future where food production collapse would force a ‘hundred million people’ to move. His comments strongly implied that even those of us who imagine we are protected from the frontline of climate change will be faced with the challenges of ‘climate refugees’ in their millions.

Seven Sisters Park flooded, 2020 (image: Peter Castleton on flickr)

Kerry’s remarks were heavily criticised, but this is not to deny that there is a connection between the world’s ecosystems and environment and human movement. It is easiest to causally relate environmental factors to migration in situations of ‘rapid onset disasters’ – destructive events that occur suddenly, such as typhoons or floods. In these situations, people move to survive, but often to a place of safety a short distance away, and they return to rebuild homes and lives once the emergency has abated. But many environmental changes are taking place over periods spanning two or three generations. ‘Slow onset’ environmental change can be a primary or contributing factor to deteriorating socio-economic conditions – increasing periods of drought, or crop yields declining rather than collapsing, for instance. In these circumstances, migration can be an important way to diversify income streams. Environmental change may also contribute to shifts in land usage and land ownership, which again may result in migration.

Declining resources can also prevent people from moving, especially when resources are slowly depleted over a generation or more. Limited access to capital can force people into illegal or exploitative migration or lead them to delay moving until forced to do so in an unplanned way – perhaps because of a rapid onset disaster that they no longer have the resilience to cope with.

The challenges faced by people who don’t move may become more severe when combined with conflict. For example, in Somalia, armed conflict has hindered the movement of pastoralists, who would otherwise relocate as a response to drought. It has also limited the possibilities of humanitarian organisations to assist them. Human mobility and environmental change are deeply interconnected but need to be understood systemically not simplistically if we are work towards climate justice.

Understanding the relationship between migration and environmental change in a more holistic and integrated way has important policy implications. For example, economic factors can mean that people migrate to places of environmental instability as well as migrating from places of environmental instability. Currently 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, and it is forecast that by 2050 this will increase to nearly 70%; nearly 60% of forcibly displaced people move to urban areas (World Bank, 2020). Many cities are extremely vulnerable to future environmental change, and already experience high temperatures, sea level rise, water stress and threats to health. Rural to urban migrants are often especially vulnerable, as they tend to move to neighbourhoods with high population density that are prone to environmental risks – think of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, or the slums of Dhaka, Nairobi and Mumbai.

In these contexts, migrants, whether rural-urban or international, can be represented as an environmental problem in themselves. The movements of the poor are also represented as a root cause of problems: migration destroys carbon sinks, ‘environmental refugees’ put pressure on already scarce resources and services and so on. Rather than seeing the interconnections of human movement and climate change, the risk is that the politics of climate and the mobility of the poor – that is, ‘migration’ – are framed as oppositional. As a result, in wealthy countries we are seeing increasing tensions between politics of the environment and politics of migration, as illustrated by John Kerry’s remarks.

It is critical, then, to recognise the complexity of the connections between (human) movement and ecosystems. This new blog series, co-published by MMB and the Cabot Institute for the Environment, draws attention to some of these connections and raises questions for further research to help us understand in more depth the relationship between movement and the environment, and its political significance. The contributions in the series approach this relationship from many angles, ranging from the role of water access in shaping migration to debates around the status of the ‘environmental refugee’. One analyses the environmental footprint of home working versus office working to explore the sustainability potential of our increasing immobility. Others focus on animals and plants on the move: we have writing on the ecological context of bird migrations and on the hyper-mobility of the European eel. Meanwhile, other posts look at the movement of goods and how humans locate themselves in, and move through, landscapes of extraction and risk. In bringing together such diverse topics we hope this series will encourage new conversations about the connections between migrations, mobilities and environments.

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol. Guy Howard is Global Research Chair Environmental and Infrastructure Resilience at the University of Bristol, and Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment.