Goodbye to Natural Resource Based Livelihoods? Crossing the Rural/Urban Divide (Michael Mattingly)


Continuing to manage natural resources helps peri-urban people to shift from rural to city-based livelihoods. Natural resource management can continue to be important to rural people while an expanding city or town engulfs them. Michael Mattingly and Pam Gregory present this message in the October 2009 issue of Local Environment (Vol. 4, No. 9). The article arose out of Gregory's analysis and synthesis of 10 years of research on peri-urban livelihoods that was financed by the Natural Resources Systems Programme of the UK's Department for International Development and monitored by Michael Mattingly on behalf of the DPU.

Until very recently, livelihoods have not been given much attention in published literature on the peri-urban interface. This article is able to draw on sustained livelihood studies of unusual breadth, depth and duration around Kumasi in Ghana, and Hubli-Dharwad and Kolkata in India. It confirms some expectations and offers some new insights.

The findings illustrate how peri-urban conditions can create pressure for livelihood change. Landlessness in both Kumasi and Hubli-Dharwad was growing as farmland was converted to urban uses, and market pressure to convert the East Kolkata Wetlands had become enormous. People were hastened into a cash-based economy for which they were ill prepared. Urbanisation intensified competition for land, increasing land values and driving land use change which reduced access to the natural resources that, in the past, had directly supplied basic needs. This, and entry into an urban economy, increased people’s need to use cash. In any event, increased urban proximity delivered access to urban jobs and markets.

Those who were poorest, especially women, were finding it was very difficult to benefit from opportunities presented by urban proximity, while the negative consequences fell disproportionately upon them. Yet, they had fewest of the livelihood assets needed to cope. They remained most dependent on traditional, natural resource based activities even though these natural resources were diminishing or degrading. This group was the least able to move into new productive sectors, could not scale up activity to give economically viable returns, and/or was directed into low wage sectors of the economy because of lack of alternative opportunity. Low pay and/or small returns from farming and petty trading left little scope for savings or investment. Lack of savings, secure work or property rights all reduced access to finance needed to develop alternative income generating activities.

In the cases studied, llivelihood diversification was a major coping strategy, moving people away from sole reliance on natural resource based activity. Casual, unskilled labouring was the primary income generating activity for many peri-urban poor people whose lack of education and skills barred them from salaried employment. Self-employment opportunities arose from agriculture, trading, service provision and artisanal activity. Women’s livelihood choices frequently became more limited as a consequence of peri-urban change.

Surprisingly, agriculture remained the most significant livelihood component for the majority, despite the changes to natural resource based activities and the loss of land. Food production that took advantage of urban markets featured significantly in many livelihood strategies. Agriculture typically was becoming more intensive - moving towards high value enterprises producing perishable products, such as vegetables, milk, eggs and fish, with a ready urban market.

Urban wastes provided a specialist natural resource for peri-urban farmers while offering municipal authorities a unique opportunity for the disposal of biodegradable municipal materials. An estimated 50,000 livelihoods of poor people in the region remain inextricably linked to fish rearing and crop farming in the East Kolkata Wetlands that used solid and liquid urban wastes. Wastewater containing raw sewage was being used for vegetable growing near to Hubli-Dharwad. However, increasing contamination of the waste from all manner of urban pollution created risks for users and consumers alike. The link between municipal wastes and peri-urban agriculture was poorly made by policy makers.

Successful transition to new livelihoods was associated with greater diversification of income strands, rapid cash returns and bridging opportunities. Speed of cash return depended upon the livelihood chosen; for example, growing mushrooms could yield an income within months, much sooner than raising rabbits or snails. Traditional farming and trading often served as bridging activities when making a change, and they were particularly important for women.

Participatory planning of livelihood changes and inputs from local NGOs, in the form of community organisation and self-help grouping, credit, training information, and constructing links with institutions, were found to be advantageous. The use by NGOs of community-based facilitators seemed particularly effective. Such interventions appeared to help overcome certain conditions of poverty created by urban development. The trials of alternative livelihood initiated by the research were found to encourage new or enhanced productive activity, when compared with the situations of those who did not participate in the research. With support, beneficiaries were willing to try even where productive processes were novel, involved taking unfamiliar risks, or were not yet proven to lead to immediate gain. Compared with others, those engaging in the planning and the trials improved their livelihoods and gained self-respect, confidence and increased status within their family and the community. They became more confident about making change in their lives where previously they had been fatalistic. Increased confidence enabled them to approach external agencies to request better services or suitable sources of help, and they were better able to define how that help should be provided.

These findings are important for fashioning pro-poor development policy that addresses peri-urban populations. Moreover, they may be able to inform the formulation of policy aimed at rural to urban migration in general.

The views expressed in 'Recent News & Reflections' are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the governments, organisations or agencies with whom they have been working.