1R – Fragile ecosystems & the poor

Supporting article R: A report by the ‘Conference on Hunger and Poverty’ highlighting the plight of the poor in fragile ecosystems and the responsibility of the developed world in this regard.


Combating Environmental Degradation


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. The per caput water consumption in the United States is about 2 300 m³ per annum, as compared to 1 500 m³ for the Canadians and 225 m³ for the British. The average per caput consumption of water in developing countries ranges between 20 to 40 m³. 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 profligate 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, as was the case in Europe in the last century, are not promising. As a result, fragile ecosystems are rapidly becoming ghettos of poverty and environmental degradation.

The need for urgent action can be recognized in relation to the following characteristics of these regions:
(a) They constitute a significant part of the world’s land resources. Forty percent of the earth’s land surface is considered dryland, of which approximately 70% is already degraded or subject to heavy degradation. On the other hand, hilly and mountainous regions cover about 21% of the earth land mass and, although not so extensive as dry lands, they exert a far-reaching influence on other areas, primarily through watershed functions.
(b) The role of both ecosystems in terms of human habitat is also significant: approximately 900 million of the world’s population are subsisting in dry zones. Although only about 10% of the world population live in mountain areas, a much larger percentage (about 40%) occupies the watersheds below. It is safe to assume that the future of mountain ecosystems affects the life of half of the world’s population. From the Andes to the Himalayas, and from South East Asia to East and Central Africa a serious ecological deterioration caused by overgrazing, deforestation and excessive cultivation threatens the livelihood of these populations.
(c) Mountains are important sources of water, energy, minerals, agricultural products and a major reserve for the world’s biodiversity. Similarly, dry zones are rich in biodiversity, hosting many endangered species. Moreover, crops, grasses, trees, and livestock species, that form the core of survival in drought prone regions, exist in these regions only.
(d) A high proportion of the absolute poor in ecologically fragile areas are indigenous peoples, estimated at some 300 million worldwide. They depend on renewable resources to maintain their well-being. This has led to the development of livelihood systems which are well-adapted to the harsh conditions in which they lived. Their holistic, traditional knowledge of their natural resources and environment constitutes a rich human heritage. However, their traditional ways of life are now being threatened, disturbing the delicate balance of natural resource use. Nevertheless, viable technology and institutional arrangements for resource conservation in these areas could be built upon indigenous knowledge; and similarly effective disaster prevention policies can benefit from coping strategies developed by the local population.
(e) Rural women play a key role in on- and off-farm activities in the developing countries. This is particularly true in the case of the ecologically fragile areas. With the growing male out-migration from marginal areas, the number of women headed households in these areas is increasing. Women are becoming more and more responsible for the day to day survival of the family. Women tend to be more vulnerable than men to the effects of environmental degradation because they are often involved in harvesting common property resources such as wood and water. Since women usually make a greater contribution to household food security than men, a decline in women’s access to resources may have a significant impact on household consumption. Environmental degradation implies further burdens and responsibilities which are not compensated for by increased decision-making power.
(f) Degradation of land and loss of its vegetative cover also have consequences at the global level, primarily because of its influence on carbon exchange, but also in terms of loss of biodiversity. The large amount of carbon stored in the vegetation of the dry zones, for example, averaging about 30 tonnes per hectare, decreases when the vegetation is depleted or disappears. Carbon-rich soils, frequently found in dry zones, store a substantial amount of this element (nearly half the total quantity of carbon is stored in the organic matter in the soil, much more than is found in the world’s vegetation). The destruction of these soils has a very powerful effect on the carbon cycle and boosts the greenhouse effect as a result of the release of carbon.

Towards action

Over the past two decades, environmental degradation, including land degradation has continued to worsen exacerbating further poverty and food insecurity. Conversely, awareness of the importance of the environment and its conservation has increased. There has been a transformation in people’s perception of the poverty problem in developing countries. If one accepts that hard core rural poverty is increasingly a phenomenon associated with marginal lands, then new strategies are required that integrate poverty alleviation and environmental management. Until recently, the international community and national governments have tended not to appreciate the need for integrated rural poverty alleviation and environmental management programmes in marginal areas. There were a number of promising initiatives in this field, usually undertaken by NGOs and community- based organizations, but they were usually small and very localized. At the same time, in many regions, rural people’s perception of their environment and the priority they give to a better relationship with it have changed. Increasingly, rural people are realizing that: (a) the fragile environment on which they depend for their survival is being neglected or over- exploited, and it is now necessary to rehabilitate it and manage it sustainably; and (b) the environment belongs primarily to them, and they must take the responsibility for the land and organize themselves in groups, cooperatives, village development associations and other local association to defend it.

UNCED’s Agenda 21, the global action programme for sustainable development, is perhaps the first expression of international commitment to addressing the poverty- environment nexus. Chapter 3 on “combating poverty” called for specific long-term strategies that integrate poverty eradication and sustainable management of the environment. Agenda 21 devoted two chapters to the special needs of fragile ecosystems, namely Chapter 12 on “Combating Desertification and Drought” and Chapter 13 on “Sustainable Mountain Development”. In the follow-up to UNCED, promising initiatives have emerged for these thematic areas. For drylands, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa (CCD) provides a framework for concrete action at the local level. For mountainous areas, efforts are currently under way to develop the basis for an action plan for sustainable mountain development, known as the “Mountain Agenda”.

The Agenda involves the establishment of a network on sustainable mountain development consisting of United Nations agencies, NGOs and intergovernmental institutions. A set of action proposals has been developed by those involved in promoting sustainable mountain development. In recognition of the need to give prominence to the “Mountain Agenda” on the international and national lists of priorities, a global Inter-Governmental Organizations (IGO)/NGO Conference, as well as regional inter-governmental consultations are being convened. The main proposals for action that are emerging, identified through a broad participatory process involving the major NGOs, encompass five specific areas of focus: poverty eradication; the strengthening of a global information network and database; strengthening country capacity and the generation of “National Mountain Action Programmes”; raising awareness through the preparation and organization of a World Conference on Sustainable Mountain Development in early 1997; and the formulation, negotiation and implementation of regional or sub-regional mountain conventions and possibly the development of a “Global Mountain Charter”.

The Desertification Convention offers new and exciting opportunities for collective action, as well as a fertile field for testing and nurturing innovative partnerships in development cooperation for local level action. It is the first International Treaty to squarely address poverty and environmental degradation in rural areas. Unlike the other Conventions associated with Rio, the direct beneficiaries of CCD are the hundreds of millions of predominantly poor and food-insecure people who populate the drylands of the world. It is the first Convention that casts resource users and their communities as central to the solution rather than part of the problem. At the very heart of the CCD is the concept of “Partnership”. Partnership embodies the new thrust in development assistance, in which it is finally recognized that interdependence rather than dependence is the way forward. But partnerships won’t work unless all partners stand to benefit. CCD tries to translate this attractive concept into more or less concrete terms.

While the underlying incentives to enter into partnership must exist, what is also needed is a favourable context to promote its emergence and functioning. In the context of CCD, the National Action Programmes – or NAPs – are the instrument for partnership. NAPs, which are not intended as static plans but as a dynamic programming capacity, should offer a macroeconomic and institutional framework that will support local-level action. Here, more is meant than economic and fiscal policies, although these are of course extremely important. It also means a policy orientation that actively focuses on empowerment of local actors to take advantage of new opportunities and overcome old constraints. The Convention therefore encourages devolution of decision-making from the centre to local populations and resource users. The most important reasons for this are compellingly obvious:

  • * Local Ownership in Decision-making – Local structures are more likely to make decisions that are relevant and suitable to local circumstances.
  • * Removing Bottlenecks in Information Flow and Decision-making – Decision-making for natural resource management requires prompt and relevant information.
  • * Improved Ability to Involve Marginalized Groups – Decentralization might allow better targeting of services and better identification of needy groups.
    * Better Tailoring of Approaches to Local Conditions – Local appreciation of constraints and opportunities can only improve the quality of solutions.
  • An emphasis on empowerment of local populations and civil society should not be construed as a wish to actively withdraw from the sustainable development arena. Instead, it is based on a recognition that the public sector and multilateral finance can facilitate but cannot substitute for action that must come from economic agents at the local level that act individually or collectively. What is needed now is to build an operational coalition between NGOs, CBOs as well as other institutions of civil society together with government institutions and international agencies, to form action-oriented partnerships around specific and concrete areas of intervention.
  • The Challenge of Financing Action
  • Promoted by the world’s distress over the loss of life in the Sahelian famine of early 1970, the UN Conference on Desertification (UNCOD, Nairobi 1977) adopted a plan of action to end desertification by the close of the century. The response to the plan of action was dismal and it was virtually left on the shelf. Now with only four years left to the day when UNCOD’s promises should have materialized, desertification has almost doubled, and the poor are paying the cost, with their health and lives. The CCD diligently negotiated and enthusiastically adopted holds new promises, as the degree of awareness, globally and locally, has increased. But unlike its sister Conventions on climate change and biological diversity, the CCD does not promote establishment of a new financial mechanism. Instead it foresees the creation of a “Global Mechanism” to be housed in an existing organization to coordinate and facilitate the flow of additional funds including grants and concessional loans through both bilateral and multilateral channels.
  • Neither national budgets nor statistics on international financial flows to developing countries give clear figures on resources presently allocated to combat desertification. But there is little argument about the dearth of international funding for desertification control. Even resources formally provided under Global Environmental Facility (GEF) – which, by and large, precludes eligibility for desertification programmes – are judged to be inadequate. Nevertheless, financing constitutes a major pillar for the success of CCD without which it may very well face the same fate as UNCOD. Within this context, a proactive role for the Global Mechanism should be promoted.
  • The multi-source and multi-channel orientation of the CCD is more of a strength than a weakness. Instead of relying on one mechanism – say, the GEF – the Convention is not predicated on the availability of external grant finance earmarked for the purpose. In contrast, the Global Mechanism configuration is about improving the effectiveness and efficiency of existing flows, in addition to catalyzing and leveraging new flows and sources of finance. It encourages a greater role for domestic resource mobilization, private sector initiative, and a blending of various concessional and non-concessional external finance.
  • This diversity of flows and the multifaceted diverse coalition which one hopes it would represent, will in the end make the Convention and the actions it triggers more robust and sustainable. One should work towards that coalition, by assisting to set in place policy and institutional frameworks that are favourable to private initiative, by helping governments to provide public goods, by pump-priming promising initiatives, and by assisting local populations and community organizations to interface more productively with the private sector.
  • Financing Peoples’ Participation
  • Local-level activities and creativity championed by CCD have a number of implications for the nature of resource mobilization as well as the manner through which resources are utilized. First, there is a need to step up efforts aimed at awareness- building at local level. This is a task for which NGOs and CBOs are best suited. The NGO community, and in particular the international NGOs, should give a high priority to this objective when mobilizing resources for CCD as stipulated in the Convention. Second, CCD calls upon Parties to promote a National Desertification Fund (NDF) and similar mechanisms for directing funds to the local level. Such mechanisms should be run on the basis of a participatory governance involving local communities and their partners in the NGO community.
  • NDF should also be flexible and simple in design. To preserve the confidence of both donors and local populations, it is imperative to ensure full transparency and effective accountability in its management. Moreover, the local populations could be true shareholders and effectively claim their share in the partnership if, in addition to the contribution from the external donors and national resources, they shoulder part of the financial burden. This could be done by mobilization and pooling of individual savings as well as through decentralization of collection and management of taxes, levies and other revenues derived from local resources. Third, it is absolutely important that the NDF resources are to be utilized for community level investment and that they lead to the creation of durable economic assets, shared collectively. Using the proceeds of NDF for relief activities or financing individually- owned enterprises would be a costly mistake. The former would deplete the resources of the fund without any lasting benefit, and the latter would distort the local financial market, preventing the creation of sound credit/saving structures. Such structures are equally important to facilitate investment for crop intensification or to promote economic diversification to lessen man and livestock pressure on land.
  • Conclusion
  • Populations in marginal areas are not doomed to despair. On the contrary, it is in these very regions that the people, forced by circumstance, manage to cope most creatively with their harsh and unpredictable environment, and to diversify their resource use strategies over space, season and sector. They capitalize as much as they can on biological diversity – most pronounced in these regions and constituting a core of their survival. They are responsible for most appropriate technological and institutional innovations which depend minimally on costly and external inputs. This is particularly true in the conservation of rainwater, notwithstanding the saline soils common in those regions. It is also true for the institutions which developed for the collective management of very scarce common resources, such as water points, grazing land and forests.
  • Effective actions against poverty, household food insecurity, and environmental degradation in marginal areas require first and foremost the empowering and equipping of local communities to take up the reins of resource management. The importance of local area development and improved local governance – also covered in the other issues papers – must be emphasized. An important factor in this context, of course, is the issue of incentive frameworks and enabling environments, with specific regard to the question of how to combine longer-term concerns for environmental rehabilitation and conservation with the pressing short-term needs of household food security. Also important are the technology and related measures to be promoted that build on traditional knowledge, such as those which will in the short term generate tangible benefits for the farmer, as outlined in the discussion paper on this topic.
  • Many conservation policies and strategies in the past have failed because of their top-down approach and their reliance on technologies which were irrelevant to the local circumstances. In contrast to the result of these efforts, the micro-projects implemented in many places over the past decade have made it possible to build up a store of knowledge allowing for the implementation of new approaches. Within this context, a consensus has emerged on the importance of indigenous people’s traditional knowledge and practices in the management of arid land, forest, pasture and farmland to conserve soil and moisture, and in diversifying crop and livestock production to minimize risks.
  • Some traditional rural communities have developed complex resource management systems that have stood the test of time, and have much to offer in addressing present-day concerns over long-term resource sustainability. Their admirable environmental ethic deserves its due place. Asserting the importance of local knowledge calls for the empowerment of local people through their own organizations. Moreover, the considerable cultural and environmental heterogeneity of mountain areas and the scattered nature of dryland populations underline the need for decentralized local-level action toward integrated management of local areas.
  • This is not to suggest that local communities can be left to their own devices. There is a need for supportive and facilitating measures on the part of governments. The international community should also be aware of the global dimension of the process and the responsibility that this implies. There is therefore a need for a coalition of actors ranging from the international to the national and the local level. This is precisely what the CCD is promoting and what an eventual Mountain Agenda might promote. In the short term, what is needed is what one might risk calling “affirmative action” in the form of finance and assistance to local communities.
  • The immediate challenge is to consider how ratification of the CCD can be expedited, how it can be implemented and how to secure adequate financing for local area development. The CCD also stipulates a major role for civil society organizations, foremost among them the community-based organizations – namely that they should galvanize energies and mobilize resources. The private sector, as well as civil society at large, should also be encouraged to think beyond individual or corporate interests towards a recognition of a shared responsibility for the environment. Vigorous resource mobilization to combat desertification would stand a better change of succeeding if launched on the basis of empirically verifiable improvements.