Making tracks: How movement shapes landscapes

Scientist Houria Djoudi on why mobility and migration matter

When populations move, there’s a tendency to assume the worst – war, poverty or environmental degradation may be the first points of blame. But research in the Sahel shows that mobility patterns are more complex and also highlights positive examples of mobile populations, who actively choose to move in a way that is both shaped by, and continues to shape, landscapes for the better.

In fact, the phenomena of mobility and migration are not new, having long been the norm in regions such as the dryland forests of the Sahel, says Houria Djoudi, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“Mobility is in many places something which has always existed, where people have managed their landscapes and also their livelihoods using mobility,” Djoudi says.

“The relationship between the landscape and migration goes both ways — it’s not something linear, with people migrating because of reasons in the landscape. They are also changing the landscape using the skills and the money they get through migration,” she adds.

Ahead of this week’s Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany, Forests News took the opportunity to hear Djoudi’s thoughts on why mobility and migration matter, and what ongoing research has to say about the connections to landscapes.

Is mobility a new phenomenon, or has it been going on for some time?

So in many regions and cultures, mobility is actually the norm – how people manage their livelihoods and also their landscapes. When you think of the Sahel, for instance – pastoralists, they always move with their livestock, with their animals, because in these landscapes most of the time there is a huge variability in terms of resources distribution in the landscape, in terms of rain. It’s an adaptive strategy to climate variability, but also a livelihood strategy that is how people diversify their livelihoods.

What’s the connection to landscapes?

When you look at the studies done on migration, most of them deal with the issue from the economic point of view. But there are really few studies, or few projects, dealing with migration and environmental change, linking migration to the social and the environmental changes happening in the landscape. And this is what we are trying to do in CIFOR, to bring mobility and migration to the center of debate about changes in landscapes. We would like to contribute to a  better integration of human mobility as an embedded process within wider landscape dynamics.

We have, for instance, in Burkina Faso people moving from the north to the south looking for agricultural opportunities because the fertility of the soils in the north is not as high as in the south. So the landscape is shaping this movement. But at the same time, we have people sending remittances, sending money and investing in land-based strategies or activities, so they are shaping the landscape in the villages of origin.

When we think about migration as a passive, reactive and conflictual process,  that people are kind of obliged to move, we see that sometimes, specifically in the Sahel, this is actually not the case. People are not only reacting to something to migrate; migration is a diversification of livelihoods, it is a strategy, and people are doing it actively and as a choice, happening at the household level or sometimes even at the community level.

Can you give an example from your research?

One story in Burkina Faso is that we have migrant pastoralist women who moved to a village in the south of Burkina Faso. These pastoralist women normally don’t have access to certain food trees like the Nere. But we found out through a survey that they sell the products from these trees, and when we looked more at the our data, we found out that because the pastoralist women can climb trees better the native women, they help the latter to get access to fruits in the top of the trees, which native women won’t otherwise have harvested. Here we have a typical case of how capabilities, knowledge and skills are important in the context of migration.

These kinds of stories are important because they show us how migration is not always about conflict, migration is sometimes also about having some skills — having new skills, different skills — and using those skills to better manage the landscape.

What will you speak about at the Global Landscapes Forum?

At the GLF, I would like to talk about the project we are doing in Burkina Faso and to bring this kind of migration discourse, or migration issue, to the center of the debate. Migration has always been there, but it’s seen, as I said before, as an exception, not as the rule. And what we want in this project is really to understand more: How is migration contributing to changes in the landscape?

There is also a gender dimension, because migration is about changing demographies. We have villages, for instance, where all the young men are gone and we have women and kids in these villages. And we want to understand: What does this mean in terms of managing resources, in terms of also gender roles and gender relations? Specifically, then when the returnees are coming back with different experience and different skills. And these are the issues I would like to talk about at the GLF.

What do you hope to achieve with your research, and through your talk at the GLF?

The project is still ongoing, but one thing we are trying to do actually is to create a debate at the national level. Like, linking the local realities of migration and remittances and bringing these findings to the national level, and then having a debate about how policies — particularly policies that are related to environment, to land planning, land uses — how these findings could actually enhance or improve decision-making around landscapes in general.

The focus is really more to bring policymakers at the national level to integrate not only migration but mobility in general, in their decision-making when it comes to landscapes.

I hope that at GLF there will be some connections with people working on that topic, but also because there is a kind of mixed audience — as policymakers and other stakeholders are there, donors — I would like to have a kind of debate around this, the role of migration and mobility in managing landscapes. And this is actually the objective for now.

For more information on this topic, please contact Houria Djoudi at
This research was supported by UK aid from the UK government.
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Topic(s) :   Landscapes Rights Gender