Environmental migration is a reality in Bolivia as climate change and disasters affect internal and international migration patterns every year. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerable situation of many migrant communities, most of them are often part of marginalized groups that are already experiencing economic hardship and have limited access to basic services.
This paper discusses the impacts of COVID-19 on internal migrants, particularly those who have moved from rural to urban areas, as well as returning migrants, mainly from neighbouring countries. The paper also provides preliminary recommendations that can support the design of policies, interventions, and further research on the nexus between the COVID-19 pandemic, migration and the environment.
Over the last decade, the Plurinational State of Bolivia has experienced substantial economic growth and social development, with a significant reduction in extreme poverty, a decrease in inequality and improvements in nutrition outcomes. However, the trend ended in 2019, when the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew less than expected because the economy had already begun to decelerate. Despite a sharp decrease in poverty, Bolivia remains amongst the poorest countries in Latin America, with nearly 35 per cent of Bolivians living below the poverty line.
The spread of COVID-19 has highlighted the precariousness of the country’s health systems and the unfolding crisis presents enormous challenges. In addition to its health impacts, COVID-19 is expected to have profound social and economic consequences. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) lowered the growth projection for Bolivia from 3 per cent to minus 3 per cent for the year 2020. Large segments of the population will likely slip into poverty and suffer from food insecurity over the coming months and years.
Within the country, it is evident that the health, social and economic challenges will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. This includes populations who live in overcrowded conditions, may have limited ability to respect social distancing and hygiene practices, lack resources to stay in their homes for long periods of time, and are mainly engaged in informal work, which forces them to choose between risking their health or losing their income. Internal and international migrants are one of the most vulnerable population groups, and often experience significant barriers to accessing essential health care and social protection services.
Environment-migration nexus in Bolivia
In the Plurinational State of Bolivia, the vast majority of population movements takes place within the country, notably from rural to metropolitan areas and intermediate cities. Bolivia’s population has grown rapidly from just over 10 million in 2012 to 11.2 million in 2018, and it is expected to reach 11.6 million by the end of 2020. Urbanization is taking place at a relatively rapid pace. The share of the population residing in urban areas was 67.3 per cent in 2012 and 69.4 per cent in 2018, a trend that is forecasted to continue over the next years.
Poverty and the lack of employment opportunities in rural areas, as well as the search for income diversification and better access to education and health care are the main drivers of rural-urban migration. However, climate change and environmental degradation also influence population movements as they have adverse impacts on health, biodiversity, ecosystems and water availability, which affect agriculture, food security, and rural infrastructure. In particular, climate change may exacerbate desertification processes through the alteration of spatial and temporal patterns in temperature, rainfall and winds. Desertification affects more than 40 per cent of the Bolivian territory and acts as a migration driver mainly in the highlands, inter-Andean valleys and the Chaco.
Nearly 50 per cent of Bolivia´s glaciers have melted in the last 50 years, threatening a critical source of drinking water and irrigation for millions of people, and inducing population movements in the highlands and inter-Andean valleys. Due to rising temperatures and stronger precipitation, many regions of the country are exposed to prolonged dry periods and an increase in the frequency and magnitude of floods, hailstorms, landslides and frost. In addition, environmental degradation increases the vulnerability of rural dwellers. They are the most affected by the overexploitation of natural resources, deforestation processes linked with the expansion of the agricultural frontier, soil degradation, water pollution and the degradation of genetic resources. In 2019, wildfires destroyed 6.5 million hectares of forest, hitting particularly hard the Chiquitano dry forest in the department of Santa Cruz. The fires are largely the result of intentional burning to convert forest to farmland.
As rural-urban migration trends continue, communities are emptying and rural areas are being depopulated, particularly in the highlands and valleys. The migration of working-age men and young people is significant, resulting in women and the elderly remaining in rural areas and having to assume a larger workload in agricultural activities, which has negatively impacted smallholder farming productivity.
For some migrants, rural-urban migration can be seasonal and highly circular. The livelihood strategies of rural populations are complex, diversified, dependent on gender roles, and often linked to land tenure entitlements in communities of origin. Whether temporary or permanent, migration does not necessarily entail a break in the ties with the communities of origin. In general, migrants maintain a strong relationship with their communities through labour, remittances, and social and cultural activities. This also represents a way of not losing property rights.
Internal and international migration coexist. About two million Bolivians live abroad, corresponding to a fifth of the country's population. International migrants come from both urban and rural areas. In many cases, people migrate from rural to urban areas and then abroad, with stops in different cities and countries. In other cases, they move directly to their final destination out of the country. International migration can also be triggered by environmental degradation and climate change. For instance, droughts and land degradation have led to migration of people from Chuquisaca and Tarija to move, temporary and permanently, to both urban areas in Bolivia and Argentina. Migrants from rural areas of Potosí, Oruro and La Paz have moved to Chile to look for better jobs and also when climate-related challenges affect their agricultural practices.
Environmental migration in times of COVID-19
Environmental and climate dynamics are not slowing down during COVID-19. Consequently, people who have migrated due to environmental and climate change now face different risks. The compounded impact of the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbated by the country’s vulnerabilities, including poverty, poorly planned urban settlements, rural migration, environmental degradation, overexploitation of natural resources, limited investment in safe infrastructure, inadequate health infrastructure, and weak interinstitutional coordination.
Once the quarantine and lockdown are lifted, activities will gradually resume. However, the new scenario remains challenging and uncertain. The country will face longer-term impacts, including a rise in poverty, food insecurity and unemployment. Increased health risks, not only linked to the COVID-19, but also to other diseases, including chronic ones, that may have gone untreated, will have to be addressed. The pandemic may also reshape migration patterns in the country, including population movements associated with environmental and climate change:
People who have remained in rural areas face greater challenges and risks. The elderly, who are overrepresented in rural areas, are among those at highest risk from COVID-19 as well as those people with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease or cancer. Vulnerable rural populations, in particular women, elderly and children, will be significantly affected by the economic impacts of COVID-19, leading to an increase in hunger and poverty. The geographical isolation and dispersion of many rural communities might mean they could be less exposed to COVID-19 – this could, however, encourage urban populations to move to rural areas trying to reduce their risk of being infected. Also, a number of rural dwellers might be trapped in environmentally degraded rural areas with no possibility of emigrating because of the lack of employment opportunities in urban areas.
During this pandemic period, rural communities have had a fundamental role in food production and commercialization. Producers must sell their products in markets and fairs, places which are at high risk for the spread of COVID-19. This circulation could play a role in the potential transmission of the virus in their communities, with potentially worrying consequences on vulnerable populations who lack access to suitable health services.
The spread of the virus threatens migrants settled in urban and peri-urban areas. They face precarious and/or overcrowded living conditions, limited access to basic services, and little or no social protection. In these environments, social distancing and isolation measures are difficult or even impossible to implement, heightening the risk of a rapid spread of the virus among already extremely vulnerable communities. These internal migrants are often engaged in informal and precarious jobs that are not protected by national legal frameworks. Unemployment, deteriorated working conditions and reduced income will inhibit their ability to send remittances to their families in rural areas. While some internal migrants will remain in their urban destinations despite these challenging circumstances, other groups will be forced to return to the vulnerable rural areas they had left due to lack of employment and acceptable living conditions, putting additional pressure on limited resources and the environment.
Return migration is an emerging issue within the pandemic context. Internal and international migrants, including environmental migrants, coming back home represent another vulnerable group. The COVID-19 outbreak and associated travel restrictions put in the spotlight the situation of Bolivian temporary workers in the north of Chile. A number of migrants were expelled from Chile and others decided to return to Bolivia after losing their jobs. Some of them have been stranded for days and weeks due to the closure of the Bolivian border and quarantine requirements. As the return of migrants to their countries of origin remains a right of migrants, governments are required to adequately account for returnees, ensuring their access to health care and other forms of assistance.
While some international migrants are returning to Bolivia, many other migrant workers cannot return to their communities. They may be trapped - without employment - in their countries of residence. In a context where assistance offered by their country of origin or destination is very limited, thousands of them find themselves stranded in overcrowded and precarious living environments which in turn expose them to a greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
Remittances represent a valuable income source for many Bolivian households. In 2018, remittances flows to the country amounted to U$S 1.39 billion, corresponding to 3 per cent of the GDP. Due to the international economic downturn induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Bank predicts a sharp decline of remittances that will have adverse consequences for the families of migrants. For rural families, particularly those living in environmentally fragile areas and vulnerable to climate change and disasters, remittances constitute a significant source of income. A reduction in remittance flows could increase poverty, exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities and put them at greater risk in future disasters.
Two special cases need to be mentioned here, one is the group of internally displaced persons and the other one is the situation of the indigenous peoples from the Amazon, Chaco and Pantanal regions.
Due to their precarious living conditions, a group at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 is internally displaced persons due to disasters. Bolivia is affected by severe hazards which regularly trigger displacement. It was the case of the 77,000 flood-related displacements in the departments of Chuquisaca, Cochabamba and La Paz in 2019. Indigenous communities may well have been displaced by the wildfires recorded in the Amazon in 2019. To date, no information on the number of people affected is available. Internally displaced persons, who were already in a vulnerable situation before the pandemic, are at risk of further marginalization.
A topic that has hardly been touched upon in the pandemic context is the migration and mobility of indigenous populations in the Bolivian Amazon, Chaco and Pantanal regions. There is no precise information on the impact of the pandemic on indigenous peoples because the Health Ministry does not include the variable of ethnic self-identification in the epidemiological records used to report COVID-19 cases. However, COVID-19 remains a death threat to these indigenous communities.
The Bolivian Centre for Legal Studies and Social Research (CEJIS) has warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could devastate Bolivia's indigenous peoples, particularly those living near the departments of Santa Cruz and Beni. "We are very close to witnessing a catastrophe," the CEJIS director Miguel Vargas said to warn of a possible "ethnocide" in more vulnerable indigenous populations. He explained that 46 out of 58 indigenous territories are close to municipalities in which the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase exponentially.
Finally, stigmatization and discrimination against internal and international migrants in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic has increased. These attitudes towards migrants could lead people to hide the disease and to not seek medical care in order to avoid discrimination, which could negatively impact disease transmission efforts.
The way ahead
While the government began deescalating national quarantine measures and lockdown on 11 May 2020, the way ahead presents formidable challenges. The authorities are determining which of the country’s 342 municipalities have high, medium, or low levels of contagion; those at high levels will maintain all current restrictions, while communities with medium and low will be able to resume some regular activities. In the month of June, the number of COVID-19 cases continued to grow exponentially and was still on an upward trajectory. The difficulty lies in determining how to flatten the COVID-19 curve without flattening the economy.
Actions to recover from this pandemic must begin with the identification of the most vulnerable groups, including migrants. There is a need to better understand the diversity of migration destinations, duration, and composition of flows. Internal migrants (temporary and permanent), internally displaced persons, and returning migrants are among the people who are most at risk and need social protection. Disaggregated data by gender, age, ethnicity and place of residency is crucial to respond adequately to the threat of COVID-19.
The nature of the pandemic requiring both short, medium and long-term policy responses makes it urgent to invest in the strengthening of local governments. With large numbers of migrants losing their jobs due to COVID-19, the impact on the individuals and local economies dependent on this income will be devastating. Local authorities have a key role to play by leveraging their assets to mitigate COVID-19 impacts, implement measures to reactivate their economies and enhance their social protection systems. Two aspects have to be taken into consideration. First, the vast majority of internal migrants are concentrated in urban areas (metropolitan and intermediate cities) with limited access to basic services and poor sanitation that might become risk factors and accelerate the spread of infection. Second, the effects of lockdown and business closures have led to movements of migrants trying to return to their places of origin (including migrants living abroad), increasing the risk of spreading the virus to areas less prepared and with limited capacity to respond.
In the aftermath of COVID-19, it will be necessary to identify and implement sustainable solutions to both the health crisis and the socio-economic and environmental challenges facing the country. Although many of these solutions may depend on international financial assistance, domestic resources are also required to save lives, support health services and protect incomes and jobs. Further, strengthening social protection systems will be essential to supporting vulnerable populations.
UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) & UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 2020 UNDRR Asia-Pacific COVID-19 Brief: Combating the dual challenges of climate-related disasters and COVID-19.
About the author
Dr. Ximena Flores-Palacios is a Bolivian independent researcher and practitioner who has dedicated her professional career to development issues. She holds a PhD in Public Policy from the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. She has worked in senior positions for national and international organizations, including UN Agencies, such as FAO, IFAD, UNDP and ECLAC. She has experience as a manager, consultant, and leader for the design, monitoring, and evaluation of development projects and programs. She also has experience as a lecturer at graduate and post-graduate levels in various countries. Her areas of expertise include climate change adaptation, climate-induced migration, sustainable development, agriculture and rural development, and gender issues.
This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.