Living with drought: a study of spatial mobility in semi-arid Northeast Brazil

Safra de Campos, Ricardo (2016). Living with drought: a study of spatial mobility in semi-arid Northeast Brazil PhD Thesis, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland. doi:10.14264/uql.2016.225

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Author Safra de Campos, Ricardo
Thesis Title Living with drought: a study of spatial mobility in semi-arid Northeast Brazil
School, Centre or Institute School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management
Institution The University of Queensland
DOI 10.14264/uql.2016.225
Publication date 2016-05-09
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Martin Bell
Elin Charles-Edwards
Karen McNamara
Total pages 317
Language eng
Subjects 1604 Human Geography
1603 Demography
Formatted abstract
This thesis examines spatial mobility in relation to livelihood portfolios and capital assets among rural households during the 2010-2013 drought in semi-arid Northeast Brazil. Spatial mobility is a strategy adopted by rural households to respond to the impacts of climatic events in marginal regions around the globe. Permanent and seasonal forms of migration have been widely documented in the African Sahel and in Southeast Asia, but less attention has been given to South America. Moreover, little consideration has been given to the way climatic events impact on local forms of temporary mobility, including diurnal activity patterns and circular mobility.

The distinctive socioeconomic and physical context of Northeast Brazil provides a unique setting to explore these relationships. On the one hand, the settlement pattern provides greater spatial choice. On the other hand, a robust welfare system reduces vulnerability to external stressors such as climatic events. At the same time, semi-arid Northeast Brazil suffers from cyclical droughts, including an intense and prolonged drought for the majority of 2010-2013. Such slow-onset climatic events represent a major threat to marginal communities relying on rain-fed agricultural systems. This study presents an empirical account of the impacts of the recent drought on spatial mobility and livelihood strategies in three rural localities in the State of Ceará. The methodology is multifaceted including, analysis of aggregate regional data on migration and climate, a survey of rural households, key-informant interviews, and the application of a new toolkit designed to capture the space-time signature of local circulation patterns. Nested within a regional case-study, these data were complemented by a macro approach which examines the broad socioeconomic and climatological context of the region.

A robust conceptual model was developed to guide the research, situating household livelihood strategies in a framework defined by access to five broad groups of assets, within the wider socioeconomic and physical context, and tracing changes in the spatiotemporal dimensions of mobility resulting from the drought. At the aggregate level, the study uses census data and indirect estimates to link population dynamics to climatic events in the Northeast Region and in the State of Ceará. At the micro level, the study couples an intensive survey with field observation to examine household access to five forms of capital which mediate livelihood strategies among smallholder farmers. Analysis revealed four distinctive types of households, which differed in asset endowment and livelihood strategies: welfare-dependent, mixed livelihood, non-farming and commercial livestock-oriented. Differences between the four types were reflected in the way they were impacted by climatic events, and in the strategies employed to respond to the hardship.

The study also sought to compare household perceptions of changes in the local climate against scientific climatological data. Respondents showed clear awareness of the 2010-2013 drought but a poor understanding of the true dynamics of climate variability in the region. It also sought to establish the significance of climatic events among other external factors impacting livelihoods by examining perceptions of community issues. Respondents ranked climate variability and drought below other factors such as crime, access to credit and markets, unemployment and poverty. However, the recent drought appears to have exacerbated these problems which suggest that climatic events impact indirectly as well as directly on everyday aspects of residents’ lives and livelihoods.

The study employed conventional techniques to capture permanent and seasonal migration, but developed a new toolkit (MISTIC - Mobility in Space and Time among Individuals and Communities) to measure more nuanced variations in temporary mobility and local circulation. The toolkit captured both production- and consumption-related mobility using a participant-centred approach that identified duration, frequency and spatial patterns. The findings revealed that permanent and seasonal migration were both prevalent among households, but differed in rationale, composition and destinations Permanent moves were selective of young adults motivated primarily by employment opportunities rather than being a response to drought. Permanent migration was mainly rural-urban. Seasonal migrants were predominantly mature males engaged in off- and non-farm work in response to climate variability, and generated more diverse flows, especially to rural destinations. However, the greatest impact of the 2010-2013 drought was on diurnal and circular mobility, with customary patterns of production- and consumption-related activities shifting markedly in intensity, timing and spatial distribution. The two household types with fewer assets, Welfare-dependent and Mixed-livelihood, recorded the most significant changes, with fewer and shorter trips to fetch water from local dams, visit distant relatives, and attend farmers’ markets. However, access to social capital gained importance for all household types increasing trips associated to friends and religious activities.

The findings revealed that the welfare system in Brazil, compared to other countries, has direct implications on livelihoods, and on the movement of individuals who could otherwise have engaged in seasonal or permanent migration due to climatic events. As a result, in contrast to findings elsewhere, shifts in local mobility became a more prevalent response to the drought.
Keyword Spatial mobility
Livelihoods
Climatic events
Northeast brazil
Data collection
Measuring migration

Document type: Thesis
Collections: UQ Theses (RHD) - Official
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Created: Fri, 29 Apr 2016, 18:18:22 EST by Ricardo Safra De Campos on behalf of Learning and Research Services (UQ Library)