Linking Poverty and the Environment

 Woman working in a potato field

When referring to natural resource management, the area in which I find most interest is the linkage to socio-economic factors, specifically the role mismanagement plays in perpetuating poverty. Issues about the environment, economics, and politics are all interrelated through the way humans interact with their surroundings and each other. Almost half of the world – over three billion people – live on less that $2.50 per day. Even further, 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day, and three out of four of them live in rural areas. At the center of the rural poor’s livelihoods is agriculture, which plays a significant role in environmental matters and quality. Poor people, with restricted access to resources and lower integration into the cash economy, are less able to substitute human and physical capital and therefore have less purchasing power. Thus, dependency on ecosystem services is even stronger.

Biodiversity allows for a wide range of species to live and work together helping maintain the environment without costly human intervention. Strong biodiversity creates resiliency, and we benefit from resilient environments as their resources help sustain our well-being.

In a report written by Sara J Scherr concerning the relationship between poverty and natural resource degradation, she explains, “environmental concerns associated with agriculture relate mainly to the sustainability of the resource base for agricultural production (e.g. soil quality), protection of biodiversity and habitats, and environmental services of resources influenced by agricultural land use (e.g. carbon sequestration).” Degradation is a pivotal concern in these rural areas as it threatens productivity of the land, biodiversity, as well as water quality. These people also depend immensely on the services the ecosystem provides outside of food and water, such as regulation services (floods, drought, degradation, disease, etc.), and support services (soil formation and nutrient cycling).

Years ago, there was a model introduced that specifically linked poverty and the environment in a so-called ‘downward-spiral.’ Supposedly, as far is this model is concerned, poor people place an increased amount of pressure on the natural resource base due to the increased populations, limited access to land, and lack of necessary capital for investments in natural resource management. The increased pressure on natural resources then perpetuates into decreases in consumption and increased vulnerabilities to poor health and food security.

This may or may not always be the case, but the real worry is that mismanagement ultimately affects poor people most as they are the most vulnerable – this is clear. When someone’s livelihood depends on the arability of land and usefulness of other natural resources surrounding them, one would think years of cultivation and tending to the land would create a sense of understanding for how the ecosystems function and how to protect them.

In her report, Sara Scherr outlines some of the key factors linking poverty and environment, with those being: (1) biophysical conditions, (2) use of resource-conserving technology, (3) and institutions supports the interest of the poor. She claims that, “researchers have demonstrated that poor farmers adopt resource-conserving practices nearly always because these also contribute to increased productivity or output stability and are economically viable in the farmers’ context of risk and resource constraints.” Like what was mentioned earlier, when livelihoods are on the line, people tend to make practical decisions.

They key is in helping these communities to build up their resiliency, and thus better preparing them to recover from any sort of stress or shock to the system. It must be done in a sustainable manner though so that the resource base isn’t damaged all the while the people are able to maintain or enhance their capabilities. We must keep in mind that people are in the middle.

In the same report, three basic strategies for addressing poverty and environmental issues are outlined:

1. To increase poor people’s access to natural resources essential to their livelihoods.
2. To work with the poor to increase the productivity of their natural resources so they can take advantage of existing or emerging economic opportunities (by co- investing in on-farm natural resources of the poor, promoting agricultural technologies with environmental benefits and promoting low-risk perennial production in poor and marginal areas).
3. To involve the poor in promoting good environmental management under conditions when economic incentives for doing so are not in place (by compensating the poor for conserving or managing resources important to others and by employing the poor to improve public natural resources).
Generally, the first will be driven more by an anti-poverty and social justice agenda, the second by food supply and economic development objectives and the last by natural resource protection concerns, although all three approaches contribute to the ‘critical triangle’.

As it stands, there are increasing pressures to find solutions to the problems the world may endear in the coming decades. As populations continue to grow and more people move into consumer classes, pressures on natural resources will inevitably be present unless there is a radical change in consumption patterns. At the heart of those affected will be poor rural farmers dependent on agriculture. As people in the ‘sustainable development’ field, we must recognize that there is a striking interconnectedness between human beings and the environment. Therefore, more action must be taken to make sure environmental and anti-poverty objectives are in line with each other, which will enhance poor people’s access to natural resource assets, provide security to livelihoods, better natural resource management mechanisms, and protect the biodiversity of the earths varying habitats.



Sara J. Scherr, “A downward spiral? Research evidence on the relationship between poverty and natural resource degradation”

Global Issues – Poverty and the Environment

Photo Credit: Flickr