COVID-19, reverse migration, and the impact on land systems

Above: A group of adults in the hilly highlands of Madagascar, walking from the capital Antananarivo to their rural villages with luggage and children in tow. (Credit: Rijasolo / AFP)

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world abruptly, affecting nearly all of humanity with breath-taking speed. At the time of writing in mid-September 2020, almost 20 million people have contracted the disease and more than 900,000 have died.[1] Besides its tragic direct toll on human lives, the pandemic is triggering a cascade of unexpected and dramatic effects that will deeply impact the global economy, social inequalities, and human–nature relationships in the coming years.[2]

Here, we wish to draw attention to an ongoing process that could have important consequences for land systems: that of reverse migration, or the return of migrant workers from cities to their rural areas of origin, especially in low- and middle-income countries.[3] To date, most reports on the mobility effects of the pandemic have emphasized international migration flows.[4] In this blog post, we focus instead on urban–rural migration flows triggered by COVID-19, and how they could affect the way land systems are used, understood, and governed in the future.

As a consequence of the virus spread and corresponding lockdowns, the global economy is projected to shrink – even in the most optimistic scenario – by at least 3% in 2020, making the situation comparable with that of the Great Depression of 1929[5]. This translates into millions of lost jobs and livelihoods, which are unlikely to recover soon, even after certain restrictions are lifted. Current government support and aid packages are mainly aimed at formal economies in high-income countries. These resources will not serve to provide a safety net for the new masses of unemployed people worldwide, particularly those in informal economic sectors and in low-income countries. Migrant workers – who typically perform precarious, informal, and low-wage jobs – are and will likely remain among the hardest hit by the global crisis. Further, together with other poor people in urban areas of low-income countries, they are now confronting rising prices for essential goods and a looming food crisis set in motion by the pandemic.[6]

Consequently, millions of migrant workers have decided to return to their areas of origin in search of ways of surviving. Some media have begun reporting on this process, particularly in India. There, about 500 million people (37% of the total population) are currently considered “internal migrants”; it is estimated that 500,000 domestic migrants recently entered the state of Odisha (as of June 21), and other states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal have also experienced massive influxes of domestic migrants.

Among other things, this has quickly spread the coronavirus into various towns and villages.[7] In North America, thousands of Mexicans working in the USA abruptly returned to their country of origin, many of them returning to rural towns and villages.[8] In Indonesia, the government formally warned rural–urban migrants not to go back home to the countryside, in hopes of preventing further spread of the virus.[9] In Peru, the police tried to stop migrants from breaking the lockdown to flee the capital, leading to riots.[10] In many parts of East Africa – including Madagascar, Kenya, and Uganda – there were reports of thousands of people heading back to their villages on foot after the shutdown of public transport.[11] Despite the major significance of this pandemic-induced migration, the total number of people who have recently fled from urban to rural areas remains largely unknown. As these migrants are not formally registered or tracked and are becoming scattered throughout their countries, it is highly unlikely that they will receive any – much less adequate – government or NGO support.

In the absence of tracking, testing, and implementing quarantine regulations, this also means that this reverse migration is likely to be a major contributor to further spread of the coronavirus, as has already been observed in India.5 Rural returnees can infect their elderly parents and family members who stayed behind in villages, where they often perform key care duties (e.g. raising grandchildren), hold important local knowledge, manage rural assets, and govern local natural resources. Notably, the under-resourced, fragmentary health systems that prevail in most rural villages in low-income countries are not properly equipped to treat COVID-19 patients or to contain the disease. There is a serious risk that these areas could become endemic, undetected sites of infection.

Above: A farmer transporting material to his field in the highlands of Cochabamba, Bolivia. (Credit: Sébastien Boillat)

In addition, the sudden return of unpaid workers and needy families could exert diverse pressures on land, which remains a crucial, defining asset in rural areas of low- and middle-income countries. These pressures will depend on the role of land in the emergency strategies of returnees, and on their ability to access land-based resources in their areas of origin. In rural developing-country contexts, people tend to rely on complex informal agreements between and within families to access land. Ribot and Peluso[12] have shown that land access is driven by the ability to derive a benefit from land rather than by one specific right. In this way, individuals and families derive their access to land from “bundles of powers” that reflect a range of social relationships including kinship, identity, symbolic power, recognition and so on, in addition to economic power.

In these settings, returning migrants might have claims to land as heirs of their parents or grandparents in the village, whereas de facto access to land is in the hands of the family members who stayed there.

Through “institution shopping”,[13] these migrants may seek to (re-)claim land access based on informal and formal entitlements granted by different recognition systems. Rural community elders often play a key role in negotiating and regulating access to land and natural resources and in mediating social conflicts that can arise from competing claims. However, in the current situation, they may not be able to fulfil this role if they fall ill with COVID-19 or must otherwise avoid contact with returnees to protect themselves. This could lead to new social conflicts within and between families, growing inequality, and social disruption in rural areas. It could also upset the local governance of common-pool resources. The latter might trigger deforestation and rapid depletion of land-based resources both in and around conservation areas, which are threatened by decreased funding due to loss of tourism revenues.[14] 

At the same time, the return of migrants to rural areas also presents opportunities for transformation to more resilient and sustainable land systems. If urban areas no longer offer higher (or more stable) incomes than rural areas, the latter might once again become attractive for living and working. For years, many rural areas have suffered from insufficient workforce, especially for farming. This has resulted in land abandonment and vegetation regrowth – including harms like increasing invasive species or flood risks.[15] Overall, if steered properly, new labour-fuelled improvements in land management and increases in land productivity could improve provision of ecosystem services and mitigate the looming food crisis. They could also counteract the depletion of wild-harvested natural resources. Further, having more young, engaged, networked, and knowledgeable people in rural areas could help to build more resilient, sovereign food systems in the long term. If supported through knowledge, technology, resources and the recognition of local commons, agroecology could play a key role in enabling such positive change in the wake of the current pandemic.

Given these considerations, we expect that the reverse migration triggered by COVID-19 will be an important driver of land change in the coming years. This will add another layer of complexity to the already wicked problem of ecosystem management[16] and further calls for attention from researchers to account for it in studies of land use change[17]. Notably, the role of science in such times of crises – whether regarding climate change, biodiversity, social justice, health, or land pressures – is not only to contribute facts, but also to jointly develop solutions together with decision-makers and communities.[18] Against this backdrop, we see a need for transdisciplinary research inquiry into the following questions: (1) What is the status of land in the resilience strategies of returning (rural–urban) migrants? (2) What social conflicts and environmental challenges arise due to the return of migrants to rural villages and related claims on land? (3) How does the new configuration of actors in rural areas impact the distribution of access rights, (sustainable) land use, and land management? (4) What opportunities for innovation may emerge due to increased labour force in rural settings and how could it help to transform conflicts and challenges towards a future vision of sustainable land systems? All in all, the land science community – including members of the Global Land Programme – is called upon to contribute to the co-production and co-design of knowledge and innovations towards more sustainable and just land systems in our challenging post-COVID-19 era.


[1] Haller, T. ed. 2010. Disputing the floodplains (African Social Studies Series). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

[2] Vyawahare, M. As visitors vanish, Madagascar’s protected areas suffer a ‘devastating’ blow. Mongabay. News and inspiration from nature’s frontline (2020).

[3]Jaquet, Stéphanie, Gitta Shrestha, Thomas Kohler, and Gudrun Schwilch. 2016. ‘The Effects of Migration on Livelihoods, Land Management, and Vulnerability to Natural Disasters in the Harpan Watershed in Western Nepal’. Mountain Research and Development 36 (4): 494–505.

[4] DeFries, Ruth, and Harini Nagendra. 2017. ‘Ecosystem Management as a Wicked Problem’. Science 356 (6335): 265–70.

[5] Carlson, Andrew K., Julie G. Zaehringer, Rachael D. Garrett, Ramon Felipe Bicudo Silva, Paul R. Furumo, Andrea N. Raya Rey, Aurora Torres, Min Gon Chung, Yingjie Li, and Jianguo Liu. 2018. ‘Toward Rigorous Telecoupling Causal Attribution: A Systematic Review and Typology’. Sustainability 10 (12): 4426.

[6] Bieri, Sabin, Thomas Breu, Andreas Heinimann, and Peter Messerli. 2020. ‘The Virus Has Made It Clear: The Future Is Now’. Corona Sustainability Compass. A Science Blog by Umweltbundesamt, Future Earth, International Science Council and Foundation 2°. (blog). 24 April 2020.

[13] Coronavirus Resource Center, John Hopkins University of Medicine.

[14] Willcock, Simon. 2020. ‘Connecting with Nature during Covid-19’. Geography Directions (blog). 23 July 2020.

[15] Dandekar, Ajay, and Rahul Ghai. 2020. ‘Migration and Reverse Migration in the Age of COVID-19’. Economic & Political Weekly 55 (19): 28–31.




Sébastien Boillat, Research Scientist at the Institute of Geography, University of Bern, is supported by the AgroWork project, funded by Swiss National Foundation for Scientific Research (SNSF) (grant number 176736). Julie G. Zaehringer, Research Scientist at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, is supported by the Swiss Programme for Research on Global Issues for Development (r4d programme) under Grant No. 400440 152167, which is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).