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University of Rhode Island — Environmental & Natural Resource Economics
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Poverty and Sustainability

“Reducing poverty and achieving sustained development must be done in conjunction with a healthy planet. […] environmental sustainability is part of global economic and social well-being. Unfortunately exploitation of natural resources such as forests, land, water, and fisheries-often by the powerful few-have caused alarming changes in our natural world in recent decades, often harming the most vulnerable people in the world who depend on natural resources for their livelihood.” (End Poverty 2015 Millenium Campaign)

Most of us are concerned with protecting rainforests, conserving wildlife habitat, maintaining biodiversity, preserving endangered species and reducing global carbon emissions. But there are also important concerns about problems such as global poverty and world hunger.

In many places of the world, people who live in abject poverty are forced to over-use natural resources in order to survive. But this destruction of the environment leads to a vicious cycle that hurts the poor in the longer term, and is sometimes referred to as the “poverty trap”. For example, thousands of square miles of tropical rainforest cut down every year to establish slash-and-burn agriculture that is inherently unsustainable. Ash from the burned forest vegetation releases nutrients to grow crops. But soon the nutrients are depleted, the thin soils erode, and the farms are often abandoned after a few years. The rainforest never returns, and instead the land reverts to scrub or grasslands, releasing carbon to the atmosphere and adversely effecting wildlife habitat, biodiversity, watersheds, soils and water cycles. Any agricultural benefits to the poor are only in the very short run, and the damage to the environment only makes circumstances worse for the poor.

Small scale farmers in Africa expand their fields, encroaching on wildlife habitat. The poor soils erode away, and the runoff clogs streams, lakes and estuaries. The loss of productive cropland means that farmers must clear yet more land to feed their families. This is a vicious cycle that further encroaches on wildlife habitat, and contributes to deforestation and desertification. This is not a sustainable way to produce food, and it simply leads to even deeper levels of poverty.

“Poverty and environmental degradation are linked in a vicious cycle in which the poor people cannot afford to take proper care of the environment since they have no alternative but to use environmental resources unsustainably for their basic survival. [..]To address poverty and curb environmental damage, more attention should be paid to degraded environments, promoting public expenditure, empowering communities and building their capacity to own and manage initiatives aimed at improving their wellbeing.”

- Sola Lovemore and Zimbabwe Harare, Impact of Poverty on the Environment in Southern Africa, 2001, Sothern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN)

Economists have developed new approaches that protect the environment AND help to alleviate poverty. If interested in reading more about this topic, click on the headings below:


For more information on this hot topic check out the following websites: