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Environment and History

Violence Against People and the Land: The Environment and Refugee Migration from China's Henan Province, 1938-1945

Micah S. Muscolino

Environment and History 17 (2011): 291-311. doi: 10.3197/096734011X12997574043080

This article examines interrelationships between environmental change and refugee displacement in North China's Henan province during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945. Henan had a larger displaced population than any part of China during World War II, with most refugees migrating due to war-induced disasters that were the second-order effects of warfare. The Chinese Nationalist military's blasting of the Yellow River dikes to block a Japanese military advance in June 1938 displaced millions, forcing them to seek livelihoods in areas away from their home villages. In 1942-1943 Yellow River flooding combined with inclement weather conditions and heavy military grain exactions to create a famine of massive proportions in Henan, leading millions more residents to flee. The most severe ecological damage took place in areas of Henan that flood and famine refugees left, as labour shortages led to neglect and decline of human-constructed environments. Hydraulic infrastructure collapsed, agricultural cultivation came to a standstill and previously settled areas became desolate wastelands. Environmental degradation occurred on a more limited scale in areas of in-migration, as refugees heightened pressure on resources. In Shaanxi province, China's wartime state resettled refugees and mobilised them to reclaim land, leading to deforestation and accelerated soil erosion. The article engages with previous literature on the environmental consequences of refugee migration, questioning the notion that refugees have an unmediated impact on the environment. It is argued that refugee migration is impossible to isolate from other factors that lead to ecological damage in wartime settings.

KEYWORDS: China, refugees, environmental degradation, migration, warfare


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