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USU Geographer Explores Making a Living in an Interconnected World

Thursday, Oct. 06, 2011

USU geographer Claudia Radel

USU geographer Claudia Radel, a 2011 recipient of a prestigious NSF CAREER grant, studies labor migration across international borders and its effect on gender roles and the environment.

woman and son harvesting jalapeno peppers

A woman and her son harvest jalapeño peppers from their field in Mexico's Yucatán peninsula. Migration of men to the United States for jobs has increased women’s participation in household decision-making, including farming practices and land use.

As your ancestors did for thousands of years before your birth, you work to make a living. It’s a simple activity yet it has effects that ripple far beyond your tiny place in a bigger pond. Especially if your livelihood strategy requires you to leave your family and your community behind and cross borders distant from your homeland.

Utah State University human geographer Claudia Radel has long studied labor migration across international borders and its effect on gender roles and the environment. The recipient of a 2011 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grant, she embarks this year on a new, five-year study that builds on research she’s conducted in communities of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula and expands her studies into the highlands of Guatemala and communities of northwestern Nicaragua.

“I find it fascinating to study families’ migration patterns and their impacts on households and the surrounding environment,” says Radel, an assistant professor in USU’s Department of Environment and Society, who joined the university in 2005.

She started her research in Mexico a decade ago as a doctoral student at Massachusetts’ Clark University.

“My dissertation research focused on women’s collective action groups in semi-subsistence farming communities surrounding the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve,” Radel says. “Migration of men to jobs in the United States increased women’s participation in household decision-making, including making choices about household farming practices and land use.”

Her doctoral studies led to collaborative research partnerships with other universities and, at USU, she secured a New Faculty Research Grant to continue her research in Mexico. In 2007, she and her students conducted a survey of about 150 households in six separate communities bordering the Calakmul reserve. With her current NSF-funded study, Radel and students will revisit the Mexican study sites and begin studies at new sites in Guatemala and Nicaragua.

“Though people in each of the study sites share some of the same challenges, each location is unique,” she says. “In Nicaragua, for example, many women, as well as men, are among those migrating to pursue employment.”

In addition to exploring the effects of migration on environments, Radel says, she and her fellow investigators are examining how local environmental change, in part reflecting global climate change, may or may not result in labor out-migration.  

“In some regions, changes in rainfall are making farming less viable,” she says. “As a result, some people may be turning to other economic ventures, such as migrating for employment.”

A goal of the study, Radel says, is to understand how gender, agriculture and labor migration intersect with impacts on women's well-being.

“We’re seeking answers to many questions,” she says. “Among those are ‘How do men and women change their livelihood strategies in response to changes in their environment — both the biophysical environment and the political-economic environment? How do gender ideologies and practices shape those responses?’”

Along with the study, Radel says a goal of the project is training graduate students to work in an international, collaborative research endeavor.

“This is a large undertaking that crosses different cultural and linguistic boundaries,” she says. “It’s a remarkable opportunity but it also presents challenges — especially to beginning researchers. Learning to conduct international research in collaboration with scientists from different countries is now an essential part of graduate student training.”

Related links:

Contact: Claudia Radel, 435-797-0516,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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