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Q&A: Land grabbing and migration in a changing climate: comparative perspectives from Senegal and Cambodia

In this Q&A, SEI Asia Research Fellow Sara Vigil highlights the nexus between climate change, land grabbing and migration in her latest book.

Rajesh Daniel / Published on 28 April 2022
Village in southern Senegal close to Guinea

Village in southern Senegal close to Guinea. Photo: E. Diop / Unsplash.

Your book explores the interlinkages between climate change, land grabbing and migration. Can you elaborate on their connections?

In many respects, those dispossessed from their homes by climate impacts have come to epitomize the human face of climate change. Floods, typhoons, storms and droughts destroy homes and hopes of those least responsible for climate impacts to begin with often leaving them with little other options than to move to find a livelihood elsewhere. At the same time, human mobility can be a key strategy to cope with the shocks and distresses that our world economy imposes on those most vulnerable.

Although much attention has been given to the biophysical impacts of climate change on migration, research remains scarce on the impacts of climate response measures on displacement and migration dynamics. However, measures implemented in the name of climate mitigation and adaption are also contributing to struggles over access to natural resources, leading to human rights violations, displacing communities, and modifying migration dynamics in the process.

Senegalese migrants working in inhumanely exploitative conditions in the greenhouses of Almería in southern Spain first opened my eyes to these dynamics. They told me that it was not land or water that was lacking in their origin regions. Instead, it was their own lack of access and control over these key resources that made their lives precarious and difficult. This was amplified in a context where land was being “taken” or “given” to foreign investors promising to cultivate crops for the so-called green economy to mitigate climate impacts and to provide jobs for local populations so that they wouldn’t need to take perilous journeys to Europe. In reality, though, the process only resulted in further exploitation of both land and labour.

What do you mean by green and migration grabs?

While far from being a new phenomenon, there has been a global rush in recent years for land at a scale unprecedented since the colonial era. Instead of through force, land transactions now take place in the context of foreign direct investment and direct buying/leasing. With the rise of climate concerns, many of these land grabs are now “green grabs“. Fairhead, Leach and Scoones defined this as “the appropriation of land and nature for environmental ends”.

Proponents of land deals often claim that the targeted land is “empty” or “underutilized”. However, much of the land that has been targeted for biofuel production or carbon offsetting is governed by customary, traditional and indigenous systems of common property upon which millions of vulnerable people rely on for their livelihoods. The enclosure of these spaces is leading to “green grabbing-induced displacement“. In a turn to legitimize such acquisitions, local communities are often portrayed as inefficient, unproductive or even environmentally destructive. Which is ironic, as it is often these local communities that have been responsible for ecological conservation of these lands and forests for many generations.

Moreover, I found that land transactions are also legitimized by promises to create employment and control population movements. Migration grabs are defined as “the appropriation of natural resources for migration ends”. I found that these justifications often overlap, but whether environmental or migration justifications prevail depends on the migration system that each country is embedded in, and on the interests of its main donors and corporate investors. As a result, while migration justifications prevail in Senegal (in order to keep their people in place), it is environmental justifications that prevail in the case of Cambodia (in order to keep their forests in place). In other words, whereas Cambodia is now seen internationally to ideally constitute a “carbon sink”, Senegal is seen as a potential “migration sink”.

What are the key impacts of these dynamics and how do adaptation and security framings exacerbate these impacts?

While not all those impacted by land grabs whom I met in Senegal and Cambodia had lost access to residential land, they had all lost access to farmland, grazing land and forest areas. For those most vulnerable, the loss of land – which constitutes the very basis of their lives – is accompanied by tremendous grievances and hardship. Despite narratives of employment creation, the jobs that are created on these so-called “green plantations” are often scarce, seasonal, precarious and unreliable. Those who lose land and those who get jobs are often not the same people.

The book shows that there is a striking contradiction between aiming to maintain people in “their place” while simultaneously granting the best land resources to investors who are unable to meet the employment needs of a growing population. With regards to environmental impacts and despite pervasive narratives of migrants, shifting cultivators and pastoralists as environmental threats, it is colonizing migrations – or the movements of corporate investors and socio-economic and political elites – that represent the gravest environmental risk, not the migration of those most vulnerable.

The impacts of these land grabs go well beyond the landscapes where they unfold as they create a panoply of “self-fulfilling risks” – defined in this book as prophecies that rest on false security and adaptation framings around the perceived risks of environmental change and/or migration and lead to interventions that can make both insecurity and maladaptation a reality.

Without giving distinct focus to the power structures that underline environmental destruction and forced migration, the interventions enacted to solve them can reinforce both environmental destruction and inequalities that drive forced migration. In doing so, they can contribute to the third injustice of climate change where the most vulnerable are not only the least responsible for and most affected by climate change, but also the front-line victims of climate policies.

Who will find this book most useful and why?

This book is intended for students, scholars and practitioners working on the topics of land and resource grabbing and environmental change and migration. The book points to the urgency for policymakers to address the structural causes, and not the symptoms, of both environmental destruction and forced migration.

As the book reveals, acting upon environmental change, land grabs and migration in isolated or binary manners can increase, rather than alleviate, pressures on those most socio-environmentally vulnerable. Policymakers will find it useful not only to understand the complexities that underlie migration in the context of climate change, but also to avoid maladaptive responses and trade-offs. In a world where deep social inequities prevail, we must ensure that climate action leverages social justice.

More about book

Written by

Rajesh Daniel

Head of Communications, SEI Asia


SEI Asia


Sara Vigil

Research Fellow

SEI Asia

Topics and subtopics
Climate : Climate policy / Land : Land use
Related centres
SEI Asia

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