Environmental Income Can Help Reduce Poverty -- A Guest Commentary

A common complaint I hear again and again is that environmental groups ignore the economy. "You can't take care of the environment unless you have a strong economy," is the standard refrain.

A common complaint I hear again and again is that environmental groups ignore the economy. "You can't take care of the environment unless you have a strong economy," is the standard refrain.

This line is often used as a justification to pursue just about any development, regardless of its environmental impact. And it's often used as a club against those who seek to protect natural areas in the developing world, as though industries are simply seeking to better the lives of the poor in these areas, while environmental groups want to hold them back.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Alleviating poverty is an important environmental goal too. I have often said if my family was starving and I saw an endangered plant or animal we could eat, I 'd have to kill it and bring to back to my family for food.

Still, the argument is tempting in its simplicity. How else can we improve the lot of the poor if not by merely exploiting the natural resources where they live? A new report, The Wealth of the Poor, backed by the United Nations and the World Bank helps explain how. It argues that linking aid to environmental protection is one of the most effective ways to reducepoverty.

According to the report, economic-development programs have largely ignored rural populations in developing countries, which make up three-quarters of the world's poor. These people more than any other rely most directly on natural resources and services, yet they face increasing pressures on these services from outside forces. Fish stocks, for example, are dwindling in developing countries as industrial fleets mine the seas to feed wealthier people in the developed world. This economic activity might increase the developing nation's GDP in the short term, but it actually reduces the capacity of local people to earn a living over the long term.


In other words, many of the current models of economic development are ill-suited to rural areas because they fail to take into account the connection between the people and the planet. But more than that, The Wealth of the Poor argues that natural resources and services, rather than just being basic survival mechanisms, can actually be wealth-creating assets if they are effectively managed. This "environmental income" can act as a stepping stone to economically empower the rural poor.

Central to tapping into that wealth is the need to bring local resources under local control. Examples have shown that such measures can succeed where international industrialization schemes have failed. For example, communities in Fiji have increased the abundance of fish in their waters when they strictly restricted fishing to certain areas. And land reforms based on local community co-operation in northern Tanzania have led to reforestation in degraded areas that now provide food and fuel for local people.

Unfortunately, such examples are few because the vast majority of poverty-reduction schemes are not grounded in local people and their environment. Natural services are often ignored as though they have no value and the poor suffer the most when these services are degraded. If we want to improve the lot of the rural poor, that has to change.

It's true that environmental organizations have not paid enough attention to poverty. But it's much more glaring that economic development plans have paid so little attention to the environment. For too long there has been a disconnect between science and economics. The fact is, we all depend on natural services and resources for our survival and for the wealth of goods we currently enjoy. And if we don't take care of those natural systems, we will all end up much poorer.

Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.