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Land, climate change and internal migration among the Wolayta youth of southwest Ethiopia

Bereket Tsegay

In Ethiopia, internal migration of youth from rural to urban centres is a significant and growing phenomenon. Rapid urbanisation, greater investment in cities and the lack of opportunities in rural areas for farm and off-farm employment are some of the primary reasons behind the growing migration of young people from rural to urban areas. A range of issues related to rural poverty and lack of opportunities influences internal migration. This study investigates the combined impact of land scarcity and fragmentation, and climate change on the high incidence of migration of youth from the Wolayta Zone in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region.

Wolayta youth’s migration to urban or peri-urban areas of Ethiopia is driven by a range of socioeconomic and environmental factors. Land poverty and exclusionary governance, fragmentation, a lack of off-farm opportunities and climate change have converged to create a situation where young people have little choice but to move to urban areas to eke out a living. Creating and sustaining youth livelihoods remains an urgent issue of concern in Wolayta as in other parts of rural Ethiopia. The present study uses the Humbo Assisted Natural Regeneration Project – a collaboration between the Government of Ethiopia and development partners – to illustrate how external interventions in resource-poor and ecologically degraded areas can be opportunities not only for combatting climate change but also for creating climate-friendly, income-generating livelihoods. Such projects can, thus, provide options for diversified livelihoods strategies for young people that avoid the need for distress migration or displacement.

Key findings and recommendations

1.  A primary issue in the Wolayta Zone is land inheritance, scarcity and fragmentation, which has a critical impact on young people’s ability to create and sustain livelihoods.

This is particularly acute for young women, who tend to be disempowered by and neglected in customary land governance systems.

  • Facilitating or improving access to land rental, as an alternative to inherited land, must be explored further. An important step in this direction would be to advocate the relaxing of current restrictions on the maximum number of years land can be rented…

2.  Climate change and ecological degradation exacerbate land fragmentation and scarcity by lowering crop quantities and quality, and negatively affecting food security.

Young people are especially vulnerable in communities facing climate change and land poverty in rural Ethiopia – driving them to choose internal migration as a coping mechanism or adaptation strategy. Simultaneously, combatting climate change presents an opportunity to create viable options for communities through the creation and promotion of green jobs and skills.

  • Community considerations must be at the forefront of projects addressing climate change. Concerted and meaningful collaboration with community members in developing shared goals is central to the success of such projects. A targeted focus on young people and women is also recommended, so that their livelihood needs and opportunities are embedded in large-scale green economy projects from the start.

3.  The search for work is a primary reason for young people’s outmigration to urban areas.

The dearth of off-farm work options for Wolayta youth creates a high incidence of outmigration compared to other areas of Ethiopia. Whereas initiatives such as the Humbo Project hold the potential to transform rural areas both ecologically and economically, such efforts appear to have inadequately incorporated young people’s current concerns and aspirations for the future.

  • Projects must take into consideration skills development requirements and fair compensation policies when designing activities, particularly those that involve youth who are at a socio- culturally consequential stage of their lives. Projects should promote off-farm livelihoods and associated skills that are tailored to local contexts. These could include entrepreneurial/vocational training, green job creation and access to credit.

4.  Most national and global climate change mitigation policies overlook the connection between environmental factors and impacts on migration.

Priority tends to be given to issues concerning international migration and forced displacement, whereas internal migration receives considerably less attention. Moreover, Ethiopia has lacked a clear internal migration policy that is systematically linked with other socioeconomic policies.

  • Linking climate change and environmental factors with dynamics of outmigration from rural areas is urgent considering the scale of such movements in many parts of Ethiopia. The Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) strategy must, therefore, make greater efforts to embed young people’s livelihoods and wellbeing in the strategy. Poverty alleviation initiatives must, likewise, acknowledge and incorporate the linkages between climate change, land governance and youth outmigration.

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Image source: UNICEF ETHIOPIA/ 2016/ Meklit Mersha

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