Eight of the ten ASEAN countries rely on agriculture – Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Their rural populations are especially vulnerable to climate change as they are directly dependent on food, water and energy security for survival. Deforestation, drought, sea-level rise, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters negatively impact the livelihood of the rural poor engaged in rearing livestock and crops. Adverse environmental conditions lead to scarcity of food and water. These people have to move in order to survive. Internal displacement could occur in search of an alternative piece of land that is suitable for agriculture or it could occur in search of better economic opportunities via rural to urban migration. When employment in the urban landscape becomes saturated, the internally displaced explore the option of crossing borders. Climate change has already begun and it is here to stay. Its effects cannot be stopped. At best, they can be managed. This is contingent on the alignment of migration policy with policies on the environment, food, water and energy security, as well as rural development.
Internal migration should be anticipated and facilitated in agricultural ASEAN. Though studies have shown that the displaced do not move far from their original accommodation and they return ‘home’ when possible, an effective migration policy should provide the allowance for free movement within and across borders. When the effects of climate change become more pronounced and there is more forced displacement, policy-makers should have a sound plan at hand to reap benefits from a sudden increase in the urban workforce and a larger migrant pool that is willing to cross borders. It could be a win-win situation with a significant contribution towards development; development resulting from optimal utilisation of a larger workforce and development resulting from remittances sent by those who have chosen to migrate for work. The absence of appropriate policies to facilitate the mobilisation of an expanded labour pool would mean a waste of resources and an increase in unemployment. Both are not economically viable.
There is another measure that can be taken by agriculture-reliant states. They could invest in rural infrastructure to harness technology and increase productivity. They could work towards the creation of ‘green’ jobs to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, given that the agriculture sector emits a significant amount of greenhouse gas. Policy reform has to ensure that productivity growth is sustainable. Suitable policies targeting long-term goals over short-term gains could serve as instruments for managing rural-urban migration and cross-border migration in agricultural ASEAN.
We need more investment in rural infrastructure