The link between environment and poverty reduction is strong. Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the importance of a sound environment to sustainable livelihoods has been widely acknowledged, particularly for the rural poor in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (UN 1992; UN 2002:2). Income derived from the environment is a major constituent of the livelihoods of the rural poor, and this direct dependence on nature does not appear to be decreasing.
The environment is also a source of vulnerability. Environmental factors contribute substantially to the burden of ill-health the poor suffer. In addition, low-income families are especially vulnerable to natural disasters and environment-related risks such as the growing impacts of global climate change. As these environment-poverty links have become clear, major development institutions and donors have begun to make the environment a more central feature of their efforts to tackle poverty (USAID et al. 2002; Duraiappah 2004; UK DFID et al. 2002; UK DFID 1999; UNDP and EC 1999; World Bank 2001b).
Natural resources play a vital role in the livelihoods of the poor
Poor rural families make use of a variety of sources of income and subsistence activities to make their livings. Many of these are directly based on nature – like small-scale farming and livestock-rearing, fishing, hunting, and collecting of firewood, herbs, or other natural products. These may be sold for cash or used directly for food, heat, building materials, or innumerable other household needs. This “environmental income” is added to other income sources such as wage labor and remittances sent from family members who have emigrated. The decline of natural systems through soil depletion, deforestation, overexploitation, and pollution represents a direct threat to nature-based income and is a contributor to increasing poverty. (See Chapter 2 for a thorough discussion of how ecosystems contribute to the livelihoods of the poor.)
Common pool natural resources are a key source of subsistence
The poor make extensive use of goods collected from lands or waters over which no one individual has exclusive rights – resources known generally as common pool resources (CPRs) or simply the “commons” (Jodha 1986:1169; Ostrom 1990:30). Common pool resources exist in many different ecosystems and under a variety of public or community ownership regimes. Typical examples include village pastures, state or community forests, waste lands, coastal waters, rivers, lakes, village ponds, and the like (Jodha 1986:1169).
Materials gleaned from CPRs consist of a wide range of items for personal use and sale including food, fodder, fuel, fiber, small timber, manure, bamboos, medicinal plants, oils, and building materials for houses and furniture. Fish, shellfish, seaweed, and other items harvested from coastal waters, rivers, and other aquatic environments are also of major importance to the poor. Nearly all rural families – both rich and poor – benefit from CPR income, but it is particularly important to landless households, for whom it provides a major fraction of total income. Researchers estimate that common pool resources provide about 12 percent of household income to poor households in India – worth about $5 billion a year, or double the amount of development aid that India receives (Beck and Nesmith 2001:119).
When access to common pool resources is unrestricted, as it is often is, it is difficult to keep them from being overexploited. Degradation of open access resources in the form of overfishing, deforestation, and overgrazing is an increasing burden on the poor – a trend that leads away from wealth.
Natural resources are vital social safety nets during lean times
Natural resources play a key role as a subsistence source of last resort in times of economic decline and when other food supplies are constrained. In southeastern Ghana, for example, recession and drought in 1982 and 1983 coincided with the normal lean season – the time before harvest when food supplies are naturally low. During this lean season, the poorest households depended on the “bush” for 20 percent of their food intake, compared to the highest income bracket, for which the bush provided only 2 percent of the household food intake. Women and children in particular relied on wild products such as roots, fibers, leaves, bark, fruit, seeds, nuts, insects, and sap. Men also hunted and trapped small mammals, reptiles, and birds (Dei 1992:67).
Environmental factors add to the health burden of the poor
Environmental risks such as unclean water, exposure to indoor air pollution, insect-borne diseases, and pesticides account for almost a quarter of the global burden of disease, and an even greater proportion of the health burden of the poor (Cairncross et al. 2003:2; Lvovsky 2001:1).
The poor are far more likely to be exposed to environmental health risks than the rich by virtue of where they live. They also have much less access to good health care, making their exposure more damaging. In turn, poor health is an important obstacle to greater income and a contributor to diminished well-being in every dimension of life. (See Box 1.3: Health, Environment, and Poverty)
Climate change adds to the vulnerability of the poor
The adverse impacts of climate change will be most striking in developing nations – and particularly among the poor – both because of their high dependence on natural resources and their limited capacity to adapt to a changing climate. Water scarcity is already a major problem for the world’s poor, and changes in rainfall and temperature associated with climate change will likely make this worse. Even without climate change, the number of people impacted by water scarcity is projected to increase from 1.7 billion today to 5 billion by 2025 (IPCC 2001:9).
In addition, crop yields are expected to decline in most tropical and sub-tropical regions as rainfall and temperature patterns change with a changing climate (IPCC 2001:84). (See Figure 1.2.) A recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that developing nations may experience an 11 percent decrease in lands suitable for rainfed agriculture by 2080 due to climate change (FAO 2005:2). There is also some evidence that disease vectors such as malaria-bearing mosquitoes will spread more widely (IPCC 2001:455). At the same time, global warming may bring an increase in severe weather events like cyclones and torrential rains. The inadequate construction and exposed locations of poor people’s dwellings often makes them the most likely victims of such natural disasters.