Rural Migrant Remittances May Protect Forests

(February 2012) Sprawling urban areas most obviously demonstrate the environmental impact of migration. Water scarcity, pollution, and lack of adequate housing are some of the more evident impacts of urban population growth. But migration also affects the environment of the communities from which the migrants come, and may actually protect forests. Recent research in the journal Population and Environment suggests that migrant remittances (earnings sent home) often shape household decisionmaking about land use at forest edges.

Migrant remittances have become a powerful social and economic force. According to the World Bank, remittances are expected to total over $350 billion in 2011, representing three times the size of official development assistance.1 Hans Timmer, director of the Bank’s Development Prospects Group, explains, “Despite the global economic crisis that has impacted private capital flows, remittance flows to developing countries have remained resilient, posting an estimated growth of 8 percent in 2011.”

As households in developing nations seek to diversify income sources and minimize risk, migration represents a common economic strategy—remittances often are essential to meet household needs. Less obvious, however, are the environmental implications of remittances. And these environmental effects are not commonly discussed within policy circles, perhaps because research on the remittance-land use connection is only beginning to yield an overarching story. New research clearly suggests that remittances are reshaping the ways in which agricultural households manage their local environments and land holdings.


Clark Gray, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has undertaken extensive fieldwork in Ecuador to examine these associations. Migration is a prominent livelihood strategy in Ecuador. Since 1990, over 1 million Ecuadorians have emigrated, and international remittances represented 6.4 percent of the nation’s 2005 GDP.

In Gray’s study area of southern Loja province, households depend mostly on maize-centered small-farm agriculture, small-scale cattle ranching, and coffee-based agroforestry which allows for shade coffee production under the forest canopy. Still, the region’s agricultural productivity is marginal, suggesting that out-migration provides better options for income. Although out-migration might be linked with declining agricultural production (due to loss of farm labor), Gray found otherwise based on a survey of approximately 400 rural households. International migrant remittances are more often used to increase farm production through hired labor as well as through enhanced fertilizer use. In fact, “a doubling of international remittances led to a 7.4 percent increase in spending on chemical inputs,” explains Gray.2 In this setting, migrant remittances can intensify agricultural production on existing land and reduce pressure to expand cropland into forests.

Brazilian Amazon

Other research on the remittance-land use connection has been undertaken in the Brazilian Amazon. Leah VanWey, a Brown University researcher, has studied land use decisionmaking among Amazonian households for decades. Her work has primarily focused on small-farm families in Altamira, Para, Brazil, initially settled in the 1970s as a result of the TransAmazon highway.3

Agricultural-based livelihood strategies characterize this region. Households plant subsistence annual food crops—manioc, beans, and rice— mostly for personal consumption. Other strategies include raising cattle for regional markets, although many years are required to create pasture from forest. Perennial cash crops, especially cacao, are also common. These cash crops, destined for international markets have the highest income return, but substantial savings or access to credit are needed to purchase sufficient seedlings. Cacao also has a long maturation time—often 10 years to peak production.

Migrants from the region tend to come from households with plentiful labor, so the loss in farm help doesn’t typically reduce agricultural production. Instead, migrant remittances encourage investment in capital-intensive perennial production, mostly cacao, in place of clearing forest for pasture (see figure). VanWey and her collaborators conclude that providing migrant income opportunities and promoting capital-intensive crops where possible “has the potential to protect forest and improve rural livelihoods.”

Property in Perennials and Pasture, by Migrants Sending Remittances

Source: Adapted from Leah K. VanWey, Gilvan R. Guedes, and Alvaro O. D’Antona, “Out-Migration and Land-Use Change in Agricultural Frontiers: Insights From the Altamira Settlement Project,” Population and Environment (online, Dec. 6, 2011).

Guatemala and Mexico

A slightly different dynamic plays out in the highlands of Guatemala. Based on ethnographic case studies in two rural communities, University of California-Santa Barbara researchers Jason Davis and David Lopez-Carr find that remittances are primarily used for new home construction and educational expenses, although hiring agricultural labor and using fertilizers are also common. In fact, although overall levels of household consumption may rise, agriculturally productive areas may actually shrink because aging parents tend to use the remittances to purchase food as a substitute for on-farm food production.4

Still, the protection or regrowth of local forest may come with a cultural cost. Scholars James P. Robson and Prateep K. Nayak argue that migration can “facilitate deep-seated change in traditional ways of life, whereby migrants (and their families) become disconnected from both resource practices and the institutions of the home (or sending) community.”5 In their rural Mexican study site, migration is associated with a decline in subsistence agriculture and an increased dependence on the marketplace for food and other necessities. In fact, their research suggests that between 50 percent and 60 percent of traditional agricultural lands have been abandoned over the past 30 to 40 years. Although such abandonment means forest regrowth, the researchers lament the loss of community and traditional natural resource management institutions.6

In absolute numbers, international migration is at an all-time high. And remittances to developing countries are expected to continue increasing at a rate of 7 percent to 8 percent annually, potentially reaching $441 billion by 2014. Although migration’s impacts may be most obvious in migrant destinations, these remittances alter socioeconomic and environmental patterns and processes in origin areas as well, but may help protect forests.7

Lori Hunter is an associate professor of sociology, Institute of Behavioral Science, Programs on Population, Environment and Society, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is also editor-in-chief of Population and Environment. This article is part of PRB’s CPIPR project, funded by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Hunter is liaison from the University of Colorado’s Population Center to CPIPR. Other NICHD-funded researchers who are highlighted in this article are Clark Gray, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Leah VanWey, Brown University.


  1. Sanket Mohapatra, Dilip Ratha, and Ani Silwal, Migration and Development Brief 17 (2011).
  2. Clark L. Gray, “Rural Out-Migration and Smallholder Agriculture in the Southern Ecuadorian Andes,” Population and Environment 30, no. 4-5 (2009): 193-217.
  3. Leah K. VanWey, Gilvan R. Guedes, and Alvaro O. D’Antona, “Out-Migration and Land-Use Change in Agricultural Frontiers: Insights From the Altamira Settlement Project,” Population and Environment (online, Dec. 6, 2011).
  4. Jason Davis and David Lopez-Carr, “The Effects of Migrant Remittances on Population-Environment Dynamics in Migrant Origin Areas: International Migration, Fertility, and Consumption in Highland Guatemala,” Population and Environment 32, no. 4-5 (2010): 216-37.
  5. James P. Robson and Pareet K. Nayak, “Rural Out-Migration and Resource Dependent Communities: Lessons From Mexico and India,” Population and Environment 32, no. 4-5 (2010): 263-84.
  6. James P. Robson and Fikret Berkes, “Exploring Some of the Myths of Land Use Change: Can Rural to Urban Migration Drive Declines in Biodiversity?” Global Environmental Change 21, no. 3 (2011): 844-54.
  7. For more information, see: Clark L. Gray, “Gender, Natural Capital, and Migration in the Southern Ecuadorian Andes,” Environment and Planning 42, no. 3 (2010): 678-96; Eric F. Lambin and Patrick Meyfroidt, “Global Land Use Change, Economic Globalization, and the Looming Land Scarcity,” Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) 108, no. 9 (2011): 3465-72; Philip Martin, “Remittances and the Recession’s Effects on International Migration” (2011), accessed at, on Jan. 30, 2012; and Population Reference Bureau, “Human Population: Migration” (2009), on Jan. 30, 2012.