Master’s student researches human mobility and landslide risk perception in Brazil

The theme of this year’s International Migrants Day was re-imagining human mobility, and for Master’s of Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security student Ronja Winkhardt-Enz, the theme directly relates to her master’s thesis research on human mobility and landslide risk perception in Brazil.

When it comes to natural hazards, Brazil is prone to severe cyclones, wildfires, droughts, floods and landslides, making the country highly exposed to risks. The risk of landslides is especially high, as this hazard is one of the main causes of disaster deaths and displacement in the country. For Winkhardt-Enz, this offered a compelling entry point for an analysis of human mobility and risk perception. For her thesis, she set out to pinpoint perceptions of risk in three landslide-prone communities of São Paulo, and to find out what impact those perceptions have on mobility.

Following a literature review and GIS (geographic information system) analysis, which allowed her to form an index based on the hazard, exposure and vulnerability, Winkhardt-Enz conducted interviews with members of each of the communities, a process that she had to do remotely from Germany with partners in Brazil connecting her virtually. She asked questions aimed at identifying their knowledge of landslides, their perception of the risk, how they adapt to the risk, at what point they would leave the area and lastly, what mitigation measures have been made by local governments and authorities.

According to Winkhardt-Enz, preliminary results indicate that community members’ awareness of the risk of landslides is high, but their risk perceptions differ depending on where they live.

“Some said they are farther away from the risk so they are safe, and some said they don’t sleep at night because they wait for their house to slide away,” she said.

When it came to the role of human mobility, most acknowledged that in the event of a landslide they would have to go away. According to Winkhardt-Enz, measures like evacuation plans are not well known, so responses are based on community actions or individual coping strategies, which are limited to building retaining walls, relocation or shelters. Due to poor socioeconomic conditions, relocation is difficult, if at all possible. Oftentimes, individuals end up moving from one risk area to another.

“Either they stay because they don’t have the means for preventive migration somewhere else during the pre-disaster phase, or they go in the moment of disaster,” said Winkhardt-Enz. “If they are lucky, they can stay with family members, but that’s only a short-term solution. So most of the people have to stay, due to financial circumstances.”

This is a critical finding, as it indicates that in the event of a landslide, the community members could become trapped.

“If you’re trapped, you have no options. You are aware of the risk and you know you should go away but where would you go? Especially if the place you previously came from is already a risk-prone area?” she said. Most of Winkhardt-Enz’s interviewees came from other Brazilian states, meaning they already migrated before.

Before she can continue to determine the extent to which these communities are trapped, she will triangulate her results with expert interviews. This crucial step will allow her to see what has already been done at the local and national government levels, and to explore measures to reduce displacement and other forms of forced human mobility in the context of disaster in her thesis.

Although she has yet to complete the thesis, her analysis is an important study of mobility and disaster. Between 2008 and 2018 there were 24 million new displacements per year globally from disaster, which outnumbers those caused by conflict and violence by three times, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Furthermore, her work emphasizes the need to place social vulnerabilities into analyses of risk and human mobility.

“It is important that we look at vulnerabilities because these are the points that can lead to migration. Migration is multi-causal, but this approach is underrepresented. Talking about landslide risk and relocation in Austria, for instance, is not the same as in Brazil,” states Winkhardt-Enz.

Once everything is complete, her research will directly feed into the South American Network for Environmental Migration’s (RESAMA) project MOVE-LAM, which maps evidence and collects data on the impacts of environmental change on human mobility in the region. However, she also hopes to get her findings in the hands of policymakers to provide local and national authorities with reliable data to help them more efficiently implement risk management actions with the community needs and human mobility concerns in place.

“My research just looks at three communities, but it shows how really important it is to reach out to people on the ground who are affected and give them visibility. We need to ask them how they perceive the situation they are living in everyday,” Winkhardt-Enz said.

Migration as a topic already interested her, but she points to her class on climate migration, taught by the Environment and Migration: Interactions and Choices Section (EMIC) at UNU-EHS for giving her the tools to take on the topic. “Thanks to that class, I have the theoretical knowledge to understand what is happening,” she said.

“Anyone who wants to research climate change, migration and topics of risk should study here. It integrates the natural and social sciences, it is international and you get the tools to get into action,” she said.

Winkhardt-Enz, along with co-authors from RESAMA and the Methodist University of São Paulo, published an article on her preliminary results in Federal University of ABC’s magazine, Social-environmental Dialogues in the São Paulo Macro-metropolis. To read the original article in Portuguese click here and to read it in English click here. More information on the Joint Master’s Programme in Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security can be found here.

This is an article by UNU-EHS.