The Namesake: Migration and Environmental Crises

The Namesake: Migration and Environmental Crises

Authors:  Dr. Cristina-Ioana Dragomir,  Queen Mary University of London SPIR Visiting Researcher, faculty New York University, Global Liberal Studies

Anushka Akhtar, 2021 Queen Mary University of London, graduate in BSc. Economics and Politics 

Ryan  Bhadlawala 2020 Queen Mary University of London, graduate in BA.  School of Political and International Relations

Environmental crises, migration, and internal displacement

As Dina Ionesco, the Head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) Division at the UN Migration Agency (IOM), argued in 2019, “Climate migrants have been invisible for many years on the migration and climate debates”. The nexus of migration, environment, and climate change has long had an impact, but rarely formally discussed. In the meantime, the number of environmental migrants has expanded rapidly. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) 2019  report showed that 16.1 mil people have been displaced due to weather concerns, among which 764,000 people were displaced following droughts. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), meanwhile, predicts that people affected by climate disasters will reach 200 million by 2050.

While environmental changes can affect people through sudden events, disasters linked with climate change mostly take place over long periods of time. Adverse effects on crop production, as well as soil, water, air, and overall quality of life, eventually force people to flee for lack of livelihood. Environmental mobility is often linked to poverty, racism, xenophobia, and sexism, making it even more difficult to account for one reason that determined migration. Thus, it is often impossible to assess how much internal displacement is due to the changing environment.

As millions are forcibly displaced both within their own country and internationally, the Nansen Initiative emphasizes the need for  “an inter-governmental process to address the challenges of cross-border displacement.” Nevertheless, to dat, the terms needed to address these issues, like “climate migrants” and “climate refugees” are neither widely politically accepted, nor do they have legal power. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while admitting that “people may have a valid claim for refugee status” –  where climate change interacts with armed conflict and violence – does not endorse the term “climate refugee,” but argues in favor of using “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.”  IOM also rejects the term “climate refugee”, and  argues in favor of “climate migrant,” which emphasizes the importance of developing regular migration pathways, which“can provide relevant protection for climate migrants and facilitate migration strategies in response to environmental factors.”(IOM, 2019).

Lacking a legal name creates ripple effects on the ground. It is already common knowledge that to address migration we need to address its root-causes, as well as create conditions for people’s return. But lacking a name and a legal framework for those who move because of environmental concerns, creates gaps in categorizations, counting, policies and programming.

For example, while the 2011 census in India states that there are about 450 million internal migrants, the percentage of those who move due to environmental concerns is unknown.  As a result of this lack of legal categorization, and because of the slow onset of climate crises, environmental Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs)/ migrants/refugees, are often miscategorized as labor/ economic migrants, and (mis)treated accordingly. 

Those who move due to the slow-onset of climate disasters, are difficult to identify, and many of their stories are rarely heard. One of them was Raghu Chikkanerele:

My name is Raghu Chikkanerele. I am from Mysore district, Priyapatna Taluka in Karnataka. I am from a farmer family, but I had migrated to Bangalore city about 7-8 years back. The reason for migration was that farming didn’t offer much economic opportunities. As a child, when I used to go to the farm, I used to see only trees in our farms. But by the time I grew up, the trees had been completely destroyed. So somewhere inside me I had this awareness that our nature is getting destroyed, our environment is getting destroyed which also includes our lives. (Courtesy of Isha Foundation)

The story of Mr. Raghu highlights how environmental changes have affected one’s livelihood. It also brings to view how difficult it is to analytically and politically distinguish between intersecting causes of migration. Also, brings to view how environmental degradation took place over his lifetime, forcing him to move from rural to urban areas in search of livelihood, transforming him into a so-called: “labor migrant.” 

Environmental degradation and water challenges  

Raghu’s situation is not exceptional. It is the story of millions who are lost in namelessness. It is a story difficult to grasp in studies of mobility. The recent (2019) droughts in South India affected large rivers in Tamil Nadu, like Cauvery which flows over Tamil Nadu and Karnataka ultimately descending into the Eastern Ghats. This raised international attention on looming climate disasters, enabling more complex conversations on environmental concerns.   

“It’s very painful to see our place like this. How glorious it was before! Now it’s very painful to see Cauvery like this. At that time, it was raining, crops were growing, and people were eating. Now there are no crops, so people are working as laborers.” “When there was abundant water in Cauvery, we had three harvests, gradually it reduced to two harvests. Lately, we are struggling to make one harvest. Some 20 years later, there won’t be water in Cauvery at all. It will become fully dry. There won’t be any water to drink at all”- shared farmers in South India (Isha Outreach, 2021)

Recent climate changes in the Cauvery Basin in South India have created disastrous effects on both the environment and communities, leading to over 11,000 annual suicides by debt-ridden farmers, as well as massive internal displacement from southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to Mumbai and Delhi. But these climate induced migrations are largely misrecognized; those who are forced to leave their places because of environmental disasters, are typically labeled as “labor migrants,” and thrown into the larger unaccounted Indian mobile population. Faced with low wages and lack of permanent job security, they become particularly vulnerable to uncertainty and shocks in the urban labor system. Furthermore, their lack of urban networks  and  opportunities diminish their resilience and adaptability to natural disasters and extreme climate conditions. This often results in a precarious process, which places migrants in a state of extreme vulnerability, making them  more susceptible to highly exploitative work conditions, health risks, and marginalization and the risks of climate change.  Their lack of categorization as climate IDPs or refugees, makes them invisible in policies, programs, subsidies, and schemes that could support them.   

Policy and civil society context

Lacking institutional support, often people took matters into their own-hands and tried to address the root-cases of their migration by engaging with the land:

“My name is Diwakar. I am from a farmer’s family. My father had to migrate to Bangalore to work. I then got married and started my life there. In this Coronavirus pandemic instead of roaming in Bangalore, I just decided to migrate back to my native place ‘Kurubara Halli’, Karnataka to do something in agriculture with my father. (…) As I have an interest in this field I came and planted Chilli. Recently, I got to know about the Cauvery Calling project and I planted around 200 to 250 saplings. (…) I seized this opportunity to develop and invest in my farm and the trees will be like an additional security net in these unpredictable times. (…) This part of the district is very dry and we have almost no shade. By growing plants and trees the atmosphere will become cool, and we are hoping we will get rain as well. I urge each and every village to come and take saplings and create green earth and should help nature and our next generation.” (Diwakar, 2020; courtesy ofIsha Foundation)

Believing that their engagement with the land would address environmental and economic concerns, people like Diwakar engage in agroforestry as a long-term investment. These individual endeavors have also been complemented by actions at the civil society level. Thus, large scale agroforestry programs have been a part of the decades-long effort to reinvigorate India’s soil, forests, environment and economic development. The 2014 National Agroforestry Policy sets up a National Agroforestry Mission to “achieve sustainability in agriculture while optimizing its productivity and mitigating climate change impact” (Indian Ministry of Agriculture, 6 February 2014). Similar programs have been launched in the states of Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka (and more) aiming for the plantation of over a hundred million saplings, hoping to generate income, address the environmental crisis, and economic constraints.

Like other Indian rivers, the Cauvery river  mentioned above,  has lost over 40% of groundwater in the last 70 years and 87% of the basin’s original tree cover, causing drought. As a result, the Cauvery Calling project was launched by Isha Outreach to scale up their two decades of grassroot work supporting reforestation efforts in India’s degraded areas, to raise awareness about the country’s drying rivers and to limit disasters and displacement linked with environmental change. The twelve-year project aims to support farmers like Diwakar and Raghu in the Cauvery basin to plant 2.42 billion trees in their farmlands. Its goals are to improve soil health by replenishing organic content, reviving the river and groundwater level by increasing water retention by an estimated 40%, and increasing farmers’ income by 300-800% in 5 to 7 years. This project is headed by Isha Foundation, an organization whose leader Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev is well-known for “marrying” spiritual and environmental endeavors

“Cauvery basin amounts to about 83,000 square kilometers. We want to convert 1/3 of the Cauvery into Agroforestry. If you do this, the 40% depletion that’s happened in the river waters will come back; the river will flow once again, farmers will be rich and well to do. (…) I want to officiate the marriage of economy and ecology. Only then we will produce something significant. Ecology is not against the economic well-being of the people. Economy and ecology have to go hand in hand” (Sadhguru, 2020)

Since 1998, the foundation  reported that over 5.2 million saplings  have been planted, by approximately 107,000 farmers, integrating Cauvery Calling in larger global projects with convergent environmental and economic aims: “If the farmers have an investment in the land, they will not leave their investment” mentioned Sadhguru (personal interview, Dr. Dragomir,  2020) referring to the investment in trees on their land as ways of curbing displacement and ensuring sustainability.

The project mobilized people on the ground, but to create a viable sustainable path, efforts such as those of Cauvery Calling need to be furthered at the political, economic and scientific levels. Planting trees is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but it is nevertheless an important step in addressing both environmental concerns and human rights. And it creates the possibility of bringing together different actors across society locally, nationally and internationally. As the UNCCD Executive Secretary,  Ibrahim Thiaw said in September 2020, reforestation brings back opportunities, jobs, and reasons to stay for millions, and “Cauvery Calling could be a large scale project that helps improve the living conditions of most vulnerable populations while rehabilitating the land sustaining all of us.”

Civil society initiatives, such as Cauvery Calling could mitigate the consequences of environmental degradation. The grassroot approach is effective in spreading awareness and mobilizing the public. Institutions like Isha Outreach successfully build trust and rapport with local farming communities, which enables a strong alliance at the ground level. However, such organizations cannot bear the responsibility of replenishing the environment alone. Their endeavors need to be bolstered by top-down support from international organizations, government policies, and capital investment to mitigate pollution. Moreover, if our goal is to address root-causes of forced migration due to environmental concerns, these programs  need to be empowered by legislative tools that clearly define those affected by climate disasters. 

A path forward:  in need of a name

Programs such as Cauvery Calling, Trillion Trees, and even The 2014 National Agroforestry Policy do not address migration and internal displacement directly. Their work has a larger scope, and while they might tangentially help environmentally affected migrants, they rarely directly touch their lives. This situation is due to the mis-recognition at the political level of those displaced by environmental crises. Their migration stories are often lost in the background, and rarely linked to environmental crises.

The terms “climate refugee,” “climate IDP,” and “climate migrant” are imperfect by far. They remind us of a long legacy of oppression and colonization, intertwined with religious legacy and with an international hierarchy of power, that together (re)establish the “savior” role of the   (typically) Western countries. While the lexicon of migration needs to come under serious scrutiny and reimagination, accepting these as operational concepts and legal terms, would help address and mitigate the human cost of the climate crisis.     

As long as we do not have legally recognized categorization of climate migrants, refugees, IDPs, for those affected by climate disasters, people like Mr. Raghu and Mr. Diwakar will fall through the cracks of policies, forgotten by policy makers, unacknowledged by international programs, and left to make ends meet with the help of civil society. It is thus imperative to create a complex lexicon that includes environmental IDPs, refugees and migrants, one that is accepted and implemented holistically, which will enable focus on those who move because of climate change.

Special thanks for Isha Foundation for their interviews on the ground, and to Dr. Rowan Lubbock for making our work better.

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