Story | 28 Dec, 2019

Environmentally induced migration and impact on yam farmers in Benin

CEESP News: by Melanie Allen, CEESP member and Fulbright Scholar, Bénin 2018-2019.

Yam holds a special place in Beninese culture; apart from being one of the few staple crops that were not introduced during the colonial period such as rice and corn, yam is indigenous to this region and eaten widely throughout West Africa. What happens when land typically used for yam production, is no longer suitable to cultivate due to drought, erosion and environmental degradation?

In Benin, yam farmers from the Atacora region of the country (specifically Boukoumbé) are left little choice but to migrate to other yam producing areas in the Central region of the country in search of more arable land and secure livelihoods. This internal migration pattern has not been widely documented and this study strived to seek answers to questions around rural-rural migration in Benin and the transmission and retention of knowledge around yam production.

Agricultural systems are increasingly threatened by the growing risks associated with climate change—notably environmental degradation, natural disasters and water depletion. Local and traditional farming communities are disproportionately vulnerable to these factors due to their reliance on agriculture for subsistence and livelihood. To mitigate the risks from these threats, local communities often depend on practices that have been passed down through generations to guide the food production process.

 Farmers in Savé, Benin, demonstrating how yam is planted       Photo: Aurore Hounnou
Left: Farmers in Savé demonstrating how yam is planted. Photo: Aurore Hounnou

In Benin, a combination of technological advancements and population shifts from rural areas to urban areas have threatened the retention of these traditional practices and have also created space for new knowledge to be introduced. The intention of this study was to explore how different ethnic groups in Benin produce yam, and how environmental land factors in the Atacora region push yam farmers to migrate to other areas. Areas included in this study with more fertile land and experiencing influx of migrants from Boukoumbé in the Atacora region were Tchaourou and Bemberké  (in the Department of Borgou) and Glazoué and Savé (in the Department Collines).  The research question was: How social networks and internal migration can shape farmers’ knowledge of yam production and how is knowledge transmitted from one generation to the next and between social groups?

Internal migration is a common practice for many ethnic groups living in Sudano-Guinean zone ( and the Sudanian zone). These regular movements indicate that there are constant communication flows between these regions. Each ethnic group may carry their own local knowledge, traditional uses and conservation practices related to natural resources, and is also exposed to new ideas as migration and settlements take place. Social networks and social capital are important aspects when considering internal migration patterns; often migrant villages are dominated by intermediate and extended family members living in different households. Further, having a relative or an acquaintance is often a prerequisite for farmers establishing themselves in a migrant village.

Environmentally induced migration and impact on yam farmers in Benin       Photo: Melanie Allen
One-on-one interviews were had with 545 farmers, with questions on sociodemographic information, the spiritual value of yam, and level of interactions between permanent settlers and migrants. As we were interested in understanding where knowledge of yam production came from, questions were asked directly about vertical knowledge transmission (knowledge that is passed down from parent to child) and horizontal knowledge transmission (information that is passed on between peers and social groups, not following a strict age structure). Questions focused on the entire production process, from preparing the land, to methods of rotational farming and intercropping, to harvest and conservation.

We found that the differences in planting practices such as varieties selected, planting season, and conservation techniques used by the different ethnic groups surveyed were not significant, and more based on phyto-geographical factors and availability of land. Knowledge of yam production was often passed down within the family, with 1-5 scale, a score of 4.87 reported. Only 7 % of farmers interviewed participated in trainings, extension agents, organized cooperatives, radio emissions, etc., as the focus areas of these interventions are concentrated on cash crops such as cotton and rice.

87 percent of migrants stated that « manque de terre » and « la terre est fatigué »  (literal translation is lack of arable land, and land is worn down) were the primary reasons they left the Atacora region, indicating that environmental degradation was a driving cause for many. When arriving to their new home, in order to attain land, farmers would often work on the land of a permanent settler in exchange for having a small area for self-cultivation, negotiate with the king, rent and pay with a portion of harvest or money, or sometimes it was gifted. In some regions such as Tchaourou, access to land was easier to attain than others.  

Environmentally induced migration and impact on yam farmers in Benin       Photo: Melanie Allen
Left: Yam fields in Boukoumbé; yam is planted vertically inside a mount (referred to as a butte) and leaves are placed on top to protect from the sun. Photo by Melanie Allen

Climate change is predicated to exacerbate the rate and frequency of migration around the world. There is still much to explore in terms of this rural-rural migration pattern happening between the north and central regions of Benin. Efforts to document  how these movements impact blending of cultures and languages as different ethnic groups, once separated by distance, find themselves living in the same areas are critical to understanding these changing dynamics. Further, these studies can have important implications for understanding land-use change, as yam production that was typically spread out in multiple areas may become more concentrated in specific zones.

Environmentally induced migration and impact on yam farmers in Benin       Photo: Emilienne Bonou

This study was funded by the Fulbright Research Association and supported by the Laboratory of Genetics, Horticulture and Seed Sciences led by Professor Enoch Achigan at the National University of Benin. Research assistants Aurore Hounnou and Emilienne Bonou, and collaborator Alcade Segnon were critical to the preparation and facilitation of fieldwork.

Left: Interviewing with farmers in Tchaourou. Photo by Emilienne Bonou