Complicating the tale of ‘first climate migrants’: Resource-dependent livelihoods, drought and labour mobilities in semi-arid Chile

Hanne Wiegel*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


While stories of ‘climate migrants’ regularly make the news, local perspectives often paint a different picture of migration motivations. Based on the case of ‘Chile's first climate migrants’ from Monte Patria, an increasingly drought-affected rural municipality characterised by its agricultural economy, this article argues that mobilities under climate change need to be understood through a power-sensitive approach analysing both local perceptions of environmental changes and power relations extending beyond the case-study level. Through the combination of the environmental mobilities approach with a political ecology of climate change, this article studies how (a) precipitation deficits are translated into locally perceivable effects through the Chilean water distribution system, (b) how these effects impact different socio-economic groups differentially, and (c) what options – including (labour) mobilities – locals perceive to have for responding. Ethnographic fieldwork in Monte Patria, including 39 semi-structured interviews and 11 follow-alongs, has shown that uneven resource access, limited political bargaining power and the perceived impossibility to earn a sufficient income in the agricultural economy are locally considered as more important reasons for engaging in mobilities than considerations about climate change (adaptation). As prolonged droughts aggravate the existing structural economic insecurity of local livelihoods, creating a situation under which staying is considered increasingly difficult, the participation in pre-established labour mobility patterns directed outside of the municipality is considered as normal and potentially positive household-level response. The article concludes that these insights can serve to guide climate change adaptation policy-making that is attuned to existing mobility patterns and the importance of resource redistribution.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103663
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2023


  • Chile
  • Climate change
  • Drought
  • Environmental mobilities
  • Labour mobilities
  • Political ecology


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