Rural out-migration changes agrarian political economies worldwide. However, the linkages between rural out-migration and natural resource governance and the important mediating role of gender and social relations are underexplored. The aim of this lecture is to investigate the impact of rural out-migration on collective action in farmer-managed irrigation systems with a particular focus on social, gender and labor relations.
Irrigation systems, crucial for the food security of many populations in rural areas of the developing world, require sustained collective action. Widespread male out-migration presents major challenges for maintaining irrigation systems. Existing scholarship suggests that changes in household structure and labor relations may also provide new opportunities for increased involvement of women, youths, and other marginalised groups in the governance of important resources, but the conditions under which this could occur remain unknown.
Through a study of farmer-managed irrigation systems in Nepal, I ask:
(1) How are farmer-managed irrigation systems changing as a result of male out-migration?
(2) How do changing household structure and labor relations open up possibilities for marginalised groups to engage with collective irrigation governance?
By developing a synthesis of theory on translocality and feminist political ecology, I employ a mixed methods approach to study how rapid agrarian and social transformations are altering existing forms of collective action.
Results of my study in Western Nepal show that 60.7% of all households had at least one migrant in the past five years, of which 83% were male. However, collective labor in irrigation systems is not affected by migration as absent men’s labor contributions are mediated at the household unit, involving increasingly women who sustain irrigation systems. Participation in a water user group or irrigation committee is significantly higher when there has been a migrant in the household in the past five years. While most households stated to have decreased their crop production, migrant households did not report more often a decrease in crop production than non-migrant households.
These results challenge widespread assumptions of degenerating irrigation systems, the loss of labor and narratives on “deagrarianisation” and the “feminization of agriculture”. With this analysis, I expand current studies on migration effects on rural societies which have focused primarily on measurable demographic and economic changes. I open up debates on the role of gender and social relations in translocal water resource governance and suggest that agriculture and irrigation policies and programs address women as key actors in the agriculture and irrigation sector.
My research seeks to identify practices through which a greater engagement of marginal groups can help to revitalize collective natural resource management. Such bottom-up processes of change could be a vital part of a long-term transition towards more equal access to resources and improved food security in rural households of the Global South.