01 Dec, 2021

"There's an inextricable link between migration, agriculture, rural development, and climate change"

by Food&Migration, Ilaria Mereni

Interview with Cristina Rapone, Rural Migration Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Since 2011, she has been leading analytical and technical work on rural migration and its links to agriculture and rural development. Moreover, she is actively involved in policy, advocacy, and capacity development work at global and country levels. She coordinated the FAO Migration Framework, which guides FAO’s work on migration. She also coordinated the first Atlas on rural migration in sub-Saharan Africa and contributed to the FAO flagship publication on the State of Food and Agriculture 2018 focused on migration, agriculture, and rural development. 

Food&Migration: It is known that most of migrants worldwide move within their own countries and that many of them transfer from rural to urban areas. In this context, is migration considered only a survival strategy or also an effective livelihood diversification strategy to adapt, for instance, to the seasonality of agriculture?

RAPONE: A large share of migrants originates from rural areas. Most of them move within their own country or intra-regionally. In 2020, 63% of all international migrants in sub-Saharan Africa moved within the region. While public attention is mostly focused on international migration, internal migration within countries is almost five times bigger. In the State of Food and Agriculture 2018, FAO estimated in 1.3 billion the number of people living in developing countries that moved internally from rural to urban areas, but also from rural-to-rural areas, and from cities to villages. Internal and international migration can be interrelated, as migrants often move in steps. 

Seasonal migration is a typical feature of rural migration, and among the most common coping strategies of rural households to diversify their livelihoods and to adapt to the seasonality of agriculture. Seasonal migration is linked to the agricultural calendars, following seasonal weather patterns such as rainfall, or demand for labour in the harvest season. The COVID-19 pandemic has shed a spotlight on the vital role migrant workers play in our agri-food system, and especially seasonal workers involved in planting and harvesting, as well as in distribution and processing. FAO advocates for seasonal labour migration as a regular pathway of migration to harness its contribution to development in areas of origin and destination. 

Seasonal migration can be a triple win. When well-managed, (i) the migrants benefit from decent work opportunities and diversify their livelihoods; (ii) in destination areas, seasonal migration offers the opportunity to fill critical labour shortages; and (iii) in areas of origin, it reduces the pressure for people to migrate permanently, contributes to diversified livelihoods, and creates opportunities for investment of remittances as well as the transfer of knowledge and skills.

F&M: How do these internal movements affect crop production and food availability? Does migration have a positive or negative impact on agriculture and rural development?

RAPONE: Migration brings both opportunities and challenges to agriculture and rural communities. On one hand, it can relieve pressure on local labour markets and resources, while, on the other, it can help meet demand for labour in agriculture and food systems. In the short term, migration can cause a loss of family labour that could negatively affect levels of household farm and non-farm production and may encourage households engaged in agriculture to shift production towards less labor-intensive crops and activities. With young people migrating, rural communities risk also of losing the most dynamic share of their workforce. At the same time, remittances sent by migrants can foster investments in agribusiness, diversify income sources by launching farm and non-farm business activities, and hire labour. Forty percent of total remittances are sent to rural areas. Many families use this money to buy food and meet other basic needs, improving access to nutritious food and healthy diets. Migrants can also contribute in other ways, sharing knowledge, skills, and knowledge to support improvements in agricultural production and processing, and the development of agri-businesses back home and in their receiving communities.

Migration can also lead to changes in the intra-household division of labour along gender and generational lines. People staying behind may experience increases in their workload, with possible negative impacts especially on women and children. Changes in intra-household dynamics can disrupt care arrangements for family members, which can have a negative effect on food security and well-being, but it can also have a positive impact in changing stereotypes around gender roles. Depending on the context, women may gain greater control over productive resources and remittances, potentially helping to close the gender gap in agriculture.

F&M: And what about return migration? Which is its impact on rural development, agriculture, and economic growth of developing countries?

RAPONE: Return migration is a growing phenomenon and calls for increased attention on the sustainability of return and reintegration policies and programs worldwide. The pandemic has also driven an unexpected and unprecedented magnitude of the reverse migration of migrant workers, with rural communities facing enormous challenges to meet and accommodate the socio-economic needs of returnees.

Return migration poses both challenges and opportunities to agriculture and rural communities. Many returnees may find challenges in reintegrating in rural areas, experiencing difficulties in reclaiming or accessing land and natural resources, accessing support services to find employment, or set up their own business in the farm or non-farm sector, or readapting in the society of origin. However, when reintegration is sustainable, the benefits also extend to communities of origin where returning migrants can significantly contribute to rural development through their skills, knowledge, and economic activities. 

Reintegration assistance to be sustainable needs to be multidimensional, covering both economic, social, and psychosocial needs and considering the specificities of rural contexts. The productive reintegration of return migrants into rural economies can be facilitated by creating an enabling environment for agribusinesses (i.e., legal framework, access to finance, incentives, technical support, skills mapping and database, skills recognition) and supporting awareness-raising on farm and non-farm business opportunities. Interventions should also include livelihoods packages and tailored technical training for the reintegration of returnees, along with measures at community level to increase trust, social cohesion and prevent conflicts over natural resources and land disputes.

F&M: How does FAO work to promote a positive and sustainable impact of migration on rural areas? Could you make us any example of FAO’s work on rural migration?

RAPONE: To make migration a choice, FAO works to minimize the adverse drivers of migration and boost alternatives in rural areas. At the same time, FAO works to enhance the positive impacts of migration for agriculture and rural communities, supporting rural livelihoods and mobilizing human and financial resources of migrants and diaspora.

To achieve these objectives, FAO is engaged in generating knowledge to support evidence-based policies, programs, and investments. All publications and guidance tools, such as the State of Food and Agriculture 2018 or the Atlas on Rural Africa in motion, can be found on our webpage. FAO also provides policy support at global, regional, and country levels to strengthen policy and programmatic coherence between migration policies and sectoral policies in areas under FAO’s mandate. In Senegal, for instance, FAO supported national and local government stakeholders in improving migration governance systems, by integrating agriculture and rural development in migration policies, as well as including migration in local development planning. It is also currently piloting the set-up of orientation desks for prospective and return migrants in six pilot municipalities. To support the preparation and implementation of policies and programs, FAO works on developing capacities of FAO personnel and stakeholders at regional, country and community levels on migration. FAO focuses on developing technical and functional capacities to engage in rural migration through face-to-face training and e-learning, developing guidance tools, and facilitating South-South cooperation and peer-based learning mechanisms. 

FAO works in different country and regional contexts. To name a few examples FAO works on: mobilizing diaspora for agribusiness in Uganda; creating decent rural employment opportunities in agri-food systems for prospective young migrants in Kenya; supporting return migrants in Moldova, Senegal and El Salvador, empowering women who stay behind and return migrants in Nepal; and working on climate change induced migration in Zimbabwe. FAO also works in country, regional and global fora on advocacy, raising the awareness about the critical role migration plays in agriculture and rural development and creating strategic and multi-stakeholder partnerships between migration, agricultural and rural stakeholders. 

F&M: In recent years, climate change has been increasing the pressure to migrate both within and across countries because of its harmful effects on the agricultural production, food security and water resources. How would you comment this situation? Is FAO working on that?

RAPONE: Rural livelihoods significantly rely on natural resources and thus are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Climate variability and change might exacerbate the drivers of migration. On the one hand, those who have resources and capacity may migrate to cope with climate-related hazards. On the other hand, the impacts of climate change could aggravate the vulnerability of the extreme poor and vulnerable to the extent that they will be unable to move away from areas of environmental risk and be trapped in climate hotspots. 

To address the adverse drivers of migration, FAO helps rural communities better manage climate-related risks and hazards, promote the sustainable use and management of resources, and create climate-resilient livelihoods in rural areas. FAO also recognizes the key role of migration as one potential adaptation strategy to climate change. Furthermore, FAO collaborates with communities to leverage the benefits of migration for strengthening the adaptive capacity of rural populations and for building long-term resilience to climate change. To this end, FAO promotes diaspora engagement, encourages the transfer of social and financial remittances into climate-smart agricultural practices, as well as into non-agricultural livelihood activities. 

Lastly, FAO works with policy actors at national and sub-national levels to promote policy dialogue and facilitate coordination between relevant sectoral policies. FAO promotes the integration of migration into climate change and agricultural policies and encourages evidence-based migration governance that recognizes and harnesses the role and benefits of migrations for adaptation and resilience. 

F&M: Lastly, considering what we discussed above, which is the role of governments and of the international community in this context? Are they developing strategies, policies and actions plans? If not, what should they do in your opinion?

RAPONE: The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to shed light on the vital role migrants play in agri-food systems. Pursuant to the commitments outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, FAO advocates for increased attention by governments and the international community on the links between migration, agriculture, rural development, and climate change. 

Interventions should focus on addressing the adverse drivers of migration, including poverty, food insecurity, climate change and environmental degradation, to make migration from, to and between rural areas a choice and support resilient and sustainable rural livelihoods. Policies should also aim at maximizing the benefits of migration and harness the potential and agency of migrants for rural transformation, while minimizing the challenges to communities and rural populations. To do so, it is fundamental to promote dialogue between all stakeholders to strengthen policy coherence and ensure agricultural policies and programs integrate migration dimensions, while migration policies embed the needs of food systems.