POVERTY AND ENVIRONMENT
According to the World Bank, nearly 1.3 billion people live in marginalized areas, i.e. in a state of ecologic vulnerability, which results in a condition of heavy reliance on natural resources
Verónica Cordero Arroyo
Verónica has a bachelor's in economics from the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador and a master's in climate change and environmental negotiation from the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar. She has led research and consulting projects related to environmental project evaluation. Some of her noteworthy research includes the relation between poverty and climate change. She currently teaches economic theory and environmental economics at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador.
The definition of poverty is ambiguous in some cases, as it depends on its interpretation and the method employed for its measurement. Broadly speaking, it could be said that it relates to people or families lacking the requisite attributes to cease being poor (Alcock, 1997). Thus, the relation of the poor with the environment is worth noting, which, in turn, requires that poverty be redefined as a multidimensional aspect and concepts such as welfare, capacities, rights, among others be included. The interpretation of the environment requires reconsideration as well; it cannot be viewed solely as our physical surroundings as human interaction is also a part thereof. In other words, it is a complex setting whose interactions are valuable to humans and the planet (Buckall et al, 2000).
The World Bank contends that approximately 1.3 billion people live in marginalized areas, i.e., ecologically vulnerable, which has resulted in a heavy reliance on natural resources. In these cases, there is a closer relation with nature, which is important for various reasons (social, cultural and economic in nature) and therefore it must be preserved. Then, in the event of an environmental change, the poor are more prone to suffer losses. Markets and the expansion of cities has pressured those with less resources to settle in high-risk areas around cities. This situation has brought about a greater marginalization of the poor population, which has even sparked debates on environmental justice and resistance to certain political and urban planning processes (Pellow, 2003).
The relation with the environment in rural areas is more prominent as the poor rely heavily on agriculture, and the physical and environmental capital they possess. In countries where the rural poor have little access to the earth or own small plots of land, the poor are unable to produce enough for on-farm consumption, and thus their income depends on the exploitation of natural resources as they do not have the opportunities to generate it (Buckall et al, 2000).
The use of soil, population density and level of income create an important relation between vulnerability and poverty which explains why the impacts on these groups of people are greater (Wisner et al, 2003). Vulnerability should be understood not only as the exposure to a natural risk, but also as something that involves social and economic factors which, in a global context, determine the conditions of a population when faced by a natural event or threat. When a natural disaster takes place, the impact is felt by all of those inhabiting exposed areas, vulnerability on the other hand evinces social differences (Blaikie et al, 1996).
Various authors consider vulnerability as a synonym of poverty (Chambers, 2006), however, vulnerability must not be interpreted as equal to poverty. It bears noting that vulnerability does not entail the lack of something but rather defenselessness or exposure to a threat. The main relation between vulnerability and poverty is its association with various dimensions of deprivation such as physical weakness, isolation, lack of power and low income; all of which serve to exacerbate existing vulnerability.
Wisner et al (2003) contend that there are three reasons for different levels of vulnerability. Population density; the segment of the population with a higher income is smaller than the poorer population. Thus, a flood in a high-income neighborhood will result in less affected people than in a low-income neighborhood, examples include Oakland, Berkeley (San Francisco) and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. This first criterion explains the greater number of victims resulting from a disaster in developing nations. The population density is a deciding factor for actions and responses in the event of an emergency. The second point is use of soil. For the wealthy, use is voluntary. The wealthy are usually aware of the risks involved and can prepare for them, as they have sufficient resources to build a protection infrastructure. An example of this is the Paraná Delta, where high urbanization in recent years resulted in the construction of large, exclusive luxury housing complexes on the wetlands. While exposed to floods and natural risks, homeowners have the resources to cope with the impact of nature. This, however, has resulted in environmental pressures, the destruction of the wetlands and other social impacts that has displaced the population living off the environmental resources in that area (Wetlands International, 2014). Lastly, insurance allows the “wealthy” to take certain risks that poor households cannot. The economic impact of a flood or landslide is not the same for both, as those insured can recover the capital invested and the losses are borne by the insurance companies. Poor households cannot recoup their losses, which results in a worsening of their situation of poverty and causes a poverty trap. In other words, poor households are less resilient as they have no contingencies in place to cope with the risks to which they are exposed.
The economic policies of any country aim to generate economic growth and development for its population as this is thought to improve the welfare of the population. However, the quality of said growth is key to understanding the relation between the environment and poverty as many countries have succeeded in improving living conditions at the expense of environmental degradation, thus sentencing certain social groups to poverty. The construction of indicators that consider the environment as a core of analysis is paramount for decision-making. Strictly economic poverty indexes (e.g. GDP) do not reflect the quality of life of the population as they consider a single variable: income. They quantify the amount of goods produced in a country, without considering distribution, quality, access and other qualitative aspects (Mankiw, 2012). Greater income does not entail better environmental quality or less pollution, as some models, such as the Kuznets curve, suggest (Antonia n.d.). Wealthy societies also pollute as they require a greater amount of energy and resources, and their consumption will be that much greater given their higher income (Martinez, 2009).
If economics in its current state continues to overlook the environment and the degradation processes, poverty will never be eradicated. The damage will be relegated to those sectors with less capabilities to react, thus worsening their situation. If the current economic paradigm continues to ignore the environment, a healthy environment will slowly become a positional good, where access thereto will be limited to those who can afford or have rights to it. The only alternative is to foster sustainable development, which goes beyond economic growth and incorporates criteria such as carrying or supportive capacity, and design adequate policies which reduce wealth and income inequality.
It should not be interpreted that the poor do not contaminate, clearly they do, but unlike what traditional economics suggests, achieving overall economic growth will not reduce environmental harm or poverty. Growth on its own does not guarantee the elimination of social gaps and inequalities, and while they continue to exist, neither poverty nor the inadequate use of natural resources will be solved. Entire peoples have been displaced by the destruction of tropical rainforests; these social conflicts have been compounded by the inadequate distribution and poor management of land (Jacobs, 1995). The poor are capable of putting forward proposals and mechanisms for environmental protection, such as collective action where demographic, economic and environmental impacts are minimized. The relation between human activities and environmental degradations in poor areas is often misinterpreted or misunderstood, as environmental pressure and harm is considered to be a result of poverty; this is not entirely true as the existence of external and market pressures that bring about the degradation of resources (Forsyth and Leach 1998).
In light of the above, the implementation of strategies for the improvement of environmental quality will contribute to the reduction of poverty and bettering of living conditions. Buckall et al (2000) contend that environment protection actions can contribute to the reduction of poverty, and that livelihoods and subsistence strategies developed by the poor need be included in the analysis. The World Bank (2002) states that by implementing strategies that consider the poverty-environment relation, a contribution to achieving the millennium development goals (MDG) is made.
To conclude, it can be held that poverty reduction strategies implemented by countries must include the conditions in which the poor live, their livelihoods and how they can adapt to the impacts and natural changes in such a way that allows them to achieve better living conditions without endangering nature.
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