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Poverty and the Environment

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
January 1993
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The struggle to overcome poverty, daunting in itself, looks to be even more difficult in the face of increasingly apparent environmental constraints. A critical question for policymakers thus becomes whether the environmental aspects of poverty can be alleviated by modifying existing approaches, or if a wholly new strategy is required. A brief look at what is known about the reinforcing interplay of poverty and environmental degradation provides some clues.

Environment’s impact on the poor

More health problems. The poor are the most vulnerable in terms of exposure to certain types of pollution, such as unclean water that carries infectious and parasitic diseases. They (especially women and children) also suffer disproportionately from indoor air pollution that results from burning unclean, but affordable, bio-fuels. For example, smoke in household kitchens in poor rural areas of The Gambia, India, Kenya, and Nepal routinely have suspended particulate matter concentrations exceeding World Health Organization peak guidelines by four to five times.

Lower productivity. Environmental degradation depresses the poor’s income by diverting more time to routine household tasks such as fuelwood collection and by decreasing the productivity of the natural resources from which the rural poor are most likely to wrest a living. A study of Nepalese hill villages with severe deforestation concluded that time devoted to fuelwood collection was diverting nearly a quarter of household labor normally devoted to agricultural activities, resulting in income loss and declining consumption and nutrition levels.

How poverty affects environment

Constrained time horizons. The very poor, struggling at the edge of subsistence levels of consumption and preoccupied with day-to-day survival, have limited scope to plan ahead and make natural resource investments (e.g., soil conservation) that give positive returns only after a number of years. Such short time horizons are not innate characteristics, but rather the outcome of policy, institutional, and social failures.

Constrained risk strategies. The poor’s use of natural resources is affected by their facing greater risks, with fewer means to cope. These risks range from misguided policy interventions in input and output markets to evolving land tenure systems that favor those with greater political clout. The rich array of traditional means for coping with crises—selling stored crops or goods, migration of household members, increasing wage labor, borrowing for consumption, calling on mutual assistance traditions or patron-client understandings—are often unavailable to the poor or are weakening as social norms. This means that the poor will have little choice but to overexploit any available natural resources. Moreover, the poor, especially the women, typically lack access to forma! markets for credit, crop insurance, and information (e.g., extension services) that provide advice on risk-reducing agricultural practices.

What can be done

As policymakers search for ways to promote environmentally sustainable development, it is becoming increasingly clear that certain “win-win” strategies should be harnessed to reverse the downward spiral of worsening poverty and natural resource degradation. They include:

Promoting poverty alleviation. Higher incomes will enable the poor to consider longer- range options for resource use that give better returns. Policymakers should make sure that the macroeconomic policies aimed at reducing poverty through stable and broad-based income growth do not discriminate against agriculture—the principal labor-intensive sector. Policies should also promote rural infrastructure to encourage intensive or extensive farming practices where appropriate. Yet income growth and labor absorption away from environmentally fragile areas can take several generations to appreciably reduce poverty, even under the best of circumstances. There is thus a need for targeted policies to address the immediate consumption and production risks that can confront poor rural households and result in environmental degradation.

Reducing risks and tenure insecurity. Temporary food-for-work programs during droughts can bring immediate benefits through minimizing natural resource “mining” by poor rural households during crises that threaten to push them below subsistence consumption levels. Measures to improve tenure rights—such as strengthening the legal framework and judicial institutions for resolving land conflicts, revising legislation that requires land clearing to establish title rights, and protecting and supporting common property management to ensure maintenance of traditional access rights by the poor—are also important. In addition, access to credit, whether to permit maintenance of minimum consumption levels or to undertake investments in natural resources, needs to be promoted.

Addressing maldistribution. Improving access to services and infrastructure can reduce environmental problems confronting the poor, especially poor women. Agricultural extension and research services often fail to reach them, and they continue to pay the health, and, therefore, income consequences of inadequate access to safe potable water. Less clear is the environmental outcome of redistributing unequally owned natural resources. Land redistribution may create more jobs and reduce migration to fragile frontier resources. But in practice, redistribution often involves protracted social upheaval and uncertainty, with owners—who anticipate losing old rights or who doubt the durability of new rights—apt to overexploit natural resources, sometimes converting them into more mobile assets. A favorable environmental impact may be achieved by concentrating on situations where property rights are already uncertain or redistribution can occur quickly.

Strengthening education and public health programs. Improving access to education, health, and family planning—which is at the center of most poverty alleviation strategies—takes on even more importance when environmental considerations are taken into account. Access to quality education can improve the use of natural resources and enhance options for diversifying incomes away from natural resources. Access to public health services and information can enable the poor to follow preventive measures capable of reducing environmental health risks. Finally, increasing funding of family planning to respond to unmet demand for these services can help lessen the degree to which population growth exacerbates environmental degradation.

This article is based on “Poverty, Population, and the Environment,” by the author, World Bank Discussion Paper No. 189 (written as a background paper for the World Development Report 1992). February 1993. See also, “Population, Agriculture, and the Environment in Africa,” by Kevin Cleaver and Götz Schreiber, Finance & Development, June 1992.


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