woman in a field with a hoe tending crops

Moving in contexts of environmental change: a rural–urban livelihoods perspective from Laikipia, Kenya

Caitlin Sturridge

This paper explores physical movements, and the translocal connections that accompany them, through the perspective of rural–urban livelihoods in Laikipia County, Kenya. In doing so, it sets out an alternative perspective to some of the common assumptions about how people move in contexts of environmental change and to the ways in which livelihoods adapt in the process.

Rural–urban livelihoods play an increasingly important role in the local economies and livelihoods of large numbers of people in the Horn of Africa. This paper suggests two possible framings of rural– urban livelihoods: 1) a migration/mobility perspective that emphasises how households access assets, resources and activities dispersed across multiple rural and urban settings; and 2) a translocal perspective that focuses on the individuals (both migrants and non-migrants) connected across collective livelihood activities in rural and urban settings. In this context, recognising rural–urban livelihoods as a common socioeconomic phenomenon provides a valuable perspective, as these forms of livelihood incorporate not just movements (whether everyday mobility or longer-distance, longer-term migration), but also the translocal connections and livelihood diversification strategies that often play an important part in decisions and experiences of moving.

Natural resources, and in particular land and water, are becoming increasingly scarce in Laikipia and have emerged as a major concern, especially for marginalised groups. And yet environmental factors alone do not explain the growth in mobile, translocal or diversified livelihoods in recent years.

Plurality is a common characteristic of many contemporary livelihoods and mobility patterns. A range of environmental, social, political, economic and cultural changes, often occurring at the macro level, have contributed to the uptake of rural–urban livelihoods over time. These include economic decline, improved technical and infrastructural connectivity between rural and urban people and places, and the changing expectations and aspirations of women and young people.

Having set the scene in which rural–urban livelihoods occur in Laikipia, this paper considers such livelihoods from the perspectives and lived experiences of those involved in them. It illustrates why some groups are unable or unwilling to engage in mobile and diversified livelihoods in the first place and why, even when they do, outcomes are uneven and unequal among migrants, non-migrants and the wider community. The relationality and interconnectedness of many collective livelihood strategies mean that extended family and the wider community are nonetheless implicated in rural– urban livelihoods, even if they themselves do not move.

In light of these findings, the following recommendations are made for EU staff and others engaged in policymaking and programme implementation:

  1. Movements that occur in contexts of environmental change are not inherently forced, but occur out of complex combinations of both necessity and choice. This diverges from the popular image of the protracted ‘environmental refugee’ moving permanently across national borders or from rural to urban settings. Rather than being a unidirectional or one- time decision that is made, people facing resource scarcity are engaged in bi-directional flows of internal movements between rural and urban settings and enduring connections are maintained between migrants and non-migrants spread across different locations. With this in mind, policy and programmes should incorporate political economy and historical analyses in order to recognise the complex drivers and multiple experiences of mobility occurring in contexts of environmental change.
  2. Movements – whether daily mobility or long-distance migrations – can represent an important livelihood option for the growing numbers of households affected by natural resource scarcity. Interventions should support – rather than seek to thwart – these movements, and in contexts where opportunities for safe and legal mobility are constrained, seek to expand the political space and economic opportunities for moving.
  3. Access to and outcomes of mobile and diversified livelihoods are, however, mixed, uneven and often unequal. Some households may be unwilling or unable to engage in mobile livelihoods in the first place and, when they do, outcomes range from destitution to survival to improvements in wellbeing. While some diversification may lead to sustainable futures for mobile people and their social networks, others may be less durable. This raises questions about the sustainability of rural-urban livelihoods that emerge out of necessity (rather than choice or preference), that create or exacerbate existing inequalities or that place additional strain on those involved. Interventions should reflect this nuance by extending support to vulnerable and marginalised groups affected by negative aspects of rural-urban migration.
  4. Contemporary livelihoods and economies have become increasingly relational and collective – spread across multiple activities and individuals in both rural and urban settings. In this context, policy and programmes should consider the potential for interventions that target a particular person or area to have wider repercussions that can be both positive and negative. For example, support for migrants in cities may have wider repercussions for connected family members, communities or places elsewhere including in rural areas. At the same time, care should also be taken to avoid using livelihood labels and categories that overlook this diversity, particularly those that treat rural and urban dwellers as entirely distinct populations.

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Photo credit: USAID/Neil Thomas

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