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The impact of rural to urban migration on forest commons in Oaxaca, Mexico

The impact of rural to urban migration on forest commons in Oaxaca, Mexico
James P. Robson


Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2, CANADA.


This thesis investigates the multiple impacts that demographic and cultural changes through rural to urban migration are having on long-standing resource management regimes in Oaxaca, documented to be the most biologically and culturally diverse state in Mexico. The vast majority of Oaxaca’s forests are terrenos comunales (communal lands), legally owned and managed by mainly indigenous communities. In most areas, the local subsistence economy has traditionally been dependent on a widely shared body of knowledge based on territorial, plant and animal resources. This knowledge is tied to a number of different environmental practices from milpa agriculture and the gathering of non-timber forest products through to domestic and commercial forestry, and, more recently, conservation and ecotourism activities.

Since the second half of the twentieth century, these communities have engaged with regional, national and international markets for wage labour, with many losing a significant percentage of their resident populations to out-migration. Using qualitative data from two indigenous communities in the Sierra Norte (northern highlands) of Oaxaca, the study highlights the struggle of local people to hold fast to their customs, livelihoods and knowledge while embracing the wider world. Findings show how demographic and cultural changes are impacting the two social institutions – cargos and tequios – that underpin the highly autonomous form of governance the region is famed for. The loss of able-bodied men and women has meant that these customary systems are struggling to remain operational, particularly in smaller localities. In response, a number of far-reaching changes have been introduced, including institutional adaptations and the forging of strong translocal ties that show potential for reducing the vulnerability of affected communities. However, while migration was temporary and circular for much of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, thus helping to maintain a balance between subsistence production and market engagement, more permanent forms of migration have come to dominate over the past decade and a half. This critical yet poorly recognised shift in migration dynamics has seen new and increased pressures emerge, and served to reduce the effectiveness of adaptive strategies at the community level.

Rural to urban migration has also been a catalyst for further reducing the dependency of local people on their communal lands and territorial resources. A significant percentage of households now source most of their basic food needs through the marketplace rather than local farming practices. In both study communities, the area of land actually under cultivation has fallen to less than one hectare per household, with only a small minority of families producing enough crops to meet domestic needs throughout the year. Out-migration has robbed households of within-family labour to cover on-farm activities, while local wage labourers are conspicuous by their absence. A decline in market prices for key cash crops, such as coffee, and unpredictable weather patterns are additional drivers. As many families abandon their fields and become more sedentary, cultivating fields closer to home, there has been a reduction in the diversity of crops being grown, and a fall in resource use in general.

Given these findings, the implications for commons theory are discussed, with two alternate frameworks (rational choice vs. moral economy) utilised to explain why institutions may persist, transform or fail in the face of change. In addition, a new layer of complexity is added to the body of work examining the consequences of rural depopulation on Mexican forest landscapes and associated biological diversity. The study questions the assumption that rural to urban migration necessarily stimulates ecosystem recovery and enhances biodiversity conservation at a landscape scale. In fact, because of abandonment of a mosaic of use, the net effect may be an overall loss of biodiversity. From a policy perspective, the principal contributions of the study are especially pertinent at a time when funding agencies and government programs show belated interest in the consequences of out-migration for environmental management, resource use and rural livelihoods in tropical country settings.