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Growing the Wealth of the World's Poor

The food crises of the present will seem as nothing to those of the future unless the world brings some urgency and intelligence to managing the planet’s nature-based assets.

When world leaders gathered at the UN headquarters in New York two weeks ago to review the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, one conclusion was crystal clear: the development models of the last century will not serve us well in this one.

Today, as many people---two billion---live on $2 a day or less as did two decades ago. Yet by 2050, not only will the world’s population grow by half again to nine billion people, but climate change will intensify the challenges pervading daily life for the rural poor---accessing adequate food, water and productive farmland, and surviving natural disasters.

Three quarters of the world’s poorest citizens live in rural areas and rely on nature’s productivity to an extent perhaps forgotten by many urban dwellers, especially in the developed economies. Their future will be inextricably linked to the way national and international policies manage or mismanage the environment and the nature-based services it provides.

These services are under assault as never before. From forests and wetlands to soil fertility and fishing grounds, ecosystems are degrading at an unprecedented rate---a reality brought into stark focus by the 2006 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

The world’s cities can’t be expected to---nor can they---absorb the sheer numbers of environmental refugees fleeing increasing resource scarcity. Yet unless aid donors and development policymakers shift course, this is exactly the kind of scenario that may unfold.

We are however not without choices or promising options, according to the new World Resources Report 2008: The Roots of Resilience. If world leaders were to visit Nigerien villagers tending vibrant bands of trees along the borders of the Sahara Desert or fishermen drawing full nets from restored wetlands in Bangladesh, they might feel renewed hope and inspiration.

Two decades of experience---in the field, at institutions including the United Nations and the World Bank and within the international NGO community---have incubated new ways for poor people to make a sustainable living.

Part of that experience demonstrates that community-based, natural resource management enterprises can, to a significant extent, meet the twin goals of overcoming poverty and countering ecosystem degradation.

Given adequate decentralization of resource rights, and financial and management support, such initiatives can generate the kind of community-led economic, social and environmental resilience that will be central to meeting the challenges of an over-consumptive and climate-constrained world.

World Resources Report 2008 highlights some inspirational examples. The greening of the Sahel in Niger through a people-led tree planting movement; watershed restoration in India’s Maharashtra State; the establishment of wildlife conservancies in Namibia and of sustainably managed, community-owned forest concessions in Guatemala.

Incomes for local people are rising as a result of all these enterprises. The nature-based assets which underpin these financial flows are also being improved, reversing decades of degradation and holding out the promise of a renewable source of wealth.

Even more significant, these are not one-off achievements. The watershed example in India may have started in one village. But some 500 are now following the same sustainable path. In Namibia, in just 11 years, nearly 15 percent of land cover has come under sustainable conservancy-based management.

What can be learned from all this? One abiding lesson is the need for supportive government policies to foster local initiatives. Another is the need for engaged and sometimes patient donor-country backing. A third is the opportunities provided by scaling up sustainable development solutions which are clearly working---both within countries and across regions.

Community-driven, nature-based enterprises will not overturn poverty everywhere. But if the world is to build the resilience of vulnerable communities to cope with climatic and other shocks, then income-generating projects that balance the needs of people with the conservation of nature-based assets will be paramount.

It is high time that the international community fast-tracked these into the center stage of development policy. By doing so, countries can bring a new level of seriousness, commitment and creativity to the poverty-related MDGs while also addressing the oft-neglected MDG 7---ensuring environmental sustainability across the globe.

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