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close this bookAchieving Urban Food and Nutrition Security in the Developing World - A 2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture, and the Environment - Focus 3 - August 2000 (IFPRI, 2000, 22 p.)
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View the documentOVERVIEW
View the documentAN URBANIZING WORLD
View the documentRURAL - URBAN INTERDEPENDENCE
View the documentURBAN LIVELIHOODS AND LABOR MARKETS
View the documentFEEDING THE CITIES: FOOD SUPPLY AND DISTRIBUTION
View the documentTHE HIDDEN SIGNIFICANCE OF URBAN AGRICULTURE
View the documentURBANIZATION AND THE NUTRITION TRANSITION
View the documentURBAN WOMEN: BALANCING WORK AND CHILDCARE
View the documentTHREATS TO URBAN HEALTH
View the documentPROGRAMMING FOR URBAN FOOD AND NUTRITION SECURITY

RURAL - URBAN INTERDEPENDENCE

CECILIA TACOLI

Cecilia Tacoli (cecilia.tacoli@iied.org) is a research associate at the International Institute for Environment and Development, London.

Urban food and nutrition security depends on strong links between urban and rural areas. But policymakers and urban planners often ignore this interdependence. There are two broad, often overlapping, categories of rural-urban linkages. “Spatial” links refer to the movement of people, goods, money, and information between urban and rural areas. “Sectoral” links describe the interdependence between agriculture on the one hand and industry and services on the other. In the next two decades, three main issues related to rural-urban interdependence are likely to emerge: (1) changes in land use around urban centers, from farmland to residential or industrial use; (2) greater diversification of income sources in rural and urban areas, often involving people migrating or commuting between the countryside and urban centers; and (3) changes in the direction and composition of internal migration.

FOOD PRODUCTION AND LAND USE IN PERI-URBAN AREAS

The areas surrounding urban centers play an important part in the provision of food to urban consumers, and the proximity of these areas to urban markets lowers food transport and storage costs. At the same time, urbanization is at its most intense in these peri-urban areas. The process of urbanization transforms land-use and farming systems, patterns of labor-force participation, infrastructure requirements, and natural resource systems.

Peri-urban areas show wide regional variations. Southeast Asia’s extended metropolitan regions involve a mix of agriculture, cottage industry, industrial estates, suburban development, and other residential settlement over a wide radius. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the industrial base is usually weaker, agriculture prevails around cities, although with important transformations in land ownership and use.

Uncontrolled urban growth can pose a major threat to agricultural land and in many cases benefits mainly middle- and upper-income groups. Speculative purchases can also withdraw agricultural land from food production. In Manila’s extended metropolitan region, for example, large areas of rice land have been converted to industrial, residential, and recreational uses or have lain idle while owners awaited either development permits or more propitious market conditions. Such changes eliminate highly fertile agricultural land from production that urban households would otherwise rely on for affordable food.

Although small-scale peri-urban farmers contribute significantly to food production, in the process devising ways of using degraded land and large volumes of waste, proximity to urban markets does not guarantee them access to urban consumers. Around Paraguay’s capital, Asuncion, for example, limited access to credit severely constrains the capacity of small farmers to grow produce, which is in high demand among urban consumers. On the outskirts of Bamako, Mali, the lack of transport makes it difficult for many small-scale fruit and vegetable producers to reach the city’s markets. Social networks among traders and middlemen can also exclude small producers from access to local markets. These constraints affect not only the income of small producers but also the food and nutrition security of urban consumers.

The transformation of peri-urban agricultural land, likely to intensify in the next few decades, raises two important issues for policymaking. First, to avoid increases in poverty, better working conditions and alternative employment opportunities are required for workers in these areas. Increased mechanization of production will reduce the number of agricultural workers. Those that remain will be mainly wage workers, often hired on a seasonal basis. These workers will need to supplement their incomes with other urban-based activities. Second, sound management of natural resources will become increasingly necessary as commercial agricultural production competes even more intensively with urban industry and households for essential resources such as water.

MAKING A LIVING ACROSS THE RURAL-URBAN DIVIDE

A large number of households in both rural and urban areas rely on different income sources for their livelihoods, which span the rural-urban divide. In Colombia much of the temporary workforce employed during the coffee harvest comes from urban areas. These workers usually stay on the farm over the week and return home for the weekend. In Zimbabwe low-income urban residents make ends meet by working seasonally on farms. Rural residents, on the other hand, increasingly make their living from sources outside agriculture. Low-income rural people, for example, supplement their income with petty trading, which can involve commuting or circular migration to urban centers.

In many cases those who migrate semipermanently remain closely in touch with their relatives back home. Parents working long hours in the urban informal sector tend to send their children to live with relatives in their home villages. This is because living conditions, including access to health services, are sometimes better in rural areas than in the cities, especially when nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active there. Even long-term migrants maintain close rural ties because keeping a rural base provides a safety net to cope with times of economic hardship or political violence. In Botswana as many as half of the low-income urban residents keep either land or cattle in their home village. In addition, in exchange for help from relatives, relatively settled migrants in urban areas support newly arrived migrants and secondary school students from their extended families. These obligations make additional demands on the already insufficient housing situation of low-income urban households.

Policies often ignore the extent to which low-income groups rely on both urban and rural resources to make a secure living. By overlooking these complexities, policies can undermine the survival strategies of the poor. The government housing program in South Africa, for example, provides grants that can be spent only in rural or urban areas but not both. This makes it difficult for households to maintain links with home areas. In Brazil, many housing projects allow residents to take in only members of their nuclear household. This rule prevents residents from fulfilling their social obligations, thereby weakening social networks and safety nets.

Policies must not create additional burdens for the poor by assuming that low-income people live their lives only in one location. Rural development initiatives need to take into account nonagricultural activities and encourage and support them. At the same time, urban policies must be flexible about housing needs and recognize the importance of rural social networks and social relations even in urban dwellers’ lives.

WHO MOVES AND WHO STAYS?

Internal migration is another key facet of rural-urban interdependence. It cannot be measured easily, however, partly because censuses do not register short-term movements. Not all migration is rural-to-urban: in Latin America most movement occurs between urban centers, while in Sub-Saharan Africa rural-to-rural movement is important. Anecdotal evidence on return migration links it to worker retrenchments in the formal sector, especially during the implementation of structural adjustment programs in the 1980s. These different kinds of migratory patterns point to the varied influence of regional and national economies. For instance, the relocation of Mexican industries to secondary cities because of government incentives has precipitated the movement of skilled, middle-class workers out of Mexico City.

Economic imbalance between locations is not the only cause of migration. Changing social relations, especially between gender and generational groups, and improved access to information are also important. As young men and women migrate to seek greater financial and social independence, they often tend to remit less than their predecessors, generally because of the increased cost of living in the cities.

Another major cause of migration is the higher demand for women workers in the service industry and in light manufacturing linked to export processing. This trend is likely to continue in the next few decades and will have a major impact on labor markets. Policymakers need to identify and support the positive aspects of this urban influx and minimize the negative ones, such as the lack of child care for mothers who work.

Migration will play an increasingly central role in economic and social change over the next decades. But it will be a complex affair, involving different directions for different groups. Children may be looked after by older generations in home villages while their young parents move to urban centers for specific periods of time. After accumulating capital during that first period of urban employment, the parents are likely to move on to invest the capital. Policymakers need to carefully consider the relationships between migrant parent, child, and home village, all of which are bound up by the economic web of remittances.

WHAT ROLE FOR POLICY?

Policymakers have usually ignored the importance of rural-urban interdependence, or attempted to curb it, as in the case of migration. Inevitably the living conditions of lower- and middle-income groups have worsened. As a first step, policy-makers need to identify and soften or eliminate policies that have a negative impact on rural-urban linkages. The next step is trickier because rural-urban linkages are highly context-dependent. Policies based on generalizations about the scale and nature of linkages have usually failed. Local government can play an important role in addressing local needs and priorities, but action at the local level generally must be supported at the regional and national levels. This support includes managing natural resources while responding to both urban and rural demands; assisting local economies by providing physical and social (health and education) infrastructure; and facilitating the efforts of low-income households to make a living by drawing on a variety of resources, including migration.

Given the difficulty of making specific policy recommendations, what is more important initially is for various government, NGO, and other groups and actors to recognize the centrality of urban-rural interdependence to both urban and rural livelihoods, to understand the local and national problems associated with it, and to conduct a democratic dialogue to arrive at a negotiated set of strategies for nurturing and benefiting from this interdependence. Understanding the importance of rural linkages to urban livelihood, food, and nutrition security is critical if policies are to improve the lives of the urban poor, rather than making them even more difficult than they already are.

For further reading see the journal Environment and Urbanization, vol. 10, April 1998, special issue entitled “Beyond the Rural-Urban Divide.”