Environmental Migrants and Climate Change in South America

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By Vanina Modolo


Environmental migration has received increased attention from policymakers and other stakeholders, academics, not to mention the public in general, due to irrefutable evidence surrounding climate change and its impact on human mobility. South America is considered one of the regions most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This is the result of its biodiversity, rapid urban development, inequality in income distribution and the stark division between rural and urban centers. Indeed, the IOM launched a study in November that explores the link between migration, environment and climate change in five South American countries. This study concluded that in targeted communities, there are permanent and/or transitory migratory movements due to the intensification of extreme events caused by climate change.

The research was carried out in five selected communities of South America. Lujan, a city in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is highly vulnerable to floods. In spite of this, permanent mobility is minimal and it mainly affects those with limited resources. Most people living in the town temporarily move to stay with friends or relatives during floods. In Brazil, an alternation of droughts and floods has led to significant migration. As a consequence of the loss of harvests and houses, the closure of shops and the lack of contingency policies, people in Rumo Certo, a community in the State of Amazonas, had to leave to nearby communities. Over 1,000 families have moved  to different places within the State in the last ten years. In Monte Patria (Chile), frequent droughts, combined with significant flaws in water provision, help push people to migrate to other parts of Chile. Around 15 per cent of the population of Monte Patria has migrated to mining areas in Northern Chile. In Tacamocho (Colombia), recurrent floods and erosion (worsened by climate change) have led to the significant emigration of particularly the young, and of families living near the Magdalena River. Some families have moved to safer areas within the same community, others have moved to neighbouring communities such as Córdoba, the main city in that municipality, or to other cities such as Barranquilla or Cartagena. In Santa Lucía de Chuquipogyo (Ecuador), damage is caused by lahares (a mixture of mud and melted snow), which represent a significant danger to human lives, assets, infrastructure and productive lands. Nearly 10 per cent of the population, who tend to make their livelihood through agriculture and cattle breeding, have had to move permanently to urban centres. Other dwellers prefer to temporarily move to Guano, the main city in that municipality, or to Riobamba.

Fieldwork in these communities allowed us to confirm that most dwellers directly affected by extreme climate and environmental changes are willing to move, on a permanent basis and in the framework of a relocation plan: they go to safer areas in their own state, province or region. In some cases, migration can act as an adaptation strategy to climate change. Another fundamental aspect observed during fieldwork was the active participation of women, at the same level as men. They took part in the identification of needs, and in the search for collective solutions to problems linked to extreme climate events, as well as to potential displacements arising from these situations.

The study also confirmed an important deficit in available information about the causes and the magnitude of population movements caused by extreme climate changes in South America. According to the study, there is only very limited coordination between the research generated by academics, and the decisions made by public institutions while managing migration and environmental topics. Another important conclusion is the absence of entities or organizations in the five countries involved, engaged in the formulation and implementation of comprehensive public policies for population, migration and climate change.

The authors of the study also made several recommendations, including the creation of a Regional Committee on Migration and Climate Change to develop policies on risk management, adaptation and mitigation measures from a gendered perspective in South America. This Committee would be designed to implement early warning programs and to assist displaced population groups in extreme climatic events. The study also recommends the generation and consolidation of multilateral and/or bilateral legislation and agreements. These would safeguard the rights of environmental migrants, as well as supporting research that continues to provide evidence on the effects of migration, environment and climate change factors in the region.

In order to cope with increasing human mobility from environmental drivers, it is essential that there be more research to better understand the linkages between climate change and migration. Efforts should be made to mitigate pressures to migrate, to reduce disaster risks and/or planned relocation as an adaptation strategy. Many people affected by climate change are forced or decide to migrate within or across international borders. In this case, the IOM would identify the key task to be facilitating safe, orderly and regular migration.


The EUI, RSCAS and MPC are not responsible for the opinion expressed by the author(s). Furthermore, the views expressed in this publication cannot in any circumstances be regarded as the official position of the European Union.


About the author

Vanina Modolo holds a Ph.D. in Social Sciences from the National University of Buenos Aires (UBA), Argentina, and a Masters in Development and International Aid from the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain. She has extensive experience doing research, having been a fellow for several years of the Argentinian National Council of Scientific and Technical Research, based at the Gino Germani Research Institute of the UBA. Currently, she is a Researcher and Migration Analyst at the Regional Office of IOM in South America.