International Workshop on
Environmental Change :
Implications for Population Migrations

Hotel Regina, Wengen, Switzerland, September 19 - 22, 2001

Organized in collaboration with:
HEI (Graduate School for International Studies, University of Geneva, Switzerland)
IHDP (International Human Dimensions Program)
IUKB (Institut Universitaire Kurt Bösch, Switzerland)


Synthesis Report

Group Photograph






Wengen-2001 International Workshop on
Environmental Change and its Implications for Population Migrations

A Synthesis Report

Environmental change in general, and climatic change in particular, are likely to impact significantly upon resources such as water and soils, transforming present-day landscapes and their ecological characteristics. As a consequence, disruptions of socio-economic activities in sensitive regions of the globe can be expected in coming decades. Agriculture is at particular risk, especially in areas where prolonged droughts, sea level rise, enhanced natural hazards, or extreme meteorological events such as floods or mudslides threaten marginal existence. Conversely, large-scale movements of people, goods or capital may also disrupt local environments and further contribute to social problems.

One of the direct or indirect effects of global environmental change that is increasingly recognized today is forced migration. One such example includes sea-level rise, whereby populations will be forced to move out of low-lying coastal zones or islands. Migrations can also be triggered when essential resources such as water or food fall below critical thresholds in a given region. In addition, environmental causes can be combined with social causes such as large-scale warfare, civil war, political conflicts, and disputes over resources to produce refugee flows. Social disruption can in itself be at the root of environmental degradation which then eventually leads to massive out-migration. Various studies in recent years suggest that if environmental change is to be of the projected magnitude and rapidity, there could be as many as 150 million “environmental refugees” by the end of the 21st Century (even if this term is, for the moment, recognized neither legally nor institutionally). In view of the current barriers to migration in most parts of the world, the social, economic and political consequences of migration at these scales is far from trivial. Most governments are today ill-equipped in legislative terms to deal with this type of situation. The political and economic tensions that will be raised by an increasing number of refugees could lead to conflictual situations in many regions. When investigating the interdisciplinary nature of the problem, it should be stressed that because of the subtle interactions between environmental and economic issues, it becomes difficult to separate different drivers of migration, i.e., political, environmental, economic, ethnic, etc.

It is with these issues in mind that the Wengen-2001 Workshop was held from September 19-21. Over 35 scientists from 16 countries from many different parts of the world attended this meeting, the seventh event in the series since the Wengen Workshops on Global Change were initiated in 1995. Although most of the participants came from academia, there were also a number of representatives from government and international organizations, as well as from industry.

The issues which were addressed through presentations and discussions include the possible environmental drivers of population migrations (depletion of resources through environmental changes; sea-level rise; desertification; deforestation, etc.) and socio-economic drivers such as land-use changes, agriculture, mineral and resource exploitation, ethnic issues, etc. Policy and conflictual aspects as a consequence of change also formed an important part of the meeting.

In the complex issues that can lead to migration of populations, it is necessary to distinguish between voluntary migration and forced migration. Voluntary migration can occur for a number of reasons, particularly economic and political or ideological. Forced migration, on the other hand, has a number of root causes, also to be found in political and economic domains (e.g., slavery, war, ethnic strife, etc.). In this context, environmental factors for migration can be considered to be an indirect consequence of decisions taken in the political and/or economic arenas. While sea-level rise is an obvious environmental driver which may significantly impact many low-lying coastal regions and island states around the world, it is necessary to bear in mind that sea-level rise is a consequence of a warming global climate, which is itself in part the consequence of economic and industrial policies that leads to greenhouse-gas emissions. Environmental issues can thus be seen to be an expression of underlying economic and political factors. Along similar lines of thought, population migrations may be triggered by conflicts resulting from resource depletion; in this sense, migration does not occur because of the direct consequence of environmental change but rather as a result of a complex series of interlinked (“snowballing”) factors in which single, clear-cut cause-to-effect relations may not be identifiable. Causes of migration are thus seen to be embedded deep within a confluence of processes and patterns.

Migration takes many forms, and the majority occurring as internal migrations, i.e., displacements of populations within national boundaries. Presentations focusing on desertification in China and sub-Saharan Africa, deforestation in the Amazon Basin, and ethnic rivalry in Bangladesh gave accounts of the large numbers of people who left inhospitable regions to seek better conditions within their own countries. highlighted these points. International migrations, also take place and conventional wisdom holds that most of these occur from the “South” to the “North”, i.e., from the developing countries towards the industrialized countries as a result of perceived economic attractiveness of the industrialized world However, a large proportion of migration takes place within the countries of the “South”. A particular example is that of migration from laborers into a region in which mining or forestry is introduced or intensified, as was shown in case studies for Indonesia and Brazil.  In these cases, indigenous populations are likely to be forced out of their environment as a result of these commercial activities that transform the traditional resource base. The resulting redistribution of population can in no way be considered to represent an equilibrium, because the out-migration of local inhabitants in the face of new immigration represents a loss of traditional cultures and a profound change in the physical environment. There are therefore “push” and “pull” features of the environment and resource use that can trigger population migrations, “pull” factors representing attraction of migrants into an area, and “push” factors generating out-migration. Push and pull factors can thus be triggered both directly and indirectly by environmental and economic change.

Whatever the direct cause of migration, numerous presentations explicitly or implicitly showed the importance of property structures in shaping migration patterns. Whether indigenous rights were recognized and respected influenced the potential of new outside economic interests (mining, forestry) to move in modify the environment, making it more or less favorable for populations to stay. Pricing structures as a reflection of policy or market forces also influence land use and therefore its preservation, efficient use, or degradation. Population movements themselves have environmental effects and there will thus be a number of economic, political and environmental impacts resulting from the displacement of persons forced from their homelands. Issues such as the sharing of resources between increasing numbers of persons in a region of immigration, land tenure, ethnic rivalry and regional conflicts are likely to emerge as issues that will need urgent attention in the near future, as was shown in several papers presented at the meeting.

The Wengen-2001 Workshop raised the awareness of all participants that the problems under discussion were by no means as “simple” as what the original paragraphs of this synthesis seem to convey. Indeed, this is one of the very first meetings of its kind and, in aggregate, the presentations and discussions which took place in Wengen reveal that the topic of migration and environmental change is both of growing importance and in its initial stages of analysis. The migration and environment literature is far from having a well-developed theoretical or conceptual framework for addressing these issues, even if certain presentations at the Workshop on modeling aspects represent a first step in that direction.

While a number of adaptive measures can be taken to reduce the adverse effects of environmental change and the potential for out-migration that environmental change may induce, there is a need to address some of the root issues in an internationally coordinated manner. In particular, immigration policies in the industrialized world need to be reviewed in order to allow some form of open, well-regulated migrations rather than solutions aimed at keeping migrants out of the prospective host countries. This will require a change of attitude within segments of the population of the host countries in terms of the acceptance of immigrants and their integration within their host society. In the developing world also, policies will need to be altered, in particular in order to remove the “push” factors of migration. This will require a review of current resource-use practices, which are often very poorly managed and which thereby generate considerable environmental degradation. There is also a crucial necessity to improve land policies, valuation and property rights, in order to reduce the wish or the tendency for out-migration. Because the problem is one of balancing peoples' needs and wants with available resources, solutions will likely involve flexible policies about population movement but also about movements of goods and capital to achieve efficient and equitable distributions.

In view of the fact that the topic of environment and human migration is still clearly in an embryonic state, the major question that the Workshop posed relates to the primary avenues of science and policy work that need to be pursued in coming years. As a first response to this question, and as a framework for possible future research, the following points illustrate the common issues that were highlighted at the Wengen-2001 Workshop and which the participants acknowledged required further work. We must address:

It is expected that a volume of selected contributions from this first Workshop on Environmental Change and Population Migrations will be edited within a 15-month timeframe with Kluwer Academic Publishers (The Netherlands + United States). Interest was also expressed at the idea of holding a follow-up Workshop within the next five years in order to assess the level of new work which has been accomplished on these various topics.

The sponsorship of the following organizations is gratefully acknowledged:

University of Fribourg, Switzerland
Swiss Academy of Sciences, Bern, Switzerland
University Institute Kurt Boesch, Sion, Switzerland
Swiss National Science Foundation, Bern, Switzerland
International Human Dimensions Program, Bonn, Germany

Synthesis Report prepared on October 1, 2001, on the basis of material supplied by
Ellen Wiegandt, Urs Luterbacher, Jon Unruh, John Hay, Thomas Hammer, and Martin Beniston


Wengen-2001 International Workshop on
Environmental Change and its Implications for Population Migrations

Photograph of the participants taken in the gardens of the Hotel Regina, Wengen, on September 21, 2001