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The environment, the wealth of the poor?

The poor and the rich share at least one inescapable common fate: they live on the same planet and depend on the same natural resources for their survival. But rich and poor live in two separate worlds. The poor, who to a large extent operate outside the money-based economy, have (especially in rural areas) close ties with the environment. The rich, who “create” and use the money-based economy, exploit the resources of the environment without really being part of it. There is consequently a fundamental opposition in the approach of rich and poor to the environment, one category contributing with varying degrees of violence to the destruction of our natural habitat, the other depending on it simply to survive.
By Bakary Kanté

The rich do not only opt to live at some distance from the poor. They also tend to distance themselves from the environment.
With money they can buy services to mitigate the environmental damage caused by economic activities, filtering water and purifying air, for instance. But none of that is possible without money. For the poor, nature offers a series of goods of inestimable value, on which they depend absolutely: that sums up their life. Environmental damage, which often only represents a financial loss for the rich, is a much more serious matter for the poor, leading to the loss of their livelihood.

Until now, little has been done to protect the natural environment in poor areas, the excuse being that improving the living conditions of the poor improves the environment too. International agencies have therefore focused much of their attention on the social and economic aspects of the fight against poverty. But no-one pays a higher price – in time, energy, health, etc. – for environmental damage than the poor. In fact, protecting their natural surroundings is every bit as urgent as solving other problems.

The greatest source of concern is that in an extraordinarily rich world, poverty should persist at all. None of the agreements resulting from the Uruguay Round (within the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, gatt) caters for even the most basic demands of underprivileged peoples. The World Bank has encouraged developing countries to draw up poverty reduction strategies – formal frameworks for increasing international funds available to programmes supporting the poor. This initiative only addresses a small part of the problem however. The question of complementary actions that need to be taken to combat poverty is still an urgent priority.

It is common practice to define poverty exclusively in financial terms. Yet someone surviving on one or two dollars a day in a run-down environment may well be far worse off than someone else, without any income at all, but living on fertile land. We are not trying to idealise poverty or the non-monetary means of subsistence available to the poor, but we should try to convince people that alternative solutions do exist.

The challenge facing us is to make two fundamentally different perceptions of the environment coexist. One category sees the environment as a natural asset, a resource to be exploited for profit, taking into account the fact that taken together, the natural and human assets must remain constant. For the other category, the environment is an invaluable
source of subsistence, which must be exploited but also protected so that it remains renewable and consequently permanent.

We must focus our efforts on boosting the skills of vulnerable populations, while taking into account their deep-rooted understanding and experience of their natural habitat, to protect it. This should not come as a surprise. They know better than anyone else what is invaluable in nature and what can be reasonably exploited for economic ends.

In recent years the links between poverty and the environment have been a key concern of the un Environment Programme (unep). The studies it has already completed demonstrate how important environmental factors are in the fight against poverty. If we fail to integrate ecosystem usage and protection in our poverty reduction strategies they will be doomed to failure.

Perhaps one dollar per person per day is not enough to cover all the costs of providing fresh air, water and food, education and medical care. But in places where food and water can already be obtained from the natural environment, and social cohesion prevails, people might actually feel richer on a dollar a day.

Bakary Kanté is Director of the Division of Environmental Policy Development and Law (dpdl) in the United Nations Environment Programme (unep) in Nairobi.

Translated by Harry Forster.

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