High in the Bolivian Andes, the pace of glacial retreat is accelerating, which may significantly decrease the amount of glacial meltwater available to streams and aquifers critical to farming communities in the region’s river basins. In addition to the long-term threat posed by glacial retreat, these communities are also threatened by economic uncertainty and climatic variability. As a response to livelihood insecurity, many Bolivian farmers choose to migrate, temporarily or permanently, to nearby urban centers. But how exactly are migration decisions understood within these migrant households?
In a recent chapter in Global Migration Issues, Regine Brandt and her team interview farmers in two Andean valleys to understand the factors contributing to migration decisions. The research demonstrates that migration has increased in importance as a livelihood strategy and that rural Bolivians consider environmental factors, social ties and economic needs together when making these decisions.
To obtain these findings, the team conducted research in the municipality of Palca, a high-altitude rural area where 80 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. They asked members of migrant farming households in two separate glacier-fed river basins to describe any factors that had influenced temporary or permanent migration decisions. In analyzing their data, the researchers looked to the frequency with which each causal factor was mentioned in each interview. If, for example, climate change was mentioned several times as a factor for a household, but social conflict was only mentioned once, climate change was understood to be of greater importance to that household in making their decision.
According to Raoul Kaenzig, one of the article’s co-authors, the impact of glacial retreat on farmers in the Andean highlands is still poorly documented. In the 1980s, Bolivia underwent a severe drought and has since experienced a rise in the frequency of extreme weather events, as well as a shift in rainfall patterns. In response, some peasants changed their agricultural practices, while others began sending individual family members to urban areas. Internal migrants rarely travel beyond their home region and maintain connections to their rural origins, often spending only part of the year in nearby cities, according to the study. In Bolivia, migration is seen as a means of contributing to the greater household economy— an individual may migrate to find work but with the intention of helping to support the family back home.
In an interview with GlacierHub, Corinne Valdivia, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, explained how the threats posed to farmers in this and surrounding regions have increased in recent years. “The production risks have increased in the region of the North and Central Altiplano of Bolivia, as well as in Southern Peru, with longer periods without rainfall, and short and intense rains,” she said. “Pests and diseases have also increased. These threaten the livelihoods of families who are producing for their consumption and for the market. Migration is a strategy to address this, but in turn means that less labor is available to tackle the stresses posed by the changing climate.”
For 60 percent of the regional migrants interviewed in the study, better educational opportunities were the primary driver of their migration decision. Additionally, nearly every respondent pointed to an increasingly unpredictable climate as a factor in their migration. Individuals living near the Illimani glacier, which has become a symbol of climate change in Bolivia, were significantly more likely to emphasize climatic variability, glacier retreat and water problems as factors in their migration than those living near a less iconic symbol of glacial melting, Mururata. The authors attribute this difference to a combination of observable environmental change and discourse.
Unsurprisingly, off-farm work, which is more commonly available in urban areas, has become important in diversifying household income. Of migrants from Mururata, 94 percent were between the ages of 14 and 38, meaning that the onus of migration tends to fall on the most productive members of the household. However, young migrants do not typically return to rural areas. In an interview with GlacierHub, Kaenzig stressed that there are political roots to this phenomenon. “Since the agrarian reform of 1953, household agricultural land is divided within the family. Therefore, each generation has less agricultural acreage, and eventually, only one family member typically maintains the farm while others migrate in search of alternative income sources,” he said.
Other factors affecting migration decisions include inadequate income, employment opportunities, and farming resources, such as access to water and land. Because the links between climate change and reduced productivity are not always clear to farmers, the authors conclude that environmental factors should not only be understood through statements the farmers make that directly bear on climate change, but also through the economic factors that are distinctly tied to climate change. In an interview with GlacierHub, Regine Brandt, one of the chapter’s co-authors, emphasized the importance of understanding how these stressors work together. “There are no simple explications for causes and effects, nor simple solutions for how to support the farmers to adapt to the effects of multiple stressors. I think that social, technical, political and other factors and their roles as stressors should not be ignored in the debates about climate change adaptation,” she said.
What does the future hold for these communities? Depending on temperature and precipitation scenarios, as well as high-altitude water conservation efforts, millions of people in the Bolivian highlands could be without a continuous source of freshwater in the coming decades, Kaenzig told GlacierHub. But so far, necessary steps are not being taken to prepare for these changes. “Despite wide recognition that rapid retreat of glaciers necessitates the construction and strengthening of existing water reservoirs and dams, few measures have been undertaken in Bolivia,” he said.
The authors conclude with a call to action: impoverished farming communities, both in the Central Andes and other mountainous regions around the world, are in urgent need of support to cope with current and looming climatic instability. According to Brandt, it is only by understanding linkages between migration factors that rural development programs can be adapted to meet the needs of these vulnerable farmers.