Poverty and Environment Essay

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The relationship between poverty and environmental degradation is one of the more contentious areas of sustainable development. The conventional view, often dating back to colonial attitudes, has been that the poor are to blame for environmental degradation. To a great extent this standpoint has been implicitly or explicitly supported by development agencies such as the World Bank and United Nations (UN) and the findings of key development forums, such as the UN-appointed World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), which, in its 1987 report Our Common Future, brought to the fore the close causal links between environmental change and poverty:

[M]any parts of the world are caught in a vicious downward spiral; poor people are forced to overuse environmental resources to survive from day to day, and their impoverishment of their environment further impoverishes them, making their survival ever more uncertain and difficult.

Similar assertions have been reiterated at subsequent global conferences, such as the Rio Earth Summit (1992), various UN meetings, and the Johannesburg conference of 2002.

However, this somewhat deterministic representation, that the poor degrade their environments and in that case only increased income (at the individual level) or economic growth (at the national level) can lead to more sustainable interactions between people and the environment, has a number of shortcomings. On the one hand such a simplistic poverty-environmental degradation nexus ignores or diminishes the importance of contextual factors. Subsequently this second view, that there is a complex web of factors that result in environmental degradation, of which poverty is only one of many, tends toward examining relationships around resource access (e.g., assets, land, labor, credit, markets), institutions (e.g., land tenure systems, governance) and vulnerability (e.g., seasonal versus long term networks, entitlements). These structural issues may offer a more dynamic and holistic basis of analyzing people’s relationships (both poor and wealthy) with their environments as well as more constructive policy opportunities.

The Poverty-Environment Nexus

International development agencies have paid at least some attention to relationships between poverty and the environment for a number of years. Making environmental concerns a more central concern of poverty has, in large part, been driven by the desire of the international community to meet its poverty eradication targets set in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). But what is the relationship between natural resources and poverty (or wealth), and what is the impact of poverty (and the poor) on the environment? Despite earlier, enduring, discourses that blamed the poor for environmental degradation and pollution, there is little evidence that such a nexus exists on any significant scale.

Consequently, third world leaders and populations often suspect that governments and environmental movements of the West are trying (through the environment-poverty-development debate) to limit the way they can exploit their own environments, keeping them permanently poor. This was a basis for conflict between developing countries and the West at both the Rio and Johannesburg sustainable development summits. Developing countries have been typically skeptical of forms of sustainable development that aim to protect the environment ahead of the pressing needs of the poor, for example through the creation of conservation parks and marine reserves. For them, poverty, underdevelopment, and global inequality (resulting from unequal terms of trade) are the most pressing problems facing the world and these have to be tackled before environmental problems can be adequately and holistically addressed.

The poverty-environment nexus therefore has a number of contentious aspects. First, there is the view that poverty alleviation is a more serious problem than environmental protection. These views are accentuated by fundamental and significant inequalities in wealth and access to resources within nation states and globally. These inequalities mean that the question of sustainability is framed quite differently for people in different parts of the world: they have contrasting needs, aspirations, resources and constraints. For someone in the West, sustainable development is about securing and preserving an environment in which to enjoy a comfortable standard of living and that can be equally enjoyed by one’s descendants (intergenerational sustainability). It may also be about securing enough natural resources to offset global warming through protecting forests and large water bodies, often in developing countries (for example the Amazon basin). For someone below the poverty line in the third world, sustainable development may be about securing one’s individual and cultural livelihood and meeting basic needs, and natural resources use is an important means by which to do this.

Consequently, while some argue that poverty is closely linked to environmental degradation, for others increased utilization and exploitation of natural resources, at an even greater rate than today, is the only realistic strategy for meeting current needs and for future development. Forests, agricultural lands, fisheries, wetlands, and rivers all support the livelihoods of people and communities. In fact, some 70 percent of the world’s poor continue to live in rural areas and depend on their local environments for their daily survival.

Additional arguments suggest that environmental degradation causes human poverty. In other words, an environment with falling fish stocks, soil fertility, or forest cover can support fewer people. In urban areas degraded environments, primarily from unregulated industrial development and waste disposal, impact on urban communities living in marginal environments through exposure to polluted waterways, infectious and parasitic diseases, and other environmental and health hazards. Equally so these threats have as much to do with the governance of cities and the relative lack of power of the poor to demand provision of safe water, sewage and sanitation services, and access to social goods than poverty per se.

The poor are affected much more by environmental degradation and pollution, whether it emanates from their own communities or from the activities of others. A great amount of research has supported the observation that the poor are impacted by pollution and environmental degradation disproportionate to their contribution. Land degradation, desertification, flooding, and other hazards are more likely to impact on the poor, rather than the rich who are better serviced and often distant (or walled off in the case of cities) from degraded environments and industrialization. The poor’s greater exposure to the impacts of pollution is accentuated by their geographical and social position and relative lack of influence over politics and policy. They are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards in the workplace, the home, and in their neighborhoods. In third world cities the poor are less likely to have access to potable water, to have access to sewage and sanitation systems, and often do not have waste (both hazardous and nonhazardous) collected or disposed of safely. Even in wealthier Western cities research has shown that poorer urban citizens are more likely to live downwind of polluting industries and closer to sites of waste disposal.

Poverty and Degradation

There is also a strong argument for a reverse connection: That poverty is not just a symptom of environmental degradation but is also a cause: Poor people are forced to degrade their environment because they have no other means to survive. This occurs when poor people with limited access to land or other resources are forced to overexploit such resources as they do have to the point where there is long-term damage to the environment. People may be marginalized through environmental conditions, poor soils, remoteness, difficult terrain, a hazardous environment, or socioeconomic reasons, or their livelihoods may have been disrupted or destroyed through their own activities, or the activities and decisions of others (particularly if they are less powerful vis-a-vis other social groups). This can take many forms: cultivating land every year without adequate fallow periods; overgrazing with too many stock for a given area of land; overfishing so that stocks do not naturally regenerate; and settling and using marginal lands that easily erode or lose fertility. As Robert Chambers has noted:

Poor people in their struggle to survive are driven to doing environmental damage with long-term losses. Their herds overgraze; their shortening fallows on steep slopes and fragile soils induce erosion; their need for off-season incomes drives them to cut and sell firewood and to make and sell charcoal; they are forced to cultivate and degrade marginal and unstable land.

Such damage to the environment then leads to a situation where production falls in future years and fewer people can be supported, exacerbating the original problem of poverty. Poverty and the environment are therefore linked in a multidimensional relationship often referred to as the Poverty-Environmental Degradation Spiral. In this model poverty places unsustainable demands on local environments that lead to environmental damage resulting in resource depletion and declining productivity. Environmental degradation then serves to reinforce poverty, which leads to further environmental decline, and so on.

National-Level Poverty

We can consider these examples at the micro-level, with what individuals or communities do when faced with poverty and falling environmental carrying capacity. Yet these processes also work on a larger scale: Nations suffer from poverty as well as individuals. Countries with massive debt burdens and crippling debt servicing costs face a similar situation to individuals with restricted access to resources. In order to extricate themselves from poverty, they use available resources heavily (for example, by milling rain forests or giving liberal mining or fishing concessions to overseas companies). At a national level poorer countries are more likely to be exporters of resources (such as timber) and sinks for the dumping of hazardous and toxic wastes from wealthier ones. This also includes the greater possibility of high-polluting industries being relocated from countries with stricter environmental standards (typically more developed nations) to states with less environmental standards or laxer regulation (typically developing countries). The environmental costs of development are then transported from wealthy to poorer regions and countries.

Wealth and Degradation

It is important to note that poorer societies, and countries, have less of an impact on the environment that wealthier societies and states. Growth is necessary, it is suggested, in order to meet basic needs, but such growth need not be environmentally damaging. Focusing on the impact of the poor on the environment and the world’s resources obfuscates the fact that the wealthy use a disproportionate amount of the world’s water, energy, forestry, and food resources and, in turn, contribute the greater amount of waste that represents an ecological footprint far beyond the local scale-though research on wealth and environmental degradations across scales is less common.

In turn, promoting economic growth through exports based on monocrops as the answer to poverty and environmental degradation ignores the fact that the shift to more intensive large-scale farming (such as cotton, cocoa, and coffee) actually increases ecological impact and decreases benefits to poorer farmers and communities. Research has consistently shown that wealth and development has potentially greater environmental impacts than poverty and the poor.

The argument is often then made that a country’s environmental wealth is plundered and impoverished to meet an immediate need and prevent (depending on whether we are discussing households or whole countries) poverty or bankruptcy. Poor or developing countries may then be unlikely to fund environmental protection, regulation, or sustainable development initiatives that inhibit the attraction of industrial relocation or even resource extraction operations. However, in both cases, the actions of the wealthy are as important as poverty as an environmental issue.

There is, consequently, a strong case for focusing on the structural causes of poverty in order to better understand and address environmental issues. This involves a more inclusive addressing of causality at a range of scales, from local to regional and global. It also involves understanding a number of processes, whether they be ecological, social, economic, cultural, or political. For example, the environmental conditions that many poor urban communities face are related to a lack of access to infrastructure, services, affordable land, healthy localities, and a lack of inclusion in urban governance, than purely income.

A Sustainable Livelihoods Approach

A more dynamic approach to the poverty and environment debate is to focus on the factors that impact on people’s livelihoods. Recently development agencies and practitioners have refocused on supporting sustainable livelihoods as a means of reducing poverty and the impact of poverty on the environment. Communities around the world are able to lead rich, dignified, and fulfilling lives when they are in charge of their natural resources.

To many of these people, and particularly those who are considered “poor” in the economic sense of the word, a fulfilling life is about much more than simply money or possessions. It is about their access to and control over natural resources and their involvement in decision-making processes about these resources.

For the Bagyeli tribe in Cameroon, for example, the creation of protected areas on their ancestral territories has infringed upon their individual and collective rights, marginalizing and impoverishing them-despite external views that see the creation of protected parks as the basis for sustainability. They believe that any poverty reduction strategy proposed by the government or by external funding organizations must include their participation, and must be based on their collective right of access to land and forest resources. As one indigenous Bagyeli person exclaimed:

If you do not collect fruits, you cannot have soap; if you do not go fishing, you cannot eat salt; if you do not cultivate plantains to sell you cannot buy clothes. I am dirty and without clothes because I do not do anything. I have already been forbidden from entering the forest.

Among the more holistic and progressive ways to examine the poverty-development-environment nexus is the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA), which can be used for identifying where constraints or opportunities lie and for developing policy. It is a potentially useful tool for communities and policy makers alike as it views people as operating in a context of vulnerability. Within this context, they have access to certain assets or poverty reducing factors. These gain their meaning and value through the prevailing social, institutional and organizational environment. This environment also influences the livelihood strategies-ways of combining and using assets-that are open to people in pursuit of beneficial livelihood outcomes that meet their own livelihood objectives. The objective of the SLA is to support people’s livelihoods, increasing the sustainability of people’s livelihoods, as a means of eliminating poverty. This is best achieved through promoting more secure access to, and better management of, natural resources rather than excluding the poor from their sources of livelihood.

At a practical level, this means that an initiative must start with an analysis of people’s livelihoods and how these have been changing over time; fully involve people and respect their views; focus on the impact of different policy and institutional arrangements on people/households and on the dimensions of poverty they define (rather than on resources or overall output per se); stress the importance of influencing these policies and institutional arrangements so they promote the agenda of the poor (a key step is political participation by the poor themselves); bridge gaps between the macro and micro levels, recognize the importance of macro level policy/institutions to the livelihood options available at the micro level; and work to support people to achieve their own livelihood goals.

Another key element of the structural approach is the emphasis on social equity, justice, and liberation. Just as there are basic material needs for people, there are also fundamental social needs and considerations of injustice. Unjust societies are not sustainable societies because they rest on the exploitation or subordination of one group in society by another. Therefore, sustainable development is not possible within the context of an unjust society because large elements of that society cannot survive and function. This approach, then, places stress on the removal of injustices and inequalities within societies. Dealing with these injustices and inequalities is, to the oppressed or poor concerned, their most pressing development need. Talk of sustainability is meaningless when such conditions persist. Consequently, rather than focus on the (static) argument that poverty and the poor degrade the environment, sustainable development must incorporate notions of social justice and be directed at achieving sustainable societies (in an ideal world free of injustice and major inequalities) as a precondition for environmental sustainability. Writers from a political ecology framework argue that poverty and the environment are interrelated around issues of combating poverty, inequality, and injustice. These are essential steps to achieving sustainable development. Such a strategy aims to achieve not just environmental sustainability but also the sustainability of just and equitable societies.

At its most basic level, many of the debates over the poverty-environment nexus revolve around whether human or environmental needs are given priority and whether “development,” if it is defined as neo-liberal capitalism, can ever be sustainable. Effectively dealing with poverty, and addressing the causes of poverty, is fundamental to environmental sustainability. The poverty-environment nexus goes beyond a question of degradation and into issues of rights, access, entitlements, local institutions, property rights, and decision making power over the use of resources. The links between poverty and the environment are therefore likely to be context specific and most effectively examined at relevant spatial and social scales. Far from being a straightforward issue of the poor degrading the environment at unsustainable rates, a much more mutually dependent and dynamic relationship between poverty and the environment exists.


  1. Friends of the Earth International, Nature-Poor People’s Wealth: The Importance of Natural Resources in Poverty Eradication (Friends of the Earth International, 2005);
  2. Leslie Gray and William Moseley, “A Geographical Perspective on PovertyEnvironment Interactions,” The Geographical Journal (v.171/1, 2005);
  3. David Satterthwaite, “The Links between Poverty and the Environment in Urban Areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America,” Annals, The American Academy of Political and Social Science (v.590, 2003);
  4. World Resources Institute, World Resources 2005: The Wealth of the Poor-Managing Ecosystems to Fight Poverty (World Resources Institute, 2005).

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