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Environmentalism as the Pathway from Poverty

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A report released today by World Resources Institute challenges conventional approaches by environmentalists and economists in the battle against poverty. The Wealth of the Poor: Managing Ecosystems to Fight Poverty stresses the urgent need to look beyond aid projects, debt relief, and trade reform and focus on local natural resources to address the crisis of poverty in all parts of the globe.

According to the report:

Ecosystems are -- or can be -- the wealth of the poor. For many of the 1.1 billion people living in severe poverty, nature is a daily lifeline -- an asset for those with few other material means. This is especially true for the rural poor, who comprise three-quarters of all poor households worldwide. Harvests from forests, fisheries, and farm fields are a primary source of rural income, and a fall-back when other sources of employment falter. But programs to reduce poverty often fail to account for the important link between environment and the livelihoods of the rural poor. As a consequence, the full potential of ecosystems as a wealth-creating asset for the poor -- not just a survival mechanism -- has yet to be effectively tapped.

The well-researched report finds that environmental groups haven’t adequately addressed poverty and development groups haven’t considered the environment enough in the past. That’s not news -- there’s been a disconnect between these two worlds for decades. But WRI deftly connects the dots -- showing how natural resources -- soils, forests, water, fisheries -- managed at the local level are frequently the most effective means for the rural poor people to create wealth for themselves.

The book offers dozens of case studies. Control over restoring 700,000 local acres of denuded forests and grazing lands was given by the Tanzanian government to the Sukuma people and they now have higher household incomes, better diets, as well as increased populations of tree, bird, and mammal species. . . . Ucunivanua villagers in Fiji were given control by the government of clam beds and coastal waters, and because of local restrictions placed on fishing, mangrove lobster and harvestable clam populations have increased dramatically. . . . In India, community control over the watershed has led to a nearly six-fold increase in the cash value of crops grown in Darewadi Village. And so it goes.

The book makes clear that globalization -- the economic solution hyped by free-traders as the solution to global poverty -- is not the solution, since its benefits typically bypass rural areas in developing countries while it concentrates wealth inside cities. Nearly half of the world's six-billion people live on less than $2 per day, and three-quarters of them live in rural areas that depend overwhelmingly on natural resources for their income. When these ecosystems become degraded, as many have over the past 50 years, they are unable to provide the fuel for economic development that can boost the rural poor beyond subsistence and into the mainstream of national economies.

The Wealth of the Poor is a stark reminder of the role of the environment in alleviating poverty, and further underscores the connection between healthy economies, healthy people, and a healthy environment. And it shows that the much-vaunted business opportunities available by providing goods and services to those at the “base of the pyramid” requires caring not just for the people, but for the land that feeds them.