Are poor countries driving global environmental degradation, perhaps due to lack of knowledge, technology or money for managing natural resources more effectively?  Or is it the high consumption levels of wealthy nations that are depleting the world’s natural resources and contaminating its ecological systems?  There is no easy “yes” or “no” answer to either of these questions.  It is true that some poor people live in such desperate conditions that require them to hunt endangered species, cut down forests, deplete fisheries and erode soils.  But their ecological footprints are small compared to the multinational companies and global industries that supply the consumption demands of wealthier nations and populations.  Furthermore, demands on land and natural resources to supply consumption levels in wealthy nations end up pushing poorer populations deeper into ecologically vulnerable areas, where degradation is almost inevitable.  Perhaps more important than deciding who degrades the environment most is understanding how both rich and poor implicate each other in processes of global environmental degradation.


What is perhaps more clear is that poor people suffer most from environmental degradation.  While in wealthier nations environmental issues are sometimes seen as a lifestyle choice, in poorer nations they can be matters of survival.  Poor communities that live directly from farming, forestry and fishing depend on a healthy natural environment for food, fuel, medicines, construction materials and sometimes their only source of cash income to pay for school fees and other essential services.  Poor communities tend to be more vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters, such as by being forced to live in areas that are more exposed to sea level rise, flash floods and drought and having the least resources to mitigate against or recuperate from these disasters.  Poor communities also tend to bear a disproportionate amount of pollution and toxic waste from factories and polluting industries that are located inside their neighbourhoods and territories, often because poor communities lack the political and financial resources to move these industries elsewhere.  Although environmental problems disproportionately affect people in poor nations, they also disproportionately affect poor people in wealthy nations, especially where environmental pollution and toxic waste is concerned.  For these reasons, we can understand that environmental problems are also problems of injustice and poverty. 


This raises the question of whether nature conservation or sustainable development helps poor populations or reduces poverty.  Many examples exist where this is true.  Some community-based natural resource management and ecological restoration initiatives have enabled poor communities to secure food, improve incomes, access safe water, reduce exposure to disease, and provide many other vital benefits.  International policy instruments like the Global Environmental Facility and the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism have also generated funds to help poor nations and communities develop their economies without degrading the environment.  Unfortunately, many examples also exist where the above statement is untrue.  Many schemes to protect landscapes, ecological systems and endangered species have also had the effect of disenfranchising poor communities from vital access to lands and natural resources.  In short, environmental management that is meant to help the poor must also be based on principles of justice and equality.

Poverty + The Environment

76.6% is the share of total private consumption among the wealthiest 20% of the world population, compared to only 1.5% of the poorest 20%. (World Bank Development Indicators 2008)

53% is the proportion of poor people in the Asia and Pacific region that are also considered as “environmentally poor” in 2005, which is expected to increase to 70% by 2030. (Asian Development Bank 2009)

1.8 million is the number of child deaths each year resulting from diarrhea, much of which is due to lack of access to clean water. (Human Development Report 2006, 6)

Stats + Figures

Dr. Anantha Kumar Duraiappah. 2004. Exploring the Links: Human Well-Being, Poverty & Ecosystem Services.  Nairobi: UNEP.

UNDP-UNEP Poverty Environment Initiative

World Banks’ Poverty Environment Partnership


Translator: Jason Morris-Jung (Hanoi, Vietnam). Doctoral Candidate, Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California-Berkeley

Architecture   Cities   Consumption   Culture   Development   Energy   Finance   Food   Governance   Health  

Human Rights   Manufacturing   Population   Poverty   Tourism   Transportation   ETP Community   Translation Team

© 2010 Environmental Translation Project   |   Privacy   |   About Us   |   Contact Us