Rural migration and environmental degradation: A vicious cycle?


One of the most severe consequences of environmental change on population is human migration. In recent decades, up to 42 million people worldwide are estimated to have migrated due to environmental change. This phenomenon is likely to increase even more, given the projected continuation of both environmental change and population growth. However, the close relationships between environmental factors and political, economic, and social factors driving migration make it challenging to isolate ‘pure’ environment-induced migration. Environmental pressure supports out-migration, whereas in-migration can affect the landscape at the migrant’s destination due to overexploitation of local natural resources. Thus, in-migration can accelerate environmental degradation. Consequently, environmental change and migration can become enveloped in a vicious cycle, which has rarely been studied.

Overall aim

The aim of this project is to explore the causality between environmental change, population pressure, human migration, and the environmental consequences of migration (see Figure). To address this aim, I will study the causes, mechanisms, and consequences of migration for Ethiopia and Indonesia, two countries that represent drylands and humid tropics, respectively. These countries have several features in common, including 1) high population pressure in some regions, 2) permanent migration as a common strategy to expand livelihood opportunities, 3) resettlement programs initiated by their national government with environmental pressure cited as the principal rationale for forced migration, and 4) major environmental consequences of converting natural vegetation to agriculture to accommodate increasing population pressure. 

Key research questions

  1. What roles do environmental pressure and environmental change play in out-migration?
  2. What are the environmental impacts of in-migration, particularly regarding land use?
  3. What are the socio-economic mechanisms that promote environmental change caused by in-migration?
  4. Is environmental change both a trigger and consequence of migration?


I will use an interdisciplinary approach that combines knowledge, data, and methods from multiple disciplines, including human geography, sociology, remote sensing, ecology, and climatology. Although essential for understanding both the environmental and social dimensions of the environment-migration nexus, such an interdisciplinary approach has rarely been used. This unique and innovative approach allows the assessment of spatio-temporal patterns of population development and environmental pressures such as climate variability and land degradation to systematically identify the causes and effects of migration at high spatial resolution.