Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On labour migration, food security and Big Red

There is a certain pleasure in being on the campus of an unquestionably world-class university. Cornell University, in upstate New York, routinely finishes in the top 10 lists of the world’s greatest university, but when it comes to the study of human-environment relations, Cornell has no peer. Whether you measure greatness by the quality of the faculty, the breadth of research being carried out, or the sheer scale and quality of the physical infrastructure dedicated to understanding how the Earth functions and how human well-being depends upon it, no other university even comes close.

I’ve been on the Cornell campus the last couple days for a workshop on food security, one that brought together leading scholars from across the US to assemble a deliberately provocative (in an intellectual sense) book on the subject. Each speaker, presented a draft of a chapter on an aspect of the topic with which they were most familiar, and a Cornell scholar gave a critique. The ability to assemble over a dozen top-flight scholars locally to offer these critiques was incredibly impressive, I can't think of another university where this might have done so. I’m a bit of an outlier at this workshop, being neither a distinguished scholar nor an expert on food security. For that matter, I’m not an American, either, as are most of the attendees, nor from a university many people down here are familiar with. The organizers were kind enough to include me so that I might offer a chapter on the linkages between food security, labour migration, and climate change. It’s a tall order, given that there’s little existing research that makes such connections, but I was able to offer a few thoughts.

The first is that, in many parts of the world, mobility and migration is an inherent component of household food security. In dryland regions of West Africa, seasonal labour migration of young adults from rural areas to urban centres is a regular phenomenon, where it’s described as “eating the dry season”. By doing so, the young adults earn money to send back home at a time when no food is being produced, while simultaneously reducing demand on scarce household food reserves. In rice-producing areas of South and Southeast Asia, seasonal migration is again a common practice among subsistence farmers. These two examples are indicative of how migration forms part of household strategies to maintain food security on an ongoing basis. There used to be a time in Canada and US when rural people used seasonal or temporary migration as a means of diversifying income sources, but that petered out for the most part by the 1960s by which time permanent migration from rural areas to cities had become the dominant pattern. Households may also resort to labour migration as a means of restoring food security and other basic needs like shelter in the wake of a natural disaster. After Hurricane Mitch destroyed tens of thousands of homes and farms in Central America, US authorities began intercepting large numbers of Hondurans trying to enter the US illegally – mostly young men looking to find work and remit money back home. Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina there was a surge in people displaced from New Orleans seeking work in Houston.

It’s often the least mobile people who suffer worst in a food crisis – the elderly, the infirm, young children, and others who have no means of physically escaping the place they’re at, and are obliged to make do in situ as best they can. Without a labour migrant in their household who is willing and able to earn and remit money back home, the long term consequences of even a short-term shortfall in food can be very serious. This the take-home message from my presentation at the workshop, in two paragraphs or less.

Back to Big Red (as Cornell teams are nicknamed). It is an unusual combination of a land-grant college with an Ivy League university. Land grant colleges were established during the Abraham Lincoln years, their purpose to provide practical research and training in agriculture and manufacturing, and funded from the sale of public lands. True to its mission, Cornell continues to be a world leader in agricultural, veterinary and engineering research, but has over the years expanded into a wide range of related fields. It has no geography department, but its college of human ecology offer research programs in many areas that interest geographers and those in related fields. The campus has remarkable research gardens and a school of ornithology complete with its own wetland complex where an amazing array of birds (as well as very tame deer) can easily be observed. We have some fine universities in Canada and some (UBC springs to mind) have attractive, well-served campuses, but nothing we have at home compares with Big Red.

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