North-South Migration in Ghana: What Role for the Environment?



The purpose of this paper is to determine the importance of the environment as a driver of North-South migration in Ghana. Almost one in every five people born in northern Ghana is living in southern Ghana. Interviews with 203 migrant farmers suggest that migration from the North to the South is, to a large extent, environmentally induced. Many Northerners decided to migrate because of poor agro-ecological conditions at home combined with easy access to fertile lands in the more humid destination area. The interviews with migrant farmers yielded several insights that are relevant for the environmental refugee debate. Firstly, environmental pull appears to be at least as important as environmental push. Secondly, scarcity of fertile land was mentioned much more often as a reason to migrate than climate change or erratic rainfall. Thirdly, none of the respondents ascribed the migration decision to sudden-onset environmental stress. If the environment is indeed an important driver of migration, one would expect migration rates to be higher in places with and times of more severe scarcity. A cross-sectional analysis of migration propensities and natural resources scarcity confirms that out-migration rates are significantly higher in poorly endowed districts. A longitudinal analysis of migration and rainfall shows that the period of worst environmental stress -- during the Sahelian droughts of the late 1970s and early 1980s -- was a time of reduced out-migration from northern Ghana. In this period of northern Ghana’s migration history, economic and political factors weighed heavier than environmental factors. The picture that emerges for northern Ghana is not one of distress migration in the face of environmental disaster but rather of migration as a way of dealing with structural environmental scarcity.