In the world, three out of four people living in poverty and suffering from hunger live in rural areas. This data, released by FAO, emphasizes the extent of rural poverty, caused by factors such as lack of employment and opportunities, limited access to services and infrastructure, and conflicts over natural resources and land. Added to these circumstances are the adverse effects of climate change, which aggravate alarming phenomena such as the exhaustion of natural resources, deforestation, soil erosion, a decline in crop yields, or the loss of agrobiodiversity.
This set of unfavorable conditions causes significant migratory flows to cities, especially of young people seeking new income and employment opportunities. Rural-urban migration in Central America has contributed to the population growth of cities, and the region is today the second in the world to register the highest and fastest urbanization rates, with an average growth rate of 3.8 during the last two decades. Likewise, according to World Bank forecasts, by 2050 the region will have doubled its urban population, mainly due to rural migrants who come to the cities in search of economic opportunities and access to basic services.
The migratory movement towards urban areas implies a transformation process that causes a decrease of income generation and employment in agriculture. This leads to less labor participation in the primary sector, which can cause a reduction in agricultural production and threaten food security in some territories.
Thus, for example, the countryside may lack a young and dynamic workforce, also registering an ageing population, which can compromise a sufficient and varied food production. In rural areas of Mexico, for example, the migration of young people, and the consequent decrease in the fertility rate, has caused a variation among the population groups: while in 2005 there were 21 adults over 60 years for every 100 children, predictions indicate that by 2051 there will be 167 older adults for every 100 children.
Likewise, the increase in urban poverty responds to the abundant migratory flows to cities: migrants may not find work in urban areas (although the search for employment opportunities was the reason for mobilizing),and this generates a vicious circle of scarcity and needs.
The high percentages of informal work in the region also indicate a lack of social protection, which aggravates the situations of poverty and precariousness of internal migrants. Another factor that highlights the difficult living conditions of rural migrants in cities is that, due to limited economic resources, this population often lives in informal settlements, which are home to around 29% of the urban population in Central America. These settlements are usually located in areas that are vulnerable to natural disasters, such as floods, landslides and earthquakes. This shows how rural migration, also fostered by the effects of climate change, needs special attention to avoid a reproduction of existing vulnerabilities.
Furthermore, while conflicts over natural resources can provoke rural migration, migrants find new forms of violence in cities. In the Northern Triangle of Central America, violence is a mainly urban phenomenon, aggravated by causes such as poverty, segregation, inequality and lack of opportunities. Farmers in poverty conditions and unemployed people can be new victims of criminal groups in cities. This situation can cause new migratory flows of people who migrated to the cities and, as they do not find an adequate situation, they decide to migrate abroad.
Hence, rural-urban migration has crucial implications not only for rural, but also urban development and sustainability. For example, current challenges such as urban overpopulation or the loss of traditional crops and agrobiodiversity depend directly on rural migratory flows. To resolve these issues, it is necessary to draw attention to their roots: the countryside and migration.
The FAO report also highlights the positive aspects of rural migration, which can reduce pressure on local labor markets and natural resources or improve wages in the agricultural sector. Remittances from international migrants can also facilitate investments in productive economic activities, generate employment, and increase private consumption.
Along the same lines, rural migration (historically with a greater male presence), the decline in the fertility rate and a growing number of households headed by women have produced a feminization of agriculture, especially in Mexico and largely in Central America . This phenomenon has encouraged the economic and social empowerment of rural women and in some cases the reduction of gender stereotypes that limited their functions. For example, women have started to take over agricultural tasks previously only performed by men, such as preparing the field and growing food for trade.
However, on the other hand, these results can also be detrimental for women, since they lead to an overload of work in the field or in local commerce and at home.
How can governments and other national and international organizations encourage rural migration that benefits all actors?
The FAO Framework for Migration proposes four main actions to effectively address the phenomenon of rural migration. These recommendations are:
1. Minimise the causes of migration and offer alternatives in rural areas, creating decent employment opportunities and mitigating the impacts of climate change;
2. Facilitate rural mobility, developing agricultural migration plans and information campaigns for migrants and promoting opportunities for cooperation between rural and urban areas.
3. Accentuate the benefits of migration, promoting the investment of remittances and highlighting the usefulness of migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change;
4. Promote the well-being of migrants, providing support for their incorporation into host communities.
With the deterioration of climatic and environmental conditions, the mechanization of work in the field and the high rates of rural poverty, rural migration to cities will continue to be an important issue to address, because of its determining effects on the achievement of food security and rural and urban sustainability.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the consequent isolation measures and mobility restrictions, have further heightened the urgency to address the issue of urban overpopulation and informal settlements in Central America, where there is a greater risk of contracting the illness, in addition to having limited access to basic services. Encouraging the design of comprehensive policies that consider the well-being of migrants in their migratory processes to cities, the effects of climate change and urban overpopulation is a necessary strategy to promote sustainable rural and urban development.