Changing Places – environmental impact of migration

Changing Places – environmental impact of migration

Catherine Locke

Migration’s Social and Environmental Consequences

Migration has the potential to enhance social resilience by providing new opportunities and experiences. It also has the ability to diminish resilience by weakening social structures and access to natural resources.

Two distinct types migration are taking place in parallel in Vietnam. Since reunification in the 1970s, large numbers of households from the agricultural lowlands have relocated to Vietnam’s forested highlands. At the same time, households and individuals are moving from rural areas to the cities. In the high-lands, migrants clear rich native forests for agriculture and often displace ethnic minorities and inadvertently undermine traditional forest management practices. This frontier agriculture migration is common to many parts of the world, and in Vietnam it has been part of a government-planned movement into new economic zones. Analysis of this trend in Vietnam, as elsewhere in the developing world, suggests that most large-scale migrations lead directly to significant negative environmental consequences for forests, indigenous people, and the environmental resource base. Although often highly visible and publicized, this process of mass movement to frontier zones is only a small part of the migration-envi ronment story.

Much migration across the resource-dependent economies of the developing world is not associated with frontier agriculture. In Vietnam, the majority of migration involves circular migration (which is often seasonal) of individuals and households between established agricultural areas and to towns and cities. In the past decade, many workers have moved to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and other urban centers–the major growth poles of Vietnam’s liberalized economy. Yet they return to rural areas at harvest time or send back remittances that are often invested in agricultural intensification and capital investments (ranging from children’s education to social commitments, such as weddings). This type of migration can potentially have positive benefits for resource use in both sending and receiving areas.

A narrow view of migration-environment linkages in developing countries relies on the frontier migration story and portrays the relationship as primarily negative, drawing upon images of chainsaws and forest destruction, violent conflict, and displacement of people. This article challenges that view and points out that the relationship is complex; new concepts and perspectives are needed before making definitive conclusions about population change.

The social and ecological resilience of populations experiencing in-migration and out-migration is key to understanding the linkages between human movement and the environment. Resilience is the ability of a population to absorb and respond positively to external changes, such as those associated with population changes. Circular migration can enhance social resilience of households by diversifying livelihoods and encouraging investment in resources. However, frontier migration and the consequent displacement remains a symptom of insecurity and reduced resilience and is forced upon the poorest in many societies. Robert Kates and Viola Haarmann have shown that the resources of the poorest sections of society in developing countries are degraded by excessive use, by the impacts of development on richer sections of society, and by population growth. [1] Several contradictions exist in the area of environment-migration linkages that stem from an underlying notion that population growth is at the root of all majo r environmental problems. The reality of migration patterns across the developed and developing world show that most migration is partial, cyclical, and local in nature. A case study of Vietnam, where social resilience is determined by migration as well as by wider social and political transformations, illustrates these issues.

Population and Environment

Much of the research on the environmental impacts of population change focuses on international movement or on the way population issues such as fertility and demographic transition affect the environment. At the international level, the scarcity-conflict model is “fast becoming conventional wisdom in foreign policy, population, and environment circles,” according to Betsy Hartmann of the London School of Economics (see Figure 1 page 27). [2] Some argue that population growth is the greatest single limit to economic growth and the continued survival of the earth’s ecological systems. In other words, resource scarcity is exacerbated by increasing demand from a growing population for resources such as water, oil, and a clean environment. Proponents of this argument claim that this resource scarcity leads to enhanced conflict and the breakdown of cooperative action. Such stresses can have negative effects on health and changing consumption patterns and can also lead to wars and violent conflicts leading to migr ation and the creation of socalled environmental refugees. [3] According to Hartmann, officials from the U.S. Department of State have ascribed these causes to conflicts in Haiti, Rwanda, and Chiapas, Mexico, through the 1990s. Yet they have come to this conclusion without any direct evidence of cause and effect, In her 1998 presidential address to the Population Association of America, Anne R. Pebley argues that this “black box” treatment of environment-population linkage occurs by oversight. [4] The idea that environmental degradation is caused by population growth is so ingrained in present common beliefs that many demographers take it as given. Hence they focus their research on the policy question of how to slow and control population growth instead of examining other possible causes of environmental change.

The key conceptual issue underpinning the environmental impact of population change is the adaptability and resilience of society. Figure 1 provides an alternative to the conflict-security model by stressing the institutional and environmental linkages that encourage population movement–migration and social resilience form only part of the wider population picture. In addition, motives for migration are key to understanding the processes whereby migration results in significant environmental change. Households and individuals rarely move around the corner, or even around the world, and cut all ties with their original homes. The resources that flow between relatives and extended families (particularly in communities that are dependent on resources such as fishing or agriculture) can make a critical difference in providing cash and capital. This type of income and acquisition of goods–termed “remittance”–can alter resource use in radical ways, sometimes providing money for unsustainable resource use, such as land clearance. In other circumstances, remittances can provide a buffer to assist households through crises, such as recovery from natural hazards. [5]

Migration and Resilience

Social resilience is a community’s or an individual’s ability to withstand shock and stress without significant upheaval. These shocks and stresses could be caused by significant changes in social structure and lifestyle brought about by such occurrences as government policies, civil strife, or environmental hazards. [6] Social resilience, like social capital, is not necessarily a good thing for every individual in a community. Questions have to be asked about the nature of social resilience, the terms on which social structure is maintained, and its consequences for different individuals and households in the community. [7]

Characterizing Migration

Mobility and migration can be important mechanisms for social resilience, Table 1 on page 29 sets out key issues and apparent causalities in tackling migration issues. Changes in social resilience and what they mean for individual well-being and environmental sustainability cannot, therefore, simply be inferred from

* the presence or absence of migrants in any area or community,

* the degree of labor mobility, or

* an increase or decrease in total population over time.

Migration and circular mobility occurs for a plethora of reasons; significant population movement can be evidence either of instability or of enhanced stability and resilience.

There is enormous diversity in migration processes. The relationship between migration and poverty, inequality, and development is highly context dependent. Migration is not a new phenomenon–rural populations in developing countries have always been highly mobile. Furthermore, migration from particular localities can be strongly segregated and tends to build on historical patterns, as evidenced by enclaves of migrants from one area in major cities. For example, Mark Nord of the U.S. Department of Agriculture argues that international migration generally reinforces the pre-existing spatial concentrations of poverty, implying that migration is not disruptive of social structure. [8] Permanent migration is often part of a long-term strategy to help improve the life chances of the next generation. [9]

Why Do People Migrate?

In economic terms, “push and pull” factors lead to migration. These are decisions made by free economic agents who take advantage of relative differences in economic opportunities and income in various localities. Such analysis follows the elegant theories of Michael Todaro of New York University and the Population Council, among others. [10] Push-pull models offer explanations of why some people move. But they have been criticized for being of little predictive value. On their own, these models do not explain who those people are, why they chose to migrate, or why they migrated when they did. [11]

In practice, it is hard to isolate the contributions of different factors that exert a simultaneous influence, as shown in Table 2 on page 30. Migrants may have incomplete knowledge of destination conditions, and emotional attachments to community and place may also affect their decisions. The extreme selectivity of who moves confirms the importance of asking questions about why some individuals of families become migrants while others remain in their localities, even in apparently similar initial circumstances. Migration processes are too complex for monolithic classification that obscure the continuum between voluntary and forced migration and the multiple motivations underpinning patterns of movement. The key distinctions made in migration typologies are between destination and duration as well as motivation and the decisionmaking process around migration, as highlighted in Table 2.

Population Displacement

In the face of significant external stress, population displacement often indicates the breakdown of social resilience. For example, in the context of food security, displacement and coping strategies represent an extreme manifestation of vulnerability. [12] Households adopt coping strategies when faced with extreme food insecurity that can be caused by diverse factors ranging from climatic extremes to wars. Coping strategies are, in effect, short-term adjustments and adaptations to extreme events, are usually involuntary, and almost invariably lead to a different subsequent state of vulnerability to future famine situations.

Jane Corbett, a fellow in the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE) at University College London, suggests that emergency coping strategies are primarily concerned with maintaining the future-income generating capacity of the household or family intact, rather than maintaining current consumption. [13] Narpat Jodha of the World Bank confirms that the objectives of farmers’ adjustment mechanisms in the face of food insecurity are to protect the assets and the sources of future income, rather than current consumption, thereby providing further evidence of the stages of coping. Interventions in such situations based on increasing consumption may “prove self-defeating and contribute to the process of pauperization initiated and accentuated by recurrent droughts.” [14]

Impacts of Voluntary Migration

Because population displacement is usually caused by a crisis in the home locality (the stresses and shocks referred to earlier), it often has negative impacts on social infrastructure in both sending and receiving areas. Where migration is circular in nature, by contrast, the resource flows associated with remittances can often enhance resilience. As alluded to in Table 2, migration, whether circular or in the form of displacement, has both economic and social dimensions. Individual migration may arise from agreements taken within families to facilitate adaptation to changing circumstances. [15] The implications of resource use by family members are likely to be strongly influenced by the subsequent availability of labor. In other words, the age, gender, and social position of migrants affects not only what kind of work they get when they move but also the farming and resource use patterns back home. [16]

Remittances, coping strategies, and demographic responses dedicated to sustaining household livelihoods do not equally impact all family members. For example, younger men may gain an opportunity to broaden their horizons and earn an income over which they can exert some independent control. Married women may find themselves relegated to remain in a stagnating rural economy as a result of the move. The way in which these responses are patterned by age, gender, and social identity has implications for social resilience and what this means in terms of individual well-being. [17] Social vulnerability is exacerbated by unfavorable dependency ratios, including the absence of sons, poor ratios of resources per capita, inability to service social obligations, and sick or poorly educated workers.

Social adaptations to stressful situations may include changed patterns of marriage, residence, childbearing, investment in health, education, and social and institutional ties as well as new kinds of migration strategies. [18]

Migration decisions are influenced by expectations around the accessibility of resources and opportunities in sending and receiving areas. Gregory Amacher and his colleagues at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University show that migrants in the Philippines move to areas of available public forest where they believe economic opportunities exist. [19] This leads to an environmental impact on the receiving areas in terms of increased extraction and nonsustainable forest conversion. By contrast, Jack Ruitenbeek from the University of Victoria shows that people are less likely to leave similar areas where forest resources are accessible. [20] Among villages in Cameroon where nontimber forest products represent a significant source of livelihood (termed “ecological income” by Ruitenbeek), emigration rates to urban areas are lower compared to other villages.

Circular and seasonal migration, as highlighted in Table 1, have long been considered evidence of extreme vulnerability. But for many societies, such as nomadic groups, seasonal migration is an important aspect of social stability. Even in settled agricultural economies, seasonal migration contributes to livelihood security and resilience at the household level. Remittances provide opportunities for diversification and reduction of resource dependency. Evidence suggests that remittance income, or the resources freed up by the remittance income, tend to be invested in capital–both human and physical–rather than used for immediate consumption. In other words, remittance income is used to provide for long-term economic growth through investment in education or in agricultural capital. Thus, much circular migration reinforces the asset and wealth distribution in agricultural societies, rather than being a force for redistribution. [21]

An Emerging Picture

Migration processes are a fundamental component of household livelihood strategies. In addition to the economic opportunities and threats outlined above, migration may also be triggered by policy changes such as privatization of healthcare. It may entail other elements of demographic response such as a renegotiation of household structure or marriage expectations, [22] as well as demographic consequences, such as poor health related to occupation. [23] However, social and cultural practices mediate and constrain demographic responses including migration. [24]

There is a growing understanding of the important role of social networks and cultural capital in international migration processes, and these are also significant for migration over shorter distances for shorter time periods. [25] Studies in southern Africa have demonstrated how labor migration associated with apartheid “unraveled the social fabric of African life by undermining traditional leadership structures, the family and what today would be called informal institutions and social capital.” [26] However, other research has argued that in some contexts colonial migration has actually strengthened social cohesion, by encouraging the maintenance of traditional practices and enabling sustained production in the place of origin. [27] Social cohesion among migrants is often related to the capacity of migrant leaders to maintain a dual power base in the city and the home place. [28]

A picture emerges of how resilience, resource use, economic flows, and migration can variously interact in different circumstances. Many of these issues are pertinent in the case of Vietnam, a country where, in the past two decades, central planning of the migration and development processes have been major determinants of where people live. Vietnam presently faces a manyfold increase in numbers of people taking advantage of relaxed mobility regulations and increasing economic opportunities in urban areas. A complex pattern of consequences for the natural environment is beginning to emerge.

Vietnam’s Migration-Environment Linkages

Vietnam has a long-standing policy of attempting to achieve balanced regional development through redistribution of its population into new agricultural areas and restricting movement to cities. [29] Interwoven social and institutional factors determine the collective resilience of Vietnam’s communities. If a policy of redistribution of people is to reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience, migrants must have the ability to cope in novel circumstances.

Much migration in Vietnam does not occur through permanent resettlement but through temporary migration with migrants retaining family ties and even land in their home areas. Such migration results in remittances to those rural areas, even from relatives living long distances from home. For Hanoi, the freeing up of labor mobility during the past decade has resulted in large influxes of migrants from all over Vietnam, including the adjacent Red River Delta as well as from the southern and central provinces (see Figure 2 below). This is classic “pull” migration resulting from the increasing real wages and opportunities in Hanoi. The spectacular economic and population growth of Ho Chi Minh City in the 1990s eclipses that of Hanoi. [30] A study of Vietnam’s census data by Anh Dang and his colleagues at Brown University suggests that temporary and circular migration will increase as a proportion of all migration as a result of the economic liberalization that has proceeded apace since the early 1990s. [31] In ad dition, the intensifying market reforms and relaxation of some regulations on population movement will increase population mobility and voluntary migration in Vietnam.

Planned resettlement and population dispersal policies, begun in the north of Vietnam under the 1961–1965 Five Year Plan, were motivated by the desire to reduce high population densities in the Red River Delta and to spread population more evenly into more sparsely populated and previously nonagricultural upland areas. This policy, in the period from 1961 to 1975 alone, resulted in the movement of one million people from the Red River Delta. [32] Policy interventions in the 1990s, such as subsidies and regulation on movement, have been somewhat successful in balancing the spatial concentration of economic growth throughout Vietnam and in encouraging migration from those areas perceived to be overpopulated. Despite these efforts, however, the sending provinces and cities were still experiencing net immigration in the 1990s.

The sheer pace of change in Vietnam contrasts with the timespans over which significant demographic responses, such as declining fertility, may influence embedded social and cultural institutions. The sociocultural and institutional factors that mediate the relationship between population and environment in Vietnam include collectivized agriculture, fertility control policies, the commune system and kinship relations, high levels of spending on education and health, and the technologies of intensive agriculture and coastal resource extraction. [33] Offsetting the retrenchment of government institutions and associated decreases in collective action, is the re-emergence of civil society in the shape of local institutions and the increasing importance of kinship ties. [34] These local level institutions are associated with local collective action and with economic activities such as local level credit schemes,

Table 3 below illustrates the reversal of major environmental issues in uplands and lowlands. The mountainous regions have been the major recipients of planned migrants but are also the home of the country’s large ethnic minorities. Here the issues center around deforestation and land cover change, the sustainability of the local economic activities, and the spread of diseases such as malaria. In response, the government has enacted the Barren Lands Directive to attempt to reverse the deforestation trend. Forest areas are now allocated to communities, with mixed degrees of success depending on how these harmonize with traditional forest management practices. [35] By contrast, the lowlands are the site of most of the major spontaneous migration as large numbers of people move to take up the advantages of rapid economic growth in cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, straining the services in these urban areas with classic problems of urban stress and poverty. [36]

The opportunities for agricultural-based development in Vietnam are limited. The vast majority of land that could be turned over to agriculture has already been converted, and the limited prospects for further expansion of irrigation technology are a major constraint to increased agricultural production. [37] Thus, much resettlement involves the conversion of coastal wetlands, mangroves, and estuarine mudflats to agricultural land or for use as aquaculture. In contrast, much spontaneous migration is circular and plays a role in livelihood strategies that do not involve relocating entire households.

Household strategies for enhancing security in rural coastal Vietnam are primarily based on increased commercialization of resource use in agriculture. [38] In areas where researchers have carried out detailed studies, migration and remittances form an important part of the set of risk minimizing household strategies. In Xuan Thuy District, Nam Dinh province, migration to Hanoi (130 kilometers away) for work in the recycling industry is concentrated in two villages in the north of the district and contributes to proactive management of environmental change. [39] Temporary migration to the city provides an invisible fund for rural development that people spend on children’s education, health care, community cultural life, and farm inputs. Total migration remittances for Xuan Thuy have been estimated to be worth $850,000 U.S. annually. Village specialization in recycling has evolved from involving only

individuals to exploiting a variety of social institutions (including guilds, kin, and territorial affiliatio n) that facilitate urban-rural linkages because they were released from commitments to agricultural cooperatives in the period after Vietnam moved away from central planning.

In terms of social resilience, policy interventions that restrict temporary migration restrict the opportunities for livelihood enhancement and risk sharing through remittances. However, to benefit society and the environment, migration policies and incentives should consider market opportunities, labor mobility, and spatial physical planning to minimize physical risks in coastal zones. Thus, the policy of distributing populations to coastal provinces for targeted industrial development, because of their natural comparative advantages, has inherent physical risks and drawbacks. In Vietnam, these drawbacks are associated with typhoon and flooding risks as well as the potential for overexploitation of coastal and fisheries resources. [40] The conflict between planned migration policies and the spontaneous demand for increased population mobility is a major challenge for Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries.

Lessons Learned

The major lessons from this review of migration and resource use trends in Vietnam:

* Migration to the uplands continues to result in unsustainable resource loss, particularly in forest environments. Land claims and land allocations to incomers can cause conflicts and may threaten the established management practices and informal tenure arrangements. [42]

* Internal migration to exploit economic opportunities is increasing in the 1990s in response to institutional and policy changes. Although motivations are often economic, institutions and government policies provide signals and economic incentives. [41]

* Migration to urban centers has a complex environmental impact. Motivation in recent migration trends is clearly the “bright lights” of Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and other urban centers. The remittance income associated with urban circular migration is building resilience and opportunities for intensification of agriculture in rural lowland areas. But there is also evidence that migrants’ capital generation fuels capital investment in aquaculture, a major cause of mangrove destruction in coastal areas.

Again, these examples illustrate the complexity that emerges when the processes surrounding migration are considered in detail in specific circumstances. These examples also highlight the risks associated with over-simplistic interpretation of the population-environment linkage.

Vietnamese commentators and government agencies recognize the roles of migration and population as key. [43] In July 1998, Vietnam’s Parliamentary Committee for Social Affairs (along with the United Nations Population Fund and International Labor Office) highlighted the need for “accounting for spontaneous migration when designing a comprehensive socioeconomic development plan for Vietnam.” [44] This is directly related to the Vietnamese government’s need to actively support access to ownership or use of land and access to water resources, to encourage provincial investment to enhance rural productivity, and to improve rural infrastructure and social services such as education and health in rural areas. Migration policy is linked to all the major areas of social policy and social resilience.

Some argue that stemming rural-urban migration along with rapid economic growth in the agricultural sector is the best–and perhaps the only–sustainable development trajectory open to Vietnam. [45] This is particularly so in light of the Asian economies’ ongoing instability. Indeed, if Vietnam relies on rapid urbanization and industrialization as the principal mechanism for tackling poverty, the sustainability of that urbanization process is at risk. [46] Migration policy remains a major challenge for Vietnam as it enters a period of economic change based for the first time on decisions by individual landowners as well as the vagaries of the globalized economy.


More meaningful analysis of migration-environment linkages requires detailed research on the motivations for migration, understanding of the temporal and spatial complexity of migration patterns, and in-depth study of the resource flows associated with remittances and resource flows. The dominance of the scarcity-conflict model in international population-environment policy circles has led to this critical gap in understanding the variety of population-environment changes. Taking the lid off the relationships between social resilience, individual livelihoods, and well-being necessarily involves grappling with the complexities of specific migration processes and situating them within a wider context of societal change.

A more contextualized understanding of specific migration processes should encourage policy responses to try to enhance social well-being rather than automatically attempting to control migration and perceiving it as always undesirable. [47] Contemporary approaches to migration studies have much to offer this analysis but have rarely asked how migration processes impact social resilience and environmental change. Employing the idea of social resilience provides a bridge to examining environmental impacts by focusing on the role migration plays in altering household livelihood strategies. A critical understanding of this concept also ensures that the investigation of population-environment linkages is directly concerned with asking questions about the impact of migration processes on human well-being.

In the context of rapid economic change, Vietnam’s active migration policy attempts to engineer permanent migration to serve national development and to curtail ever-increasing volumes of temporary migration. The resilience concept provides insight into how different types of migration in Vietnam contribute or undermine social resilience and also how they impact lifestyle and environmental change. Such an understanding provides valuable information for the development of migration policies in Vietnam as well as a much-needed challenge to the standard assumption that population growth leads to environmental degradation.

Catherine Locke is a lecturer in social relations and gender in the School of Development Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. United Kingdom. Her research focuses on community-based natural resource management and reproductive health in Asia and Africas. She can he contacted at W. Neil Adger is a lecturer in environmental economics at the University of East Anglia and a senior research fellow in the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE), He has worked on social vulnerability to hazards and climate change in Asia and on economic aspects of inequality, resilience, and resource use. He can he contacted at P. Mick Kelly is a reader in the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. He is an interdisciplinary scientist who has worked for more than 25 years on global environmental change and its human consequences. He can he contacted at

The authors are grateful to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for funding this research under its Population, Consumption, and Environment Initiative. They thank Cecilia Luttrell, Alexandra Winkels, and Heather Zhang for helpful discussions and Nguyen Huo Ninh and his colleagues at the vietnam National University and Centre for Environment Research Education and Development for support. Responsibility for this version remains with the authors alone.


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(27.) de Haan, note 11 above.

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(32.) Thrift and Forbes, note 29 above.

(33.) These high levels of public social provisioning are reflected in vietnam’s higher ranking in the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index than in income-based rankings, reflecting longer life expectancy and educational attainment relative to per capita income levels. See UNDP, Human Development Report (New York: United Nations, 1998).

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(38.) Adger, Kelly, and Ninh. note 36 above.

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(41.) UNDP, note 33 above.

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(44.) United Nations Population Fund press release, “Statement on Revised Population Policy” press release (Hanoi, 8 July 1998).

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