Expert urges new strategy for study of rural-urban migration

by Julie Mollins | @jmollins | CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)
Tuesday, 18 February 2014 03:28 GMT

In order to fully understand shifting human settlement patterns, researchers must take into account how rural livelihoods have changed in Asia over the past 50 years, says Jonathan Rigg, a professor at the National University of Singapore. Picture credit: Henri Ismail

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“Floating populations” make it difficult for researchers to determine the exact location of migrants who move from rural areas into cities, research shows — a finding with implications for how land and forests are used.

Moreover, measuring the whereabouts of migrants requires a new approach, says the author of the research, a study of boundary crossing in Southeast Asia.

In 2010, as many as 16 million people in Vietnam were living in unrecorded locations, said Jonathan Rigg, a professor at the National University of Singapore, citing data from the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP). In China there are likely to be more than 100 million such ‘phantom farmers,’ while in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, several million migrants were on the move, he said.

“The disparity between the number of people recorded by public officials and the number that are actually there can be enormous,” Rigg said during a recent presentation at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

National censuses don’t always pick up short-term movements, and in order to fully understand shifting human settlement patterns, researchers must take into account how rural livelihoods have changed in Asia over the past 50 years, he said, adding that distorted data can shape policy interventions in unhelpful and counter-productive ways.

Although migrants have moved from one place to another, they characteristically retain emotional and financial attachments to their places of origin.

Research conducted by Rigg in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam between 1982 and 2010 shows that patterns of mobility among rural villagers have changed dramatically.


“These changes have occurred in part due to improvements in transportation,” Rigg said. “Fewer people farm, to be sure, but they often keep their attachment to the rural areas of origin. Few abandon their rural roots, and the large majority returns.”

In the past, rural researchers often used “the household” as a basic unit of study of village life, but its definition has changed over time.

Today, in many instances, the household is no longer co-residential but multi-sited, with its members living across spaces, earning income and making livelihoods in multiple places, Rigg said.

“What we see in rural spaces — how land and forests are used, for example — is intimately linked to processes underway in in other sites. Tracking these inter-linkages is, from a research point of view, difficult, and the available data is often problematic.”

Villages, Rigg said, have become settlements of diverse populations with varying class positions. Increasingly, household incomes are earned outside the village, and people are often more likely to make purchases outside the village.

“Sometimes the change is really dramatic, so you can see how these villages are being reworked,” Rigg said. “Villagers in most countries in Southeast Asia have not lost their land — and that is freeing up people to work elsewhere.”

A cross-subsidization of income can enable people to keep their land, although they may not farm it themselves, he added.

Farmers are aging, leading to a ‘geriatrification’ of farming. Many changes in farming practices, including mechanization, disintensification and cropping changes are all linked in one way or another to migration, Rigg said.

“The research raises the possibility that urban and rural are not mutually exclusive categories, but co-existing and contemporaneous — migration and mobility make rural spaces urban and urban spaces rural by bringing urban characteristics to rural villages,” he said. He added that it is important to redraw boundaries to keep track of change.

Migratory transformations have numerous implications for forests and forest policies.

“Just as it’s necessary to view agrarian change in a wider context, situating our understanding of farming against non-farming, so forests need to be seen as partially reflective of processes — social, economic and environmental — underway in non-forest landscapes, including urban,” Rigg said.

For more information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Christine Padoch at