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[ISLAMABAD] International outmigration from Nepal reduces pressure on the country’s forests and gives them a chance to regenerate, says a new joint study by scientists from the US and UK.

While globalisation — of which international migration is a key feature — has been linked to increased agricultural commodity production and consumerism, leading to deforestation, the positive effects of outmigration on forest cover are less well understood, the authors of the study say.  

“Remittances by outmigrants have always given households improved purchasing power and enabled re-investment in improved agriculture techniques that are less labour intensive and contribute positively to household food security”

Amina Maharjan, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development

“We found that the likelihood of forest regeneration was 44 per cent higher during the study period (2000—2012) in Nepal’s areas with higher levels of international outmigration (1 in 4 households) as compared to those with lower levels (1 in 19 households),” says Johan Oldekop, assistant professor, geography department, University of Sheffield.*   

To be published next month (September) in the academic journal Global Environmental Change, the study says that remittances, or money sent to the home country by outmigrants, allow entire households to reduce dependency on forest products (e.g. firewood) and farming and the shift to urban areas, making way for forest resurgence in former farming lands.  

The study is based on data from high-resolution forest cover images and from Nepal’s national census (1.36 million households) in 2,727 of Nepal’s 3,973 village development committees. Another 1,246 committees were excluded from the study for want of data. 

Nearly 15 per cent of households sampled in the census reported one or more household members living abroad in 2001, a proportion that nearly doubled to 29 per cent in 2011, the study says.

Outmigration is unlikely to change forest cover in cases where household members return to provide labour seasonally or if remittances are used to replace lost labour with small-scale mechanisation, or to hire additional workers, Oldekop says.

“Outmigration can also lead to forest loss if remittances are invested in more extensive agricultural production through additional cattle farming,” Oldekop says.* However, Nepal’s small-scale, labour-intensive agricultural systems are hard to expand because of limited availability of lower sloping lands suitable for farming, he adds. Amina Maharjan, migration and rural livelihood specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu, says migration has long been a livelihood strategy for people in Nepal and other South Asian countries.

“Remittances by outmigrants have always given households improved purchasing power and enabled re-investment in improved agriculture techniques that are less labour intensive and contribute positively to household food security,” Maharjan tells SciDev.Net.  

In one of her own studies, Maharjan found that international outmigration by males causes agriculture land abandonment most when the women move to urban areas. Factors that influence migration to urban areas include better educational opportunities and unfavourable ecological changes in the higher hills of Nepal, she says.   
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

* This article was amended on 9 October 2018 to change portions attributed to Johan Oldekop. The word increase was changed to higher, 1 in 4 persons was changed to 1 in 4 households, 1 in 35 persons to 1 in 19 households, and the reference to poultry was removed.