Migration to the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala: Why Place Matters

Article excerpt

Most migration research examines international migration or urbanization. Yet understudied rural migrants are of critical concern for environmental conservation and rural sustainable development. Despite the fact that a relatively small number of all migrants settle remote rural frontiers, these are the agents responsible for perhaps most of the tropical deforestation on the planet. Further, rural migrants are among the most destitute people worldwide in terms of economic and human development. While some research has investigated deforestation resulting from frontier migration and frontier development, this article explores the necessary antecedent to tropical deforestation and poverty in agricultural frontiers: emigration from origin areas. The data come from a 2000 survey with community leaders and key informants in 16 municipios (municipalities) of migrant origin to the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), Petén, Guatemala. A common denominator among communities of migration origin to the Petén frontier was unequal resource access, usually land. Nevertheless, factors driving resource scarcity were widely variable. Land degradation, land consolidation, and population growth prevailed in some communities but not in others. Despite similar exposure to community and regional level push factors, most people in the sampled communities did not emigrate, suggesting that any one or combination of factors is not necessarily sufficient for emigration.

Key words: rural-rural migration, Guatemala, Latin America, population, environment


The most conspicuous shortcoming of current research on deforestation is the failure to explicitly examine the antecedents to deforestation on the agricultural frontier. Given the dominant roles of migrant colonists in land clearing, this means understanding the decisions of farm families to migrate to the frontier. Yet of the work on internal migration in developing countries, almost all is on rural-urban migration, most based upon survey data obtained only in destination areas (SEGEPLAN 1987). In effect, rural-rural migrants have been largely ignored in the migration and development literatures, even though they are the key migrants in studies of population-environment relationships (Bilsborrow and Geores 1992).' Thus, two critical questions remain unanswered: 1), who migrates from rural areas of origin; and 2), among these, who chooses the agricultural frontier as their destination?

Regarding factors leading to emigration from rural communities in general, Wood, (1982), Bilsborrow et al. (1987), Massey ( 1990), Findley and Li ( 1999), and others argue for a broad, structural approach that both takes into account a range of economic and noneconomic factors embodied in perceived "place utility" (Wolpert 1965; Wolpert 1966; Bible and Brown 1981) and also incorporates structural or community-level factors that measure the context within which migration decisions are made. Empirical studies have implemented these approaches effectively (Lee 1985; Bilsborrow et al. 1987; Brown and Sierra 1994; Findley 1994; Laurian, Bilsborrow, and Murphy 1998).

Migration to agricultural frontiers has been researched in the Ecuadorian Amazon (Pichon 1996), Honduras (Stonich 1993), Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula (Haenn 1999), and Guatemala's Petén (Schwartz 1995). A variety of hypotheses have been posited in the land use and political ecology literatures focusing on macro-level economic and political factors, with little in the way of analyses at community and household levels, where decision makers actually operate (Stonich 1989; Southgate 1990; Barbier 2000). While skewed land distribution in origin areas is frequently a migration push, access to free land is a common migration pull (Rudel 1995; Clark 2000). Environmental factors affecting internal migration include timing of rainfall (Henry and Schoumaker 2004) and drought (Ezra and Kiros 2001), and other factors relating to environmental change (Pebley 1998; Bates 2002). …