Can a Chinese turtle farmer help us understand the future of Asian migration?

Experts gather in Guangzhou, China, to discuss migration’s effect on home communities

Experts gather in Guangzhou, China, to discuss migration’s effect on home communities

Photo: IWMI

While the plight of migrants receives much attention, the people left behind and their communities also experience important changes as a result of migration. To understand changes in natural resource management and agriculture, academics, development practitioners and government officials from across Asia met at the South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou in December 2016. The conference was organized by the newly launched and IWMI-led Migration, Agriculture and Resilience Initiative for Sustainability (MARIS).

Migration in Asia today reflects historical trends in some respects, including high health risks for migrants, but current patterns also have features that are unique to the 21st century. Globalization has likely increased the desire for disposable income, while also allowing migrants to retain stronger connections to their homelands. The state of migration differs greatly across Asia. In Indonesia, for example, the government provides internal migrants with previously abandoned farmland. In contrast, a lack of available farmland drives migration in Nepal, where the remaining forested area is protected and farmland does not lie fallow for long.

Policy makers face a dual challenge in addressing issues related to migration in home communities. First, migration is personal, making it difficult to influence decision making. And second, migration disproportionately affects women and the poor, who are often underrepresented in governance.

Despite these difficulties, some policies have successfully addressed the challenges that home communities face. The government of Sri Lanka, for example, reversed its policy of subsidizing chemical fertilizers and now supports organic farmers to reduce health problems in rural areas. Chinese universities support entrepreneurship on farm with the help of the online marketplace Alibaba. Other attempts have been less successful. Water User Associations created by the Indian government often do not meaningfully engage women and low-caste users, leading to unequal distribution of water. In Myanmar, the government has tried but failed to improve working conditions for its migrants in Thailand.

Photo: IWMI

In two villages visited by conference participants, the lack of agricultural land and low wages were the most cited reasons for migration, largely to nearby megacities. A young turtle farmer in Liandong village explained how he left his sales job in the city to return to his hometown and raise turtles for the food and pet industry. Now, with an income three times higher than his salary in the city, he intends to pay off his investment in the farm in a couple of years.

This farmer’s experience shows why it was important to hold the conference in China. Modern migration has a longer history here than in other countries, and more migrants, like the turtle farmer, have returned to their hometowns. Success stories like his provide a valuable look into the future of other Asian countries. The MARIS network will provide members with similar opportunities for regional and local learning in the future, aimed at filling the gap in research on home communities.

For further information on this conference, previous conferences and the newly launched MARIS network, please visit

This event was made possible by funding from the Stockholm Environment Institute.

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