Resource Rushes and Human Migration

Research undertaken for an UNEP / IRP global assessment on the resource nexus with human migration and mobility, published in Nature Communications, suggests that mineral resource rushes decrease international migration but increase internal mobility.
Published in Sustainability
Resource Rushes and Human Migration

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The United Nations International Resource Panel undertook a global assessment on natural resources and human migration which was launched on June 15, 2023 at the 30th meeting of the panel in Bangkok, Thailand. Among the various research products that were part of this assessment was a paper in Nature Communications, as well as a topical review in Sustainability Science. Policy options were synthesized through the lens of "adaptive governance" within earth systems and published in a short book from Cambridge University Press (Element Series). In this short article, we feature the resource rush research findings from this larger assessment, which can be accessed here (including summary fact sheets in all six United Nations languages). 


In the context of natural resource degradation, migration can act as means of adaptation both for those leaving and those supported by remittances. Migration can also result from an inability to adapt in-situ, with people forced to move, sometimes to situations of worse or of the same exposure to environmental threats. The deleterious impacts of resource degradation have been proposed in some situations to limit the ability to move. In this contribution, we use remote sensed information coupled with population density data for continental Africa to assess quantitatively the prevalence of migration and immobility in the context of one cause of resource degradation: drought. We find that the effect of drought on mobility is amplified with the frequency at which droughts are experienced and that higher income households appear more resilient to climatic shocks and are less likely to resort to mobility as an adaptation response.

Developing countries have access to some of the world’s largest oil and mineral reserves. They are among the largest producers of key minerals and account for most of the recent growth in mineral production33. The existing empirical literature suggests that an abundance of natural resources may fail to improve living standards, or even hinder economic performance, especially in the presence of weak institutions34. Most of the evidence, however, comes from aggregate data at the country level and offers little guidance about the local economic effects of resource abundance. In our setting, mineral resources might actually provide income in times when agricultural yields dwindle in the face of a drought shock. In line with ref. 35, we find positive effects of mineral resource presence within a data cell (see Table 3 in paper). That is, adverse drought effects are dampened by the presence of mineral resources, probably due to the possibility to gain access to an alternative source of income. Our analysis highlights the high degree of heterogeneity in migration responses implied by the data, with dominant emigration effects being more prominent in landlocked regions and strong differences in the effect being observed both within and between countries of the African continent.

In our analysis, we provide evidence that natural resources play a central role in helping human settlements cope and adapt to climate change yet are also sensitive to the very changes they act as protection to. Our results indicate that mobile populations would be expected to show increased migration both sub-nationally and internationally in times of environmental stress. In policy terms, immobile populations, and in particular trapped populations (those where the need and aspiration to migrate are not met by the capacity to do so) can be considered as facing the greatest risks of climate and environmental change and hence needing particular support3. International coordination of ecological and social data needs to be prioritized within early warning systems domestically in countries and at the International Organization for Migration to ensure more efficient decisions that mitigate negative impacts on vulnerable human populations. Furthermore, our results provide input for the discussion of evidence-based policies related to natural resources governance and migration.

UNEP Lead Authors:  Saleem H. Ali, Dominic Kniveton and Riyanti Djalante.
Contributing Authors: Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, Michael Brottrager, Oli Brown, Jesus
Crespo Cuaresma, Martin Clifford, Kyle Davis, Gemma Hayward, Noam Levin, Kopo
Oromeng, Jamon Van Den Hoek, Caroline Zickgraf, Jonas Bergmann, Pablo Escribano,
IIan Kelman, Christopher Schulz, Jamie Skinner.
Research assistance, feedback and data: Sophie Bernier, Sofie Bouteligier, Kimberly
Cochran, Jeff Herrick, Andrea Hinwood, Luca Marmo, Merlyn Van Voore, Steven Stone,
Elisa Tonda, colleagues from the International Organization for Migration and Deutsche
Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

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