Environmental change and migration in an agrarian society: The case of coastal Bangladesh

In recent years, agrarian communities in coastal Bangladesh have experienced frequent and intense climatic hazards. Scholarship on environmental migration argues that villagers often respond to such hazards by migrating. In this scholarship, those who stay put in disaster-prone areas are described as “trapped” because they lack the necessary resources to move. Against this backdrop, the thesis asks why some people move but others do not when they experience devastating climatic hazards. In particular, the thesis interrogates how land tenure and agrarian social identity shape migration and non-migration trajectories across differently positioned households. In this pre-submission seminar, I present the key findings and arguments of my PhD thesis. Drawing on ethnography and survey data, my thesis demonstrates that, contrary to our theoretical expectations, rich and middle-class families, who have greater resources at their disposal, tend to stay put in the village amidst deteriorating environmental conditions whilst poor and landless families, who lack or have limited access to rural land, undertake temporary or seasonal migration to cope with climatic hazards. It further shows that people’s (im)mobility choices are shaped by negotiations and interactions between everyday access to basic provisioning and housing, social status, and transformations in the agrarian economy associated with global capitalism. At the crossroads of agrarian change and environmental migration literature, my thesis contributes to the growing field of political ecology of migration by advancing more nuanced theoretical understandings of immobility. The thesis concludes that the immobility of some households in communities affected by environmental hazards does not represent lack of choice but, on the contrary, a relatively high degree of choice and control over their own (im)mobility decisions. It calls for contextually sensitive policies that would respect and enlarge people’s ability to make their own choices about (im)mobility.

About the Speaker
Towheedul Islam commenced his PhD studies in the Department of Political and Social Change, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific in August 2015. Supported by an Endeavour scholarship, his project looks at how environmental changes in conjunction with agrarian transformations influence mobility choices in coastal Bangladesh. Before coming to ANU, Towheed obtained an MA in International Environmental Policy from MIIS, California, under a Fulbright scholarship in 2012 and taught international relations at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. His research interests include climate change adaptation, political ecology and migration. Recently, Towheed co-authored a book chapter published by Routledge on environmental migration in Bangladesh.

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