Steve Lonergan, Director, Global Environmental Change and Human Security (GECHS) Project, University of Victoria

Youba Sokona, ENDA Tiers Monde, Dakar, Senegal

April 13, 2000 - Large development projects, such as the Three Gorges Dam, are a major cause of large human migration movements and will continue to be, according to Steve Lonergan, director of the GECHS project, speaking at a recent Environmental Change and Security Project (ECSP) meeting. Steve Lonergan discussed the links between human migration and the environment in presenting an overview of Issue 2 of AVISO entitled, "Degradation and Population Displacement." In addressing migration, Lonergan specifically looked at population displacement where environmental degradation might be a contributing factor as well as social, political, or economic factors. Some researchers have called these environmentally-displaced persons "environmental refugees," a term coined in 1985 by United Nations representative, El-Hinnawi to indicate:

Those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life.

Given the controversy, however, in the migration studies community over using the legal term "refugee," Lonergan preferred to use the term "population displacement" to indicate a movement of people, usually not of their own volition.

Population displacements can be caused by several factors, although the primary factors, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), are political instability, economic tensions, ethnic conflicts, and environmental deterioration. Examples of environmental deterioration include annual flooding in Bangladesh from monsoons, regularly displacing thousands of people, and the more recent issue of deforestation in Thailand, which has forced many Thais to abandon their homes. The problem, though, with viewing environmental factors as causes of displacement is that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence but not enough empirical data on the relationship, as there is with the other three primary causes of displacement.

Having detailed the basics about migration, Lonergan highlighted four key points about the links between migration and environmental deterioration. Despite generalizations about the relationship between the two issues, the field of migration research is complex because of the many separate political, social, economic, institutional, and environmental issues associated with the movement of people. One also needs to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary movements of people. The plethora of push-pull theories and dearth of structural theories of migration are an indication that generalizations often mask this complexity of migration decision-making. Second, the specific contributions of the environment to migratory patterns are hard to pinpoint, especially when those movements may be characterized as "voluntary" in nature. Movements can often be the result of a combination of factors. Third, there is an implicit assumption that migration provides immediate relief from environmental pressures when in fact it often only serves to increase pressures. A good example of this increase is when cholera epidemics or other infectious diseases break out in refugee camps. Finally, there is a lack of good empirical data on the precise future intentions of the displaced individuals for the future.

After explicating these four key points, Lonergan offered several recommendations for policy. First, he stressed the need to develop a system to anticipate large movements of people and identify those populations that are "most vulnerable." In addition, it is essential to identify adaptation mechanisms, and how these mechanisms may be reinforced in particularly vulnerable communities. Third, more case studies of how environmental degradation affects migration should be funded. Fourth, practitioners should develop better communication and working relationships between the different human rights, population, environmental, and migration organizations. Care should be taken to involve migrants and refugees directly in the development of relief programs. Additionally, both policymakers and researchers must recognize the cumulative causality of environmental degradation and assist the regions receiving migrants and refugees to reduce the environmental impacts of large movements of people. Finally, Lonergan recommended providing assistance to those countries and regions that are most vulnerable to environmental change and identify them as human priority areas.

Following his presentation, the floor was opened to discussion. Participants focused on the need diminish the ambiguity that surrounds the terminology of the field and the need for better indicators to predict and prevent potential mass migrations. For example, in Issue 6 of AVISO, the authors define a human security index for measuring progress and decline of regions to show vulnerability to social, political, economic, and environmental tensions. While other early warning systems have been developed, they need to be refined to ensure better early preventive actions.

Next, Youba Sokona, one of five authors of Issue 5 of AVISO, entitled "A Southern Dialogue: Articulating Visions of Sustainable Development," argued that a global dialogue is needed on the links between environment and development. However, prior to such a global dialogue, a "Southern Dialogue" should be held in which the Southern states would offer their own visions of sustainable development. Developing countries have a wide variety of differences just like developed nations in their social, cultural, economic, political, and environmental factors, which will have an impact on their priorities, a fact that must be recognized by the North, according to Sokona.

Some of the most important lessons that the South has learned have been the need to articulate who is at risk, what role climate change will play in exacerbating that risk, what levels of coping mechanisms exist, and finally, what are the most effective coping strategies for developing nations to better respond to environmental crises. Sokona provided examples where these lessons are being applied now including the desiccation of the Sahel and the floods in Mozambique. The former offers lessons on how to prevent current widespread famine while the latter shows the challenges to development in many developing nations. In both of these recent events, the nations have shown that there are a wide variety of coping strategies including bartering, migration, social welfare, formal insurance, and education.

A long-term, critical challenge for developing nations that has already had severe impacts in some areas is climate change. Sokona discussed the many varied ways in which climate change can impact the development of nations. He also offered some ways in which the South is trying to combat climate change. Some of the coping strategies that can be used in climate change, but also in other areas of environmental degradation, include increasing and spreading information, building capacity both within nations and across regions, reconstruction projects, risk reduction strategies, and spreading the risk so as to minimize its impact.

Following his presentation, participants queried Sokona on how to measure the impacts and develop meaningful indicators for sustainable development in the South. This need to articulate meaningful indicators points out a key problem between the North and South. The developing countries have very different perceptions and aspirations of what signifies meaningful indicators, a difference that must be overcome within the South and between the North and South. Both presentations highlighted serious deficiencies in both research and in practice of addressing the problems of environmentally-induced migration and promoting sustainable development in the developing nations that is satisfactory to the nations involved.

Editor's note: AVISO is a policy-briefing series co-sponsored by ECSP through a funding arrangement with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the GECHS program through a funding arrangement with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). This briefing was the second AVISO policy briefing meeting hosted by ECSP since the inception of the partnership between the two institutions and their funding organizations. This meeting was a two-part AVISO policy briefing session featuring presentations by Steve Lonergan and Youba Sokona. For a summary of the first meeting, held 4 June 1999, please go to: To download copies of the first six AVISO briefings, please go to the GECHS web site at: