Climate Change, Income Diversification and the Future of Migration

Violence in Climate Change (source:

Displacement and mobility are increasingly hot topics in considering environmental issues and global climate change. Likewise, the environment and climate change are increasingly common buzzwords amongst those concerned with migration, internal displacement and international labour mobility. The connections and relationships between these two broad camps, however, remain understudied, ambiguous and controversial among various actors.

In working towards greater advocacy for and empowerment of Indonesian migrant workers, civil society organisations such as Migrant CARE seek to be across the latest in trends, patterns and research surrounding this topic.

To say that climate change is a key driving factor in increasing international mobility of Indonesian labour migrants is not yet substantiated. Nonetheless, it is an important field to explore and discuss.

The key argument in contemporary thought on this topic is that in situ development and income diversification should be prioritised, with migration considered a last resort response.

This piece explores some of the opportunities and challenges presented by various forms of income diversification, including migration, as well as how the work of Migrant CARE is involved in this space.

Across Indonesia, mobility and displacement predominantly originate from geophysical disaster events and conflict. According to international organisation Internal Displacement (2019), throughout 2018 Indonesia saw 853,000 new displaced people, mostly attributed to the series of sudden-onset disasters such as the Lombok earthquakes, the Central Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami, as well as the Sunda Strait/Lampung tsunami in December 2018. The internal displacement that took place throughout the year is both a direct and expected result of such disasters, and usually characterized as temporary. The recovery efforts focus on rehabilitating destructed areas and returning back to normality as soon as possible.

What is less clear, however, is how other more chronic and gradual onset disasters, such as environmental degradation, drought and sea level rise, may result in heightened mobility and movement of people, livelihoods and social systems in years and decades to come. Throughout history, Indonesia has already faced such slow-onset disasters. Although research on the resulting mobility is patchy, it has been argued that a decrease in rainfall, for example, can affect populations in economic terms through a decline in agricultural productivity. This could potentially become a contributing factor towards greater mobility, most likely seasonal, temporary labour migration, both rural-urban and international.

It is widely accepted that high levels of mobility are commonly attributed to economic opportunities and the need to diversify sources of income. This is enhanced when such economic conditions are driven by impacts of slow-onset climate-related disasters, such as desertification and land/water degradation.

Indonesia’s profile in the international labour migration sphere is characterized by the predominance of female domestic workers employed in a handful of key destination countries, a trend accelerated during the Southeast Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. During this time, many Indonesian families sent female members to work abroad, mainly in the Middle East, as a way to diversify the family’s income sources. This was found to be an effective way to cope with the reduction of incomes faced across the country during that crisis.

Types of income diversification

Income diversification is particularly paramount for those who depend heavily on the environment for livelihoods, food, fuel and medicine. Climate change is and will continue to hamper productivity, lifestyle and access to natural services. As a form of climate change adaptation, income diversification can take many forms, including the following:

  • First, farming or doing the same activities as normal, but in new locations. This tends to only involve short-distance and circular migration.
  • Second, when there is less labour required in the fields, there may be a heightened temporary engagement in non-farm activities, such as in micro-enterprises.
  • Third, if both of those options are exhausted, several members from a household may move towards urban centres, domestically or internationally, in sectors in demand of migrant labour. The remittances sent home from this form of employment serve as a diversification of income.

As existing climate change-related patterns and trends are forecasted to intensify, income diversification in these forms will become an increasingly important element of adaptation to slow-onset climate change. Given this spread of responses, migration (particularly international labour migration) may be just one of a range of options considered, though, despite the benefits, this is not usually the preferred response.


The International Institute for Environment and Development suggests that remittances and earnings from non-farm activities, including labour migration, can be instrumental in financing the innovation and intensification of farming. It can provide the much-needed capital to invest in inputs, infrastructure and even waged labour. Moreover, this form of income diversification enables safety nets to be in place, encouraging farming communities to take the risks inherent in changing traditional practices which is often needed in the face of climate-related threats.

A success story of where the benefits of remittances has brought innovation to rural economies is Tanggulangin village, East Java. This village is home to many migrant workers (past and present) and their families, and is one of Migrant CARE’s DESBUMI target areas. Over recent years, a community group comprised of former migrant workers has been established with a vision to empower the community based on the remittances earned. They have pooled together resources to innovate in the production of new snacks, namely tiwul and manggleng, processed from cassava and dried fish. Thanks to the remittances earned from external labour, they had both the capital and courage to experiment with using cassava as the raw material for their products, which they had not done prior to the launch of this community program.

The remittances that can be earned can go a long way to build resilience in livelihoods and adaptive capacity, by enhancing resilience to both environmental and economic shocks and disasters, this also helps to avert social conflict. By focussing on in situ development and improvements, capital boosts through remittances can be considered as ‘active intervention’ in the plight for climate change adaptation. However, despite benefits and opportunities found through testimonies such as Tanggulangin’s, the downsides of the various forms of income diversification must also be weighed up.


First, the consensus amongst both theorists and practitioners when it comes to mobility relating to environmental drivers, is that generally people do not want to move. Migrating, if even an option, tends to be a last resort. Vietnam is an example of where communities have overwhelmingly chosen to live with flooding; to learn mitigation and adaptation strategies rather than leave their home environments altogether. Essentially, affected communities often have a preference for in situ adjustment than for migration.

Second, the uptake of alternative livelihoods by those traditionally engaged in natural-resource based livelihoods (e.g. subsistence agriculture or fisheries) presents a host of other challenges. Sourcing alternative income revenue according to their, often limited, resources and skillset capacities tends to lead to uneven and unstable work. Furthermore, it has been found that when, for example, farmers and agricultural labourers seek work in urban settings, they often find their skills irrelevant. In terms of international labour, in 2019 only about 3,000 of the more than 276,000 Indonesian migrant workers were engaged in agricultural labour abroad, despite the fact that the majority of Indonesia’s migratory labour force come from rural areas where agriculture is a primary component of the local economy.

In addition to these two downsides, further challenges arise when looking through a gender lens. Generally, women tend to dominate in several types of major movement particularly in key international labour migrations such as that of domestic workers. Between 2014-2018, 53 percent of Indonesia’s migrant workers went through irregular and illegal channels. These informal movements can give rise to migrants finding themselves trapped in

Climate-oriented rural development

Throughout recent history, events underpinned by involuntary migration, driven by a range of causes, have demonstrated the huge potential for disruption to both origin and destination environments; family disruption, environmental and resource stress, brain-drains, social tensions and conflicts etc. Given the threats of these economic, social and environmental disruptions, combined with the downsides discussed (the preference for in situ development over migration; skills transferability from rural work to urban work often limited; prevalence of modern slavery through informal channels), the argument is strong for harnessing development practices that better equip rural areas to minimise environmental footprint, mitigate impacts and adapt to long-term realities of climate change, particularly in order to minimise the need for temporary, seasonal or permanent migration.

By way of rural area development and economic growth, much is already being done, and can and should be bolstered, in prioritising in situ development. Rural development initiatives include innovative agricultural methods such as farmer managed natural regeneration (FMNR), drought-resistant farming, sustainable grazing practices and capacity building/upskilling of vulnerable populations in order to diversify incomes. These strategies for rural development need to operate in ways that are context-appropriate, sustainable, and founded on clean and green approaches that foster resilience for the challenging times that lie ahead.

Translated by: Nadia Handayani

This post is also available in: Indonesia (Indonesian)