The environment is particularly important to poor people. They rely on it for subsistence and employment and suffer disproportionately from disease and premature death if it is degraded. They are more vulnerable to natural disasters and are often driven from good land to marginal areas. By Ma. Sn.
The links between the environment and poverty are complex. They are affected by a variety of factors: global to local institutional arrangements, policies, markets, gender relations, property rights, access to technology and information (1). The wealthy are only 20 percent of the world’s population but they consume 70 to 80 percent of it’s resources: most institutional arrangements accomodate the wealthy at the expense of the poor (2). For example, Subsidies that favor upper and middle income consumers are particularly damaging to poor people since they overexploit important natural resources and degrade land that the poor depend on. This degradation can in turn cause malnourishment (low agricultural yields), displacement (ecological and economic migration) and inadequate education (children may leave school to help support their families).
The figure (see right) describes four key links between poverty and the environment (3, 4), although interrelations are far more complex and need further research:
Link 1: Poor people rely on natural resources for subsistence and employment (see pages 8 and 9). The poorest are often landless laborers who depend on soil, fish and other natural resources for food and income. But large companies and states that cater to consumer needs of urban and industrial centers often deny poor people access to these resources or allow resources to become degraded.
Link 2: Poor people are more likely to be exposed to polluted water and air, which cause illness and premature death (see pages 10 and 11). Many poor people live in or close to factories that pollute the air and water. Disease (cholera, malaria) frequently removes people from the workforce for long periods and can even result in premature death. Respiratory infections and water-borne diseases (due to the low quality of air or water) are one of the biggest causes of death among the poor.
Link 3: Poor people are more vulnerable to environmental disasters and changing climate (see pages 12 and 13). They suffer more losses, injuries and deaths from natural disasters than the rest of the population since they are more likely to live in unsafe housing and in areas prone to disasters such as floods, landslides and drought. For example, in 1992 a cyclone caused 100,000 deaths in Bangladesh, whereas only 32 died in a cyclone of similar magnitude in the U.S. (5). The impacts of global climate change – that could include declining water supplies, poor harvests and increased spread of disease – will further affect poor people who already live in areas susceptible to disease and have few savings, food and other assets (to sell and consume) to help them cope in the event of fluctuating climates and extreme weather.
Link 4: Many poor people have illdefined land rights (see pages 14 and 15). If they had secure land tenure, companies or states would not be able to drive these poor people – who have proved careful guardians of natural resources – from the land they live on. Access to information and technology would also help them secure the land or natural resources they rely on.