Considering the Links Between Migration and Conservation on World Day of Social Justice

By Alli Cruz

On February 20th, as many Americans trickle back into the office after a three-day weekend to fill up coffee cups and filter through inboxes, they may not realize that today has a greater significance. February 20th is celebrated annually as “World Day of Social Justice,” as declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 2007. The day recognizes the imperative role that social justice, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms play in building a peaceful world. [1]

Each year, World Day of Social Justice is celebrated with a particular theme, and the 2018 theme is “Workers on the Move: The Quest for Social Justice.” According to the UN, most migration today is linked directly or indirectly to the search for decent work opportunities.[2] As workers crisscross the world in search of work that is productive, fairly paid, secure and that opens the door to new and greater opportunities for themselves and their families, there are important environmental impacts of migration that are important to consider.

Tensions between Migration and Conservation

It doesn’t require much of a stretch to imagine the potentially detrimental impacts that human migration can have on the environment. The UN agency on migration, the IOM (International Organization for Migration), recognizes that “migration, and mass migration in particular, can also have significant environmental repercussions for areas of origin, areas of destination, and the migratory routes in between and contribute to further environmental degradation.”[3]

One example of this tension between human and environmental needs lies in Northeastern Peru, at the heart of the tropical Andean landscape. The regions of San Martin and Amazonas are important hotspots of biodiversity, home to huge numbers of endemic plant, bird and mammal species, with some of the highest deforestation rates of any regions of Peru. Driven out of the urban centers by political instability, population pressure and few opportunities for economic advancement, many Peruvians move from the cities into these landscapes, drawn by the promise of a better life. They settle in San Martin or Amazonas and clear forest at high rates to create space for agriculture or cattle ranching. From 2001 to 2011, San Martin and Amazonas were two of the top five regions with the highest deforestation rates in Peru.[4]

Benefits of Migration on Conservation

While it is important to recognize and address the detriments that migration can have on the environment, the IOM also recognizes the “potential of migrants to contribute to sustainable environmental management or climate change adaptation,” the possibility to provide “a supportive environment for the diaspora’s ‘green’ investments,” or the possibility of “creating ‘green’ employment opportunities” that would improve the lives and dignity of migrants.[5]

During field work in Nepal, I saw the way that migrant laborers revitalized the collection of pine resin, a livelihood once widely practiced in the region that had fallen in out of favor for the straight sale of timber, due in part to its stigma as “dirty, back-breaking” work. Pine resin is used in the production of rosin and turpentine, both important industrial products, and can be collected without cutting down the pine tree, resulting in reduced deforestation. Migrant workers who had once been resin collectors in other South and Southeast Asian countries left their homes in search of better work, and ended up in Nepal, where they taught locals more productive tapping methods and proved that it could be a viable option for decent work.

The same theme is holding true in Peru. While migrants are drivers of the steep rates of deforestation seen in the San Martin and Amazonas regions, they are also leading the transition to more sustainable agricultural practices that reduce deforestation rates. In partnership with conservation organizations, settlers are receiving support to cultivate local crops that produce more efficiently, to diversify their income streams into small animal husbandry and the sale of native orchids, and more. [6] Where once migrant settlers were pushing at the boundaries of the forest, clearing greater and greater swaths of trees, these same people are now pushing at the boundaries of opportunity, expanding the realm of options for decent work available to them while at the same time reducing their negative environmental impact.

Changing the Conversation

Migration is a powerful force upon nature and people, in both negative and positive ways. And while it is important to acknowledge this balance, it is equally imperative to consider the role conservation can play in reducing the number of people forced to migrate, and in improving their lives once they have arrived at their new home. As the numbers of climate refugees- those fleeing shrinking small island states or parched, flooded or hurricane-tossed homelands- continues to grow in the coming decades, the conversation around environmental protection needs to focus on what can be done to reduce forced migration and improve livelihoods when that is not possible. How can we support the rights of people everywhere to live with dignity, with access to healthy and productive livelihoods and decent work, regardless of where they live? The World Day of Social Justice is an appropriate day to begin considering solutions to these questions.  

[1] “Background.” World Day of Social Justice - 20 February. United Nations.

[2] “Social Justice Day.” World Day of Social Justice - 20 February. United Nations.

[3] “Migration and Climate Change.” International Organization for Migration, United Nations, 5 June 2017,

[4] Shanee, Noga, and Sam Shanee. “Land Trafficking, Migration, and Conservation in the ‘No Man’s Land’ of Northeastern Peru.” Tropical Conservation Science, vol. 9, no. 4, 2016, pp. 1–16., doi:10.1177/1940082916682957.

[5]  Mokhnacheva, Daria. “Human Migration, Environment and Climate Change.” Development Matters, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 18 Jan. 2017,

[6]  “Implementing Forest Conservation in Peru's Alto Mayo Region.” Conservation International.

Photo: Man works in a tree nursery in the Alto Mayo Protected Forest © Thomas Mueller