International outmigration from Nepal reduces pressure on the country’s forests and gives them a chance to regenerate, says a new joint study by scientists from the US and UK.

While globalisation – of which international migration is a key feature – has been linked to increased agricultural commodity production and consumerism, leading to deforestation, the positive effects of outmigration on forest cover are less well understood, the authors of the study say.

“We found that forest regeneration increased 44% during the study period (2000-2012) in Nepal’s areas, with higher levels of international outmigration (1 in 4 persons) as compared to those with lower levels (1 in 35 persons),” said Johan Oldekop, assistant professor, geography department, University of Sheffield.

To be published in September in the academic journal Global Environmental Change, the study says that remittances, or money sent to the home country by outmigrants, allow entire households to reduce dependency on forest products (for example, firewood) and farming and the shift to urban areas, making way for forest resurgence in former farming lands.

The study is based on data from high-resolution forest cover images and from Nepal’s national census (1.36 million households) in 2,727 of Nepal’s 3,973 village development committees. Another 1,246 committees were excluded from the study for want of data.

Nearly 15% of households sampled in the census reported one or more household members living abroad in 2001, a proportion that nearly doubled to 29% in 2011, the study says.

Some exceptions

Outmigration is unlikely to change forest cover in cases where household members return to provide labour seasonally or if remittances are used to replace lost labour with small-scale mechanisation, or to hire additional workers, Oldekop says.

“Outmigration can also lead to forest loss if remittances are invested in more extensive agricultural production through additional cattle or poultry farming,” Oldekop says. However, Nepal’s small-scale, labour-intensive agricultural systems are hard to expand because of limited availability of lower sloping lands suitable for farming, he adds.

Amina Maharjan, migration and rural livelihood specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu, says migration has long been a livelihood strategy for people in Nepal and other South Asian countries.

“Remittances by outmigrants have always given households improved purchasing power and enabled re-investment in improved agriculture techniques that are less labour intensive and contribute positively to household food security,” Maharjan tells SciDev.Net.

In one of her own studies, Maharjan found that international outmigration by males causes agriculture land abandonment most when the women move to urban areas. Factors that influence migration to urban areas include better educational opportunities and unfavourable ecological changes in the higher hills of Nepal, she says.

This article first appeared on Sci Dev Net.