Migration: What happens to the people (and forests) left behind?

New patterns in migration are changing what it means to be ‘rural’ or ‘urban’—and reshaping the future of forests and farms.
Migration changes the demographic composition of the villages left behind, which affects land use too. Tri Saputro/CIFOR

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By leaving their rural communities and sending money back home, migrants in tropical forest countries are changing not only the lives of the people they leave behind, but the future of forests too, a new study has found.

But this link, which could shape the future of forest landscapes and communities, is complex and poorly understood—and the little information that is available tends to be outdated and simplistic, the authors argue.

“Without understanding this, we really don’t understand who these forest communities are anymore,” said Christine Padoch, one of the study’s authors and a research director at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“Migration is a central part of almost every place that we deal with, and so far we haven’t devoted nearly enough attention to the complexity and variation within this trend,” she said.

Migration is as old as humanity itself, but it is occurring at an unprecedented scale: the UNDP estimates that one billion people are engaged in migration, both international and domestic. In addition, changes in communication, transportation and the ability to send remittances have created new patterns in the “hyper-globalized context” of the 21st century.

These new patterns require new understanding of the broader social, environmental and economic impacts, Padoch says.

“When people think of the relationship between forests and migration, they think of frontier areas. They think of people migrating into areas where there weren’t people, or there weren’t people that practiced agriculture,” she said.

“So there’s this idea that migration invariably causes deforestation, but there are many other links. There are many areas where forests are changing in their composition and in their uses—and a lot of that has to do with migration.”


An important aspect of migration is that it changes the composition of rural communities, which in turn leads to changes in who is using the land, and how.

Large-scale migration of younger people, who leave in search of work or educational opportunities, often results in the “geriatrification” of rural agricultural and forest areas, according to the study.

The impact of this—leaving land and labor to the old—varies, but some research has pointed to resulting land abandonment and a decrease in productivity. Other research has observed emerging patterns of share cropping and leasing, the strategic use of remittances, and consolidation of land into larger holdings.

There are many areas where forests are changing in their composition and in their uses—and a lot of that has to do with migration.

Christine Padoch

Similarly, the fact that, in many areas, most migrants are men changes the composition of forest communities.

In Latin America—and parts of Asia and Africa—it is not unusual for sending communities to have lost 60 percent of their young men. One result of this is a jump in the proportion of women in the agricultural workforce in the developing world, the study found.

“When rural households have no or fewer men, or when women lack opportunities to migrate—these can alter communities’ ideas about gender roles and relations,” Padoch said. “These social changes can also leave women with more choice or voice.”

Recent research has shown that both men and women in rural communities use forests—but in different ways. Changes in gender composition in communities are therefore likely to affect forests, Padoch said, although the extent of this effect remains unknown.


When migrants send money back to their families, those remittances also have an impact on the communities and hence, potentially, on forests and land use.

Remittances provide an important source of extra income in many forest areas. Not only is the money used for daily household needs, but also for investment in land, livestock and labor, the study notes.

The effects of this on forests again vary and are complex—and clear data are lacking.

“Some research suggests that remittances could end up fueling agricultural expansion, or, for example, causing a shift toward cattle ranching as communities have more money to invest,” Padoch said.

“And yet other research found that, in some cases in Latin America, the additional income from remittances has reduced agriculture and led to forest resurgence.”


A key finding of the study is that much of the research on the relationship between forests and migration is outdated and simplistic. Indeed, even the idea of what constitutes “rural” or “forest” communities comes under scrutiny.

“People in these rural areas, or these forest areas, are often equally urban and rural at the same time,” Padoch said. “Their household economies may depend on both urban and rural products.”

This has given rise to multi-sited households and shifts in what migration means.

“Much migration these days is not really permanent. It doesn’t result in people leaving one place and going to another place and not coming back,” Padoch says. “Really, a lot of it is circular.”

Given the major gaps in data, particularly on remittances and demographic dynamics, teasing out the full implications of migration for forests and forest communities is a tricky task—but greatly needed, the authors argue.

“Quite frankly, this kind of study is a complete game changer when it comes to understanding forests, when it comes to understanding development and rural communities,” Padoch said.

“We need to understand what’s going on now and where the gaps are, and how that is going to affect people and forests in the future.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Christine Padoch at
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