opinionBy Stephen Odoi-Larbi
On May 1,1998, many organizations including the World Resources Institute (WRI), United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank made public an important report on health and the environment sighting how the activities of man has contributed to the degradation of the environment and how the situation can be rectified.
In spite of these campaigns, it is quite disheartening that people are still degrading the environment to the suffering of the mass. Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil, the destruction of the ecosystems and the extinction of wildlife.
The landmark report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, entitled "Our Common Future", warned that unless we change many of our lifestyle patterns, the world will face unacceptable levels of environmental damage and human suffering.
The Commission, echoing the urgent need for tailoring the pace and the pattern of global economic growth to the planet's carrying capacity, said that: "Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable and to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
In the final analysis, the environmental crisis affects everyone on the planet, but the degree to which the inhabitants of different parts of the world contribute to this crisis depends on the level of their economic development and their consumption patterns.
As much as 70% of the world's consumption of fossil fuel and 85% of chemical products is attributable to 25% of the world's population. Water consumption is also unevenly distributed. Consumption of water in developing countries ranges between 20 to 40 m_.
The consumption patterns for forest products and many other commodities have the same direct inverse proportion to the size of population of the top 20% of the richest societies. This wasteful demand puts excessive pressure on both national and global natural resources.
The rest of the world, comprising 80% of its population with a share of less than 20% of global income, has a far more modest consumption level.
While international environmental concerns are often expressed in broad terms such a desertification or climatic change, the environmental problems of concern to vulnerable groups in marginal areas are generally quite localized in nature, revolving around immediate issues, such as the degradation of a particular rangeland or soil erosion on farmland or the progressive shortening of fallow. These affect the poor because they are directly related to household food security. Degradation of the resource base generally translates into decreases in production or income and thus in the availability of food.
Declining soil fertility leads to lower crop yields while rangeland depletion reduces offtake, and any deterioration in water quality adversely affects the fish catch.
Degradation of common property resources pulls labour away from directly productive activities towards gathering - simply collecting non-wood and minor forest products - and probably diminishes opportunities for deriving income from this source.
Linkages with food security can also be less direct. Shortages of biomass may result in a transition to lower-nutrition foods that require less fuel for cooking. In addition, recurrent drought or natural calamities also directly result in progressive loss of food security prospects.
In their quest for food security, the rural poor have sometimes little choice but to overuse the limited resources available to them. The resulting environmental degradation imposes further constraints on their livelihood in what has been called a "downward spiral" or "vicious circle".
They are often forced to make trade-offs between immediate household food requirements and environmental sustainability both in production and consumption. Their negligible man-made capital assets, ill-defined or non-existent property rights, limited access to financial services and other markets, inadequate safety nets in time of stress or disaster, and lack of participation in decision-making can result in their adopting "short time horizons", which favour immediate imperatives over longer-term objectives.
This can result in coping strategies that rely on the drawing down of the capital available to them, mainly in the form of natural resources. It also makes them more vulnerable to environmental degradation, including degradation wrought by others than the poor themselves.
The poor may be both agents and victims of environmental degradation, especially in marginal areas, where the resource base is ill-suited to agriculture. But it cannot be assumed that the poor have an intrinsic propensity to degrade environmental resources. On the contrary, many poor traditional communities demonstrate an admirable environmental ethic and have developed complex resource management regimes.
There is little evidence that the rural poor, when offered an appropriate environment - including secure tenure and access to markets- pursue resource-degrading strategies.
Thus, while poverty may be an underlying cause of environmental degradation, it is more accurately seen as a proximate cause influenced by a complex of policy and institutional factors.
The very same processes that lead to and perpetuate poverty constrain the poor in their decision- making with regard to natural resource management. Affluence and poverty affect the environment in different ways: poverty eradication would not erase environmental degradation but change the nature of environmental problems facing society.
Poverty in fragile ecosystems
Absolute poverty has been on the retreat in most high-potential areas in developing countries. The combination of more productive technologies, fertile land and water, and high levels of development and public investment have raised incomes significantly for people living in these areas.
While this development has not always been equitable - or sustainable, the most important disparities are not between rich and poor people within high- potential areas, but rather between high-potential high-investment areas and fragile ecosystems.
In the latter areas, politically marginal indigenous populations have been neglected and have been joined by new groups displaced from more fertile areas through a variety of processes.
These processes, although varying across countries and regions, include expropriation, demographic pressures, land fragmentation, privatization of common property lands, and consolidation and expansion of the commercial sector combined with reduced demand for labour due to mechanization.
While the challenge for poverty alleviation in high-potential areas remains considerable, the prognosis is not grim provided agricultural intensification proceeds without environmental destruction. On the other hand, for the 60% of poor populations who are found in fragile ecosystems and mainly remote and ecologically vulnerable rural areas, the challenge of environmentally sustainable poverty alleviation is immense.
It has been estimated that 80% of poor people in Latin America live in such areas, 60% in Africa and 50% in Asia. Reliance on the currently prevailing patterns of growth will postpone the resolution of poverty in marginal areas, with severe implications not only for the people affected but also for the environment. The immediate-to-medium-term prospects for the rural poor to abandon these areas for other sectors of the economy are not promising. As a result, fragile ecosystems are rapidly becoming 'ghettos' of poverty and environmental degradation.