Depopulation of rural areas creates urban nightmares

Street children sniff glue in Nairobi.
Street children sniff glue in Nairobi.
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As the 20th century began, the vast majority of people on this planet lived in small communities: villages, towns, hamlets, settlements of 1,000 people or less with traditions, cultural ties and rhythms that often pre-dated recorded history. Today, according to experts in population growth and migration, on every continent except Antarctica, the trend is toward an urban planet.

In the wealthy industrial nations, the effects of this migration from countryside to city have been buffered by technology. The United States, which barely 50 years ago still had a significant agricultural workforce, now counts less than 2 percent of its occupants as farmers. Over 76 percent of the U.S. is now deemed “urban,” by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which tracks worldwide population statistics. At the turn of the last century, the numbers were nearly reversed.

The story is much the same in the rest of the Western and industrialized world, and these countries met the challenges posed by this migration with a mixture of government planning and incentives for home ownership that led to a new phenomenon: the suburb. The U.N. reports that by the year 2000, this orb of ours will officially be a predominantly urban planet.

Suburb vs. shantytown
But in the vast majority of the world’s countries, the infrastructure and wealth to handle this migration is simply not available. From India to Mexico, from Shanghai to Sao Paolo to Nairobi, cities are acting as magnets for an increasingly mobile population that is finding it impossible to survive on the land.

Some of them, like their western predecessors, are simply ambitious people in search of a better life. They crowd into slum neighborhoods, work long hours and even risk arrest to cross national borders in hope of tapping into some perceived greater prosperity in the big city.

But increasingly as the century comes to an end, the cities filling to the brim with desperate rural refugees are not fonts of opportunity. In places like Cape Town, South Africa, Lagos, Nigeria, Jakarta, Indonesia and Rio de Janiero, the people of the countryside are finding not only opportunity but also shelter, city services and the basics of life such as water are not being made available.

“My family thought we could hawk,” said Ibrahim Bagwan, who grew up in the dirty transient camps that now ring Karachi, Pakistan. “We found we were chased from all the street corners. There was no school and no supply of water. We wanted to go back (to their home village in the western highlands), but we knew there was no way to make it there. So we stayed on in the misery.”

Bagwan, who eventually went to Britain to study engineering, has a story that is typical of tens of millions at the end of the 20th century. After the British left Egypt and India, for instance, their great sleeping colonial cities suddenly became the centers of political and economic power. Post-independence governments, many of them socialist, de-emphasized and in some cases attacked traditional society, equating urbanization and modernization.

Destroying local economies
The effects were more than psychological. As power shifted from local leaders to the center, population often followed. Eventually, local economies that had sustained communities for centuries began to languish and then collapse. In the case of some former communist states, including the former Soviet republics in central Asia, balanced regional economies were converted to mono-cultures, producing, for instance, cotton in Uzbekistan, coal in parts of Ukraine, wheat in Belarus. When the Soviet system collapsed, rural parts of these countries found themselves without the structures of an economic system to fall back on.

It is dangerous to generalize about such trends on a global scale, of course. Famine, disease, war and environmental catastrophes also play a part in pushing people off the land. But the problems created by these massive movements of people are identifiable and potentially destabilizing.

Besides the creation of ungovernable mega-cities — Mexico City, Cairo, Sao Paolo, Shanghai, and Moscow, to name a few — the phenomenon ultimately drives some to illegal immigration, some into criminal syndicates that thrive on such conditions. Cairo and Karachi, for instance, are hot beds of Islamic fundamentalism. Mafia groups run rampant in Moscow and Shanghai. Drug cartels vie for pieces of Mexico City.

Are there solutions?
These trends have been evident for some time and yet grand plans from national governments and international agencies have consistently failed to make a dent. Is there a way to restore the vitality of the countryside in the developing world? Can local economies plowed under in the name of progress be revived?

That’s what the journalists of MSNBC and NBC News are out on four continents to find out. Certainly, there are groups and governments grappling with these questions. Just as certainly, there are bright stories here and there that may serve as models for the future. There definitely appears to be a consensus among the migrants, whether they’re illegal immigrants in the west or those living in the miserable squatter camps of the developing world, that home would be better, if only there were a way to make it work.

“Look, the real truth is that when you’re up there and you get your paycheck, of course you like it,” said Norma, a Mexican spend years in the U.S. illegally but ultimately opted to return home to raise her child. “But at the same time, you get homesick for your house, your land, your village, everything.”