The nexus between migration dynamics and environmental change has drawn the attention of many researchers in the recent past. While the majority of studies focus on the impact of the environment on migration decisions, less emphasis has been placed on the feedback effect of migration on the environment in rural sending areas. This article provides a critical review of this relationship by focusing on the rich literature on rural–urban migration of smallholder households in Kenya and its effects on rural environments. The article argues that there are distinct relations between migration, agricultural change and the environment. These are mediated in varying degrees by flows of remittances, loss of labor, socioeconomic stratification, gender dynamics, and cultural factors. Overly generalizing assumptions about these relations, however, fail to grasp their complexity. We propose employing a translocal perspective to enrich future analysis and enhance the understanding of migration–environmental interactions.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
We do not take into account the vast literature on internally displaced people and refugees, nor that on pastoral-nomadic movements. We also do not consider rural–urban migration of pastoralists, as we feel this deserves a review of its own.
Aboud, A., Sofranko, A. J., & Ndiaye, S. (1996). The effect of gender on adoption of conservation practices by heads of farm households in Kenya. Society & Natural Resources, 9(5), 447–463.
Adamo, S., & Izazola, H. (2010). Human migration and the environment. Population and Environment, 32(2), 105–108.
Agesa, R. (2004). One family, two households: Rural to urban migration in Kenya. Review of Economics of the Household, 2(2), 161–178.
Barbieri, A., Domingues, E., Queiroz, B., Ruiz, R., Rigotti, J., Carvalho, J., et al. (2010). Climate change and population migration in Brazil’s Northeast: Scenarios for 2025–2050. Population and Environment, 31(5), 344–370.
Bardsley, D., & Hugo, G. (2010). Migration and climate change: Examining thresholds of change to guide effective adaptation decision-making. Population and Environment, 32(2), 238–262.
Bates, D. C. (2002). Environmental refugees? Classifying human migrations caused by environmental change. Population and Environment, 23(5), 465–477.
Bates, R. (2005). Beyond the miracle of the market: The political economy of Agrarian development in Kenya (New ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bebbington, A. J., & Butterbury, S. P. J. (2001). Transnational livelihoods and landscapes: Political ecologies of globalization. Ecomene, 8(4), 369–380.
Beguy, D., Bocquier, P., & Zulu, E. M. (2010). Circular migration patterns and determinants in Nairobi slum settlements. Demographic Research, 23(20), 549–586.
Bigsten, A. (1996). The circular migration of smallholders in Kenya. Journal of African Economies, 5(1), 1–20.
Black, R., Adger, W. N., Arnell, N. W., Dercon, S., Geddes, A., & Thomas, D. (2011). The effect of environmental change on human migration. Global Environmental Change, 21, 3–11.
Black, R., Crush, J., Peberdy, S., Ammassari, S., McLean Hilker, L., Mouillesseaux, S., et al. (2006). Migration & development in Africa: An overview. Cape Town: Idasa.
Bogardi, J., Renaud, F., Dun, O., Warner, K., & Afifi, T. (2008). Environmental migration: An overview and policy recommendations. In R. Stojanov & J. Novosák (Eds.), Migration, development and environment: Migration processes from the perspective of environmental change and development approach at the beginning of the 21st century (pp. 235–253). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Bourdieu, P. (2008) . Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brickell, K. & Datta, A. (2011). Introduction: Translocal geographies. In K. Brickell, & A. Datta (Eds.), Translocal geographies. spaces, places, connections (pp. 3–20). Farnham: Ashgate.
Bryceson, D. (2002). The scramble in Africa: Reorienting rural livelihoods. World Development, 30(2), 725–739.
Casey, E. S. (1996). How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time. A phenomenological prolegomena. In S. Feld & K. H. Basso (Eds.), Senses of place (pp. 13–52). Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.
Cohen, J. H. (2011). Migration, remittances, and household strategies. Annual Review of Anthropology, 40(1), 103–114.
Cohen, D. W., & Odhiambo, E. S. A. (1989). Siaya: The historical anthropology of an African landscape. London: James Currey.
Collier, P., & Lal, D. (1984). Why poor people get rich: Kenya 1960–79. World Development, 12(10), 1007–1018.
Collier, P., & Lal, D. (1986). Labour and poverty in Kenya 1900–1980. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Conelly, W. (1994). Population pressure, labor availability, and agricultural disintensification: The decline of farming on Rusinga Island, Kenya. Human Ecology, 22(2), 145–170.
Conelly, W. T., & Chaiken, M. S. (2000). Intensive farming, agro-diversity, and food security under conditions of extreme population pressure in Western Kenya. Human Ecology, 28(1), 19–51.
Crowley, E. L., & Carter, S. E. (2000). Agrarian change and the changing relationships between toil and soil in Maragoli, Western Kenya (1900–1994). Human Ecology, 28(3), 383–414.
Curran, S. (2002). Migration, social capital, and the environment: Considering migrant selectivity and networks in relation to coastal ecosystems. Population and Development Review, 28 (Supplement: Population and Enviromnent: Methods of Analysis), 89–125.
Davis, J., & Lopez-Carr, D. (2010). The effects of migrant remittances on population-environment dynamics in migrant origin areas: International migration, fertility, and consumption in highland Guatemala. Population and Environment, 32(2), 216–237.
De Haas, H. (2008). Migration and development: A theoretical perspective. Working paper No. 9. International Migration Institute.
Deshingkar, P. (2012). Environmental risk, resilience and migration: Implications for natural resource management and agriculture. Environmental Research Letters, 7.
Djurfeldt, A. A., & Wambugu, S. K. (2011). In-kind transfers of maize, commercialization and household consumption in Kenya. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 5(3), 447–464.
Durand, J., Parrado, E. A., & Massey, D. S. (1996). Migradollars and development: A reconsideration of the Mexican case. International Migration Review, 30(2), 423–444.
Ekbom, A., Knutsson, P., & Ovuka, M. (2001). Is sustainable development based on agriculture attainable in Kenya? A multidisciplinary case study of Murang’a district. Land Degradation and Development, 12(5), 435–447.
Eriksen, S. H., Brown, K., & Kelly, P. M. (2005). The dynamics of vulnerability: locating coping strategies in Kenya and Tanzania. The Geographical Journal, 171(4), 287–305.
Evans, H. E., & Ngau, P. (1991). Rural-urban relations, household income diversification and agricultural productivity. Development and Change, 22(3), 519–545.
Falkingham, J., Chepngeno-Langat, G. & Evandrou, M. (2011). Outward migration from large cities: Are older migrants in Nairobi returning? Population, Space and Place (in press). doi:10.1002/psp.678.
Feng, S., Krueger, A. B., & Oppenheimer, M. (2010). Linkages among climate change, crop yields and Mexico–US cross-border migration. PNAS, 107(32), 14257–14262.
Francis, E. (1995). Migration and changing divisions of labour: Gender relations and economic change in Koguta, Western Kenya. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 65(2), 197–216.
Francis, E. (2002). Gender, migration and multiple livelihoods: Cases from Eastern and Southern Africa. Journal of Development Studies, 38(5), 167–190.
Francis, E. & Hoddinott, J. (1993). Migration and changing divisions of labour: Gender relations and economic change in Koguta, Western Kenya. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 65(2), 197–216.
Frayne, B. (2010). Pathways of food: mobility and food transfers in Southern African cities. IDPR, 32(3–4), 291–310.
Freeman, H. A., Ellis, F., & Allison, E. (2004). Livelihoods and rural poverty reduction in Kenya. Development Policy Review, 22(2), 147–171.
Geschiere, P. & Gugler, J. (1998). The urban-rural connection: Changing issues of belonging and identification. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 68(3), 309–319.
Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society. Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge: Cambridge, Polity Press.
Giesbert, L. (2007). Seeking opportunities: Migration as an income diversification strategy of households in Kakamega district, Kenya. GIGA Working Paper 58. Hamburg: German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA).
Gould, W. T. S. (1985). Migration and development in Western Kenya, 1971–82: A retrospective analysis of primary school leavers. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 55(3), 262–285.
Gould, W. T. S. (1994). Population growth, environmental stability and migration in Western Kenya: From malthus to boserup? In B. Zaba & J. Clarke (Eds.), Environment and population change (pp. 247–268). Liège: Derouaux Ordina Editions.
Gould, W. T. S. (1995). Migration and recent economic and environmental change in East Africa. In J. Baker & T. A. Aina (Eds.), The migration experience in Africa (pp. 122–145). Uppsala: Nordiska Afrika institutet.
Gray, C. L. (2011). Soil quality and human migration in Kenya and Uganda. Global Environmental Change, 21(2), 421–430.
Greiner, C. (2010). Patterns of translocality: Migration, livelihoods and identity in Northwest Namibia. Sociologus, 60(2), 131–161.
Greiner, C. (2011). Migration, translocal networks and stratification in Namibia. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 81(4), 606–627.
Guarnizo, L. E., & Smith, M. P. (1998). The locations of transnationalism. In M. P. Smith & L. E. Guarnizo (Eds.), Transnationalism from below (pp. 3–34). New Brunswick, London: Transaction Publishers.
Gutmann, M., & Field, V. (2010). Katrina in historical context: Environment and migration in the US. Population and Environment, 31(1), 3–19.
Harris, J. R., & Todaro, M. P. (1970). Migration, unemployment and development: A two-sector analysis. American Economic Review, 60(1), 126–142.
Hartmann, B. (2010). Rethinking climate refugees and climate conflict: Rhetoric, reality and the politics of policy discourse. Journal of International Development, 22(2), 233–246.
Hebinck, P. (2007). Investigating rural livelihoods and landscapes in Guquka and Koloni: An introduction. In P. Hebinck. & P. C. Lent (Eds.), Livelihoods and landscapes. The people of Guquka and Koloni and their resources (pp. 1–31). Leiden: Brill.
Henry, S., Piché, V., Ouédraogo, D., & Lambin, E. F. (2004). Descriptive analysis of the individual migratory pathways according to environmental typologies. Population and Environment, 25(5), 397–422.
Hunter, L. M. (2005). Migration and environmental hazards. Population and Environment, 26(4), 273–302.
Jaetzold, R., & Schmidt, M. (1983). Farm management handbooks of Kenya, Part C: Eastern and central provinces (Vol. 2). Nairobi: Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock Development Headquarters.
Johnson, G. E., & Whitelaw, W. E. (1974). Urban-rural income transfers in Kenya: An estimated-remittances function. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 22(3), 473–479.
Jokisch, B. D. (2002). Migration and agricultural change: The case of smallholder agriculture in highland ecuador. Human Ecology, 30(4), 523–550.
Jónsson, G. (2010). The environmental factor in migration dynamics—a review of African case studies. IMI Working Papers no. 21. International Migration Institute (IMI), University of Oxford.
Kitching, G. (1980). Class and economic change in Kenya: The making of an African Bourgeoisie 1905–1970. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Kitching, G. (1985). Politics, method, and evidence in the “Kenya Debate”. In B. K. Campbell & H. Bernstein (Eds.), Contradictions of accumulation in Africa. Studies in economy and state. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Levitt, P. (2001). The transnational villagers. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Levitt, P., & Glick Schiller, N. (2004). Conceptualizing simultaneity: A transnational social field perspective on society. International Migration Review, 38, 1002–1039.
Lewis, L. A. (1985). Assessing soil loss in Kiambu and Murang’a Districts, Kenya. Geografiska Annaler. Series A, Physical Geography, 67(3/4), 273–284.
Leys, C. (1971). Politics in Kenya: The development of peasant society. British Journal of Political Science, 1(103), 307–337.
Mabogunje, A. (1970). Systems approach to a theory of rural-urban migration. Geographic Analysis, 2(8), 1–18.
MacKenzie, F. (1986). Local initiatives and national policy: Gender and agricultural change in Murang’a district, Kenya. Canadian Journal of African Studies, 20(3), 377–401.
Mackenzie, F. (2003). Land tenure and biodiversity: An exploration in the political ecology of Murang’a district, Kenya. Human Organization, 62(3), 255–266.
Mc Dowell, C. & De Haan, A. (1997). Migration and sustainable livelihoods: A critical review of the literature. IDS Working Paper no. 65. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex.
Mendola, M. (2012). Rural out-migration and economic development at origin. A review of the evidence. Journal of International Development, 24, 102–122.
Moore, E., & Smith, J. (1995). Climatic change and migration from Oceania: Implications for Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America. Population and Environment, 17(2), 105–122.
Moran-Taylor, M., & Taylor, M. (2010). Land and lena: Linking transnational migration, natural resources, and the environment in Guatemala. Population and Environment, 32(2), 198–215.
Mortimore, M., & Tiffen, M. (2004). Introducing research into Policy: Lessons from district studies of dryland development in sub-Saharan Africa. Development Policy Review, 22(3), 259–285.
Morton, J. F. (2007). The impact of climate change on smallholder and subsistence agriculture. Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(50), 19680–19685.
Murton, J. (1999). Population growth and poverty in Machakos district, Kenya. The Geographical Journal, 165(1), 37–46.
Nyangena, W. (2008). Social determinants of soil and water conservation in rural Kenya. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 10(6), 745–767.
O’Laughlin, B. (1998). Missing men? The debate over rural poverty and women-headed households in Southern Africa. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 25(2), 1–48.
O’Keefe, P. (1983). The causes, consequences and remedies of soil erosion in Kenya. Ambio, 12(6), 302–305.
Okoba, B. O., & De Graaff, J. (2005). Farmers’ knowledge and perceptions of soil erosion and conservation measures in the Central Highlands, Kenya. Land Degradation and Development, 16(5), 475–487.
Okoba, B. O., & Sterk, G. (2010). Catchment-level evaluation of farmers’ estimates of soil erosion and crop yield in the Central Highlands of Kenya. Land Degradation and Development, 21(4), 388–400.
Olson, J. M., Butt, B., Atieno, F., Maitima, J., Smucker, T. A., Muchungu, E., Murimi, G. & Xu, H. (2004). Multi-scale analysis of land use and management changes on the Eastern Slopes of Mt Kenya. Land Use Change Impacts and Dynamics (LUCID) Project Working Paper 20.
Orvis, S. (1993). The Kenyan agrarian debate: A reappraisal. African Studies Review, 36(3), 23–48.
Oucho, J. O. (2007). Migration and regional development in Kenya. Development, 50(4), 88–93.
Owuor, S. O. (2007). Migrants, urban poverty and the changing nature of urban-rural linkages in Kenya. Development Southern Africa, 24(1), 109–122.
Papademetriou, D. G., & Martin, P. L. (1991). The unsettled relationship: Labour migration and economic development. New York: Green Wood Press.
Parkin, D. (1975). Migration, settlement, and the politics of unemployment: A Nairobi case study. In D. Parkin (Ed), Town and country in Central and Eastern Africa. Studies presented and discussed at the twelfth international African seminar, Lusaka, September 1972 (pp. 145–155). London: Oxford University Press.
Parry, L., Day, B., Amaral, S., & Peres, C. (2010). Drivers of rural exodus from Amazonian headwaters. Population and Environment, 32(2), 137–176.
Peil, M., & Sada, P. O. (1984). African urban society. Chichester/New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Portes, A., & Sensenbrenner, J. (1993). Embeddedness and Immigration: Notes on the social determinants of economic action. American Journal of Sociology, 98(6), 1320–1350.
Potts, D. (2009). The slowing of sub-Saharan Africa’s urbanization: Evidence and implications for urban livelihoods. Environment and Urbanization, 21, 253–259.
Pred, A. (1984). Place as historically contingent process: Structuration and the time-geography of becoming places. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 74(2), 279–297.
Qin, H. (2010). Rural-to-urban labor migration, household livelihoods, and the rural environment in Chongqing municipality, Southwest China. Human Ecology, 38(5), 675–690.
Robson, J., & Nayak, P. (2010). Rural out-migration and resource-dependent communities in Mexico and India. Population and Environment, 32(2), 263–284.
Rocheleau, D. (2001). Complex communities and relational webs uncertainty, surprise and transformation in Machakos. IDS Bulletin, 32(4), 78–87.
Rocheleau, D. E., Steinberg, P. E., & Benjamin, P. A. (1995). Environment, development, crisis, and crusade: Ukambani, Kenya, 1890–1990. World Development, 23(6), 1037–1051.
Ross, M. H., & Weisner, T. S. (1977). The rural-urban migrant network in Kenya: Some general implications. American Ethnologist, 4(2), 359–375.
Sakdapolrak, P. (2008). Jenseits von “Push and Pull”. Internationale Arbeitsmigration als Strategie der Lebenssicherung in Thailand (Beyond “push and pull”. International labour migration as a livelihood strategy in Thailand). Internationales Asien Forum, 39(1/2), 81–105.
Scherr, S. J. (1997). Meeting household needs: farmer tree-growing strategies in western Kenya. In M. J. E. Arnold & P. A. Dewees (Eds.), Farms, trees & farmers. Responses to agricultural intensification (pp. 141–173). London: Earthscan.
Scherr, S. J. (2000). A downward spiral? Research evidence on the relationship between poverty and natural resource degradation. Food Policy, 25(4), 479–498.
Schnegg, M., Pauli, J. & Greiner, C. (in print). Pastoral belonging: Causes and consequences of part-time pastoralism in North Western Namibia. In M. Bollig, H. -P. Wotzka & M. Schnegg (Eds.), African pastoralism: Past, present, future. The emergence, history and contemporary political ecology of African Pastoralism. Oxford/New York: Berghan Books.
Shepherd, K. D., & Soule, M. J. (1998). Soil fertility management in west Kenya: Dynamic simulation of productivity, profitability and sustainability at different resource endowment levels. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 71(1–3), 131–145.
Siedenburg, J. (2006). The Machakos case study: Solid outcomes, unhelpful hyperbole. Development Policy Review, 24(1), 75–85.
Smucker, T. A., & Wisner, B. (2008). Changing household responses to drought in Tharaka, Kenya. Vulnerability, persistence and challenge. Disasters, 32(2), 190–215.
Soja, E. W. (1969). Rural-urban interaction. Canadian Journal of African Studies/Revue Canadienne des ÉtudesAfricaines, 3(1), 284–290.
Stark, O., & Bloom, D. E. (1985). The new economics of labour migration. American Economic Review, 75(2), 173–178.
Steinbrink, M. (2009). Leben zwischen Stadt und Land. Migration, Translokalität und Verwundbarkeit in Südafrika. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.
Tacoli, C. (2009). Crisis or adaptation? Migration and climate change in a context of high mobility. Environment and Urbanization, 21, 513–525.
Tiffen, M., & Mortimore, M. (1994). Malthus controverted: The role of capital and technology in growth and environment recovery in Kenya. World Development, 22(7), 997–1010.
Tiffen, M., Mortimore, M., & Gichuki, F. (1994). More people, less erosion: Environmental recovery in Kenya. Chichester: John Wiley.
Todaro, M. P. (1969). A model of labour migration and urban unemployment in less developed countries. American Economic Reviews, 59(1), 138–148.
Tostensen, A. (1991). Between shamba and factory: Industrial labour migration in Kenya. In P. Coughlin & G. Ikiara (Eds.), Kenya’s industrialization dilemma (pp. 291–308). Nairobi: Heinemann.
van Ginneken, J. K., Odhiambo, O., & Muller, A. S. (1986). Mobility pattern in a rural area of Machakos District, Kenya in 1974–1980. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 77(2), 82–91.
Warner, K., Hamza, M., Oliver-Smith, A., Renaud, F., & Julca, A. (2009). Climate change, environmental degradation and migration. Natural Hazards, 55(3), 689–715.
Zaal, F., & Oostendrop, R. H. (2002). Explaining a miracle: Intensification and the transition towards sustainable small-scale agriculture in dryland Machakos and Kitui districts, Kenya. World Development, 30(7), 1271–1287.
Zimmerer, K. S. (1993). Soil Erosion and labor shortages in the Andes with special reference to Bolivia, 1953–9 1: Implications for “conservation-with-development”. World Development, 21(10), 1659–1675.
We thank Lori Hunter as well as six anonymous reviewers for their detailed comments on the manuscript. We are also indebted to Markus Keck for a critical review of our concept of translocality.
About this article
Cite this article
Greiner, C., Sakdapolrak, P. Rural–urban migration, agrarian change, and the environment in Kenya: a critical review of the literature. Popul Environ 34, 524–553 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11111-012-0178-0
- Demographic and cultural change
- East Africa