Discursive analysis of poverty nexus environmental degradation-What the poor need is environmental Justice.


 By Abdoukarim Sanneh, London

 There have been critical and some controversial debate in academia surrounding poverty and environmental degradation nexus between various predominate school of thought. Some blame the poor for causing environmental degradation. In the Bruntland Commission Report of The World Commission in Environment and Development title our common Future (1987) seen in many circle as the blueprint of sustainable development, explicitly stated poverty is the major cause of environmental degradation and addressing  poverty requires effective environmental protection. Another school of thought stated that the causal link is too simplistic and nexus of poverty/environment literature that established the link should be review (Duraiappah, 1996).

Poverty reduction and environmental degradation are tremendous and persistent development challenges of this century (Millennium Development Goals, 2000; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). The poor are most often blame for causing environmental problem (Duraiappah, 1996). Environment of the rich and environment of the poor are worlds apart (Hollander, 2003).It is estimated that billions don’t have enough food to eat. They depend on the environment as a means source of livelihood. Many of these people live in sub- Saharan Africa and Asia and are involved in small-scale farming, forestry, fishery etc. For these people the environment have only one meaning and purpose for them and that is source of food, shelter to survive and reproduce (Hollander, 2003).

Economic figures indicated that world economic have growth in GDP per-capita since after the Second World War. This growth has lifted many into lives of unprecedented luxury and the cost have been the degradation of ecosystem, a cost borne disproportionately by the world’s poor in developing countries (Turner and Fisher, 2008). The nexus of environmental degradation and poverty is severe in many developing countries. The aim of this essay is evaluate and analysis the linkages between poverty and environmental degradation. In the world of poor people don’t enjoy food security, have no asset, are stunted and wasted, are unable to save, have no access to credit, don’t trade with the rest of world, live in unhealthy environment and are poorly governed (Kates and Dasgupta, 2007).

 Elicit linkages between poverty and environment degradation in developing countries, one fundamental issue that always features in the debate is the demographic pressure on land. Land use practices are very essential for eco-system services such as food, fibre, shelter and fresh water. Neo-Malthusian school of thought argued that increasing population pressure in developing countries is the cause of environmental degradation. Population growth is a key catalyst of poverty-led environmental degradation especially in marginal lands(Anderson and Rajul, 1995).Rapid population growth diminishes land sizes and fallow period are shorter resulting  in land degradation and vicious cycle of poverty (Ruijs et al, 2008; Anderson and Rajul, 1995).It is a fact that population is putting pressure on ecological resources. For example like Rwanda with high population density and agriculture been the major source of livelihood, land fragmentation and land degradation is major environmental problem. In the developed countries unsustainable pattern of consumption and production consumption of resources put more demand on fossil fuel energy leading to ozone depletion and global warming. ‘Meeting the basic human need of growing populations is dependent on a healthy environment, demographic factors combined with poverty and lack of access to resources in some areas, and excessive consumption and wasteful production patterns in others, cause or exacerbate problems of environmental degradation’ (UNFPA, 2011).

Critic in post development school of thought argued about the problematization of poverty and when and how it evolutes into development discourse.  Problematization of poverty according to post development school of thought embraces the Neo-Malthusian school of thought. It sees people as burdens rather than blessing and casually misleading world population (Corbridge, 1998). The development theory of modernisation as a discourse view poverty as the cause of environmental degradation. They failed to realise that it the structural inequalities which is caused by economic relation between developing and developed countries, is the heart of the problems, there is poverty and environmental problems in developed countries, but that of developing countries is deepening (Davidson et al, 1992).

Poverty and environmental degradation is associated with debt and trade. Many poor countries are indebted and because of debt burden, their national resources are been mortgage into servicing debt.  In this instance, the people are pushed into poverty by the action of their governments to deal with debt servicing which in effect cumulate to rising prices and lower income, and their daily struggle for survival put pressure on the fragile ecosystem (Davidson et al, 1992). For example European Union trade and fishing policy with West African Countries is leading to depletion of fish stocks and impacting livelihood of small fishermen. European states capture of the lion’s share of West African fisheries resources will lead to lead collapse of the fish stocks due to over-fishing, the consequences are weakened ecosystem; the costs of these ecologically unsound policies are borne by the present and future inhabitants of some of the world’s poorest countries (Ilnycky, 2007).

Debt servicing has put pressure on forest resources in many developing countries where forest resources contribute significant proportion of the GDP. It leads to increase in issuing logging license for production of timber for export, privatisation of public forest to multinational corporations for logging and mining to meet the country’s balance of payment deficit and thus increasing the threat of deforestation.  Many of these instances led to increase in deforestation, force eviction of indigenous population from the land, social exclusion and marginalisation of the poor due to corporate takeover and business as usual. Green Peace UK (2007), stated that  Congo rain forest is second largest to Amazon, millions of people depend on forest eco-system for their livelihood, but in spite of that, its natural wealth about 20 million hectares lost through logging with license issues to international logging companies  and thus causing social chaos and environmental havoc. World Bank internal investigation stated that  the bank is culprit in the destruction and  endangering the lives of pygmies with the imposition forestry reform which encouraged foreign companies to log in return for loans of more than $450 million to Congo (Vidal, 2007).

Climate change is currently threat to human civilization. Unsustainable consumption and production of resources in rich industrialized countries is one of the contributors to emission of green house gases into the atmosphere. Climate change is threatening food security in many developing countries because of drought. For example climate change and rapid growth are among the many factors contributing to the current drought and famine in the Horn of Africa which affected more than 12 million people (UNFPA, 2011). Climate change set to create environmental refugees. People will be forced to move from their home because of rising sea level and temperature and among which are the planet vulnerable poor (Environmental Justice Foundation, 2009). The fact and figures according to EJF report 2009, indicated that because of climate change, 12 million people live in poverty, 26 million are already been displaced, 250 million are confronting desertification, 508 million in water-related stress and scarcity and 2.8 billion live in areas prone to more than one physical manifestation such as storms, floods, drought and sea level rise.

Rich or poor, access to safe drinking water is a determinant to human rights. It determines a life with dignity but a significant numbers of people on earth are living under chronic water shortage.  Depletion of water resource is a major environmental issue. The dimensions of water problems are quite different in rich developed countries and poor-developing countries. For example in United Kingdom government have set up priorities for ground water management to protect national assets (Hollander, 2003). In poor countries water supply and water quality have been a limiting factor to socio-economic development and the estimates are that it is only 30 to 40 percent of the people have access to fresh water (Hollander, 2003). Apart from access to safe drinking water, basic sanitation is another environmental health issues in developing countries. For example water-borne diseases such as malaria, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and every year take the life of millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa because of poor environmental hygiene and sanitation. Environmental issues and health issues are all because of the consequence of poverty (Hollander, 2003).

Hunger, malnutrition and famine are real issues of ecological imbalance in developing countries facing million of people. Most often narrow arguments about famine and hunger blame the poor for their high fertility rate. Neo-Malthusian school of thought associate decline in food availability to excessive rate of fertility: increase population causing overused of land, reducing soil fertility and cover and thus setting condition for drought and famine (Adams, 2001). Population debate narrowly looks into poverty-induced environmental degradation thesis. Environment degradation, food shortage and famine most be understood in the context of production, social organisation, national political economy and international political economy that  is shape by neo-colonialism and dependency (Adams, 2001). For example agricultural economies of many developing countries depend on cash crop production with associate farming practices of mono-cropping for export market. For many arid and semi-arid countries like Mali, Gambia and Senegal, colonialism led to the introduction of groundnut, cotton and other cash crops. The production of these crops is still the export base of the national agricultural economy. Intensive production these crops on marginal land and their high demand on agro-chemical is a contributory to the lost of fertile topsoil through soil erosion.

Poor people depend heavily on natural resource for their basic needs, such as food, energy, water and housing. Their livelihood is closely tied to the wellbeing of these resources and its conservation. They have a coping mechanism and resilience even in the worst case scenario. For years they use their indigenous knowledge to conserve soil and water resources; use different crop varieties that resist against drought, practice intercropping and crop rotation to increase their productivity even while the environmental degradation reduces crop yields (Davidson et al, 1992). Poverty is not the cause to environmental degradation but factors that accelerate environmental degradation in the developing countries. The damage cause by environmental degradation is the result of poor people responding to their poverty through means of survival (Davidson et al, 1992 Hollander, 2003). Intercropping and crop rotation is part of the farming practices in Sahel region of West Africa such as Mali, Senegal and Gambia. With erratic rainfall pattern and encroaching desertification, the small holder farmers practice either intercropping, mixed cropping with animal husbandry or rotating their cropping pattern for resilience to drought as a coping mechanism, to improve the fertility of the top soil and increase their house food security. This practices of mixed farming, crop rotation, inter-cropping help to increase soil fertility. With their indigenous knowledge, they rotate nitrogen demanding and nitrogen fixing crops, and also they practice animal husbandry to increase the fertility of the soil with the use of animal manure given that most cannot afford expensive agro-chemicals.

Food insecurity in much part of developing countries is related to environmental degradation. The erratic rainfall pattern and erosion of fertile top soil are environmental factors that impact on house-hold food security and nutrition. Access to food is basic human rights.  In the quest for food security, the rural poor sometimes have little choice but to overuse the limited available natural asset. These result in environmental degradation which further constraints on their livelihood. Degradation of a particular farmland or soil erosion or shorter period of fallow directly affect household food security, because declining soil fertility lead to lower crop yield. The strategy vision of many national agricultural development programmes in developing countries is to achieve food self sufficiency.  Poor countries face food insecurity if their agricultural system failed or if their export cannot pay for their food (Davidson at al, 1992). In achieving food self sufficiency developing countries are constraint by many inter-related factors.  The dumping of cheap food produced in developed rich countries as a result of subsides and income support for their farmers , the introduction of large-scale export agricultural production which brought with it environmental problems and so vulnerable to fluctuation in the international market (Davidson et al, 1992). For example the introduction of groundnut and cotton as cash crop in West Africa.

Poverty-induced environmental degradation is a prevailing reality. It is been established that the poor are agents and victims of environmental degradation. There is a positive relationship between rural poverty, fertility and environmental degradation. It is not poverty that is the cause of environmental degradation but institutional failures the root of which is international capitalism. The condition of poorest people in many part of developing countries have not improved while the gap between the rich world and the poor world keep widening. Unsustainable consumption and production of resources in developed countries cannot be separated from the problem when it comes to climate change debate.

Environment at global and local level both in developed and developing countries aims at increasing economic growth measured in GDP per capita which normally don’t taken into account externalities such environmental degradation. Every country wants to increase its Gross Domestic Product and for poor countries they turn their natural asset into servicing debt. Developed countries have specialise diversify economic such as financial sector, manufacturing, construction, service industry etc which have put the people off the land. The poor countries have no choice but to exploit their natural asset for their livelihood.

 Environmental degradation is an impediment of economic development.  People remain poor because of the unjust distribution of wealth and power within their own societies and economic development policies impose upon their governments. For example neoliberal structural adjustment policies in Africa in 1980’s have impact on poor and the environment.

In many instance the poor are blame for their increasing population. But equating number with resource depletion is misleading. Developed Countries have lower fertility rate when compare to developing countries but yet their ecological or carbon footprint is greater than that of the developing countries.

Agricultural development programmes in many developing countries in Africa and Asia is geared towards export-led agricultural production at the expense of food security. In many of these countries the model of development has not address issues of poverty and structural inequalities. Increase in export-led agricultural production for world market is a contributory factor to the trend of environmental degradation in many of these countries.

Massive debt burden is a major cause of environmental degradation that have put poor to continue to live on the edge. The developed rich world also has their fair share of poverty and environmental degradation but poverty in developing countries is deepening and dehumanising. At the centre of this deepening poverty and environmental degradation is debt burden. Environmental resource in many countries is mortgage into servicing debt.

Neo-Malthusian assumptions about environmental degradation and the role of human in causing really misrepresent the fact. The world faces two contrasting crisis poverty and environmental degradation in developing countries and also unsustainable consumption and production of resources in rich developed countries. They are inter-related and link. It is clear that environmental problem in developing countries cannot be solve without addressing issues of structural inequality national and international. What the poor need most are environmental justice and the blame for causing environmental degradation.


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