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Poverty and the Environment | SANREM
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Poverty and the Environment


SANREM believes that a nexus of issues closely links poverty alleviation and environmental protection. This spring from common observations that:

  • Development schemes run the risk of sacrificing longer-term environmental sustainability for short-term economic and job creation benefits
  • Over-exploitation of natural resources harms ecosystem health and in time reduces economic output;
  • The rural poor disproportionately depend on the availability of natural resources for their subsistence livelihoods;
  • Efforts to reduce pollution and conserve natural resources are unlikely to succeed if they unfairly restrict opportunities for local people to work and feed their families; and „„ Integrated programmes can improve the livelihoods of the poor while protecting the environment.

These factors underline the reality that the nexus involves impacts in both directions: the effects of poverty reduction on the environment and the effects of protecting the environment on poverty


Regional Context

In east Africa, poverty and environmental protection are closely linked. Over-exploitation of natural resources and poverty remains the main cause and consequence of environmental degradation and resource natural resource depletion in the region. Environmental degradation affects the poor’s health and well-being and reduces their livelihood options including jobs, water, food and natural resource-based products. It hits poor people the hardest.

Therefore, SANREM works to:

  • Highlight links between poverty and the environment to reduce poverty and environmental degradation among socially and economically disadvantaged communities in the rural areas
  • Campaign for the integration of poverty-environment-technology dimensions into the national social and economic planning and decision-making process by the government and development partners
  • Provide agricultural and environmental education on global and regional issues affecting Africa, especially those relating to action and policies on biodiversity, desertification and climate change

SANREM Developed Indicators for Including Environment in Poverty Reduction Strategies in Africa

SANREM asserts that:

  • Poverty reduction strategies cannot be successfully achieved without taking into account the environment.
  • Human development can be promoted with moderate increases in countries’ ecological footprint.
  • General indicators on human well-being and environment do not focus on the links between poverty and environment.
  • The existing poverty and environment indicators can only partially solve the problems of ‘integration’ between their different dimensions and ‘reference’ about the choice of variables that involve evaluative considerations.
  • The measurement of poverty and environment links involves: (i) conceptualization of phenomena, (ii) identification of data, (iii) development of indicators and (iv) elaboration of an index or composite indicators. „„ Indicators should be arranged hierarchically to tell a coherent story.

SANREM Advocacy and Capacity Development

SANREM  sees itself as a regional advocate for the importance of poverty-environment linkages. This role, however, has varied over time, across its range of operations and in how it is accomplished. The 1992 Earth Summit brought into the public domain the concept of sustainable development and the interconnections between environment and poverty. SANREM  experts were prominent in the negotiations and in formulating the concept that became known as the poverty-environment nexus. SANREM  is also a major provider of capacity development in the region, which gives it an opportunity to advocate for the nexus. This sub-section evaluates how far SANREM  has gone in its advocacy role and in promoting the poverty-environment nexus concept among its partners.

The SANREM  role in highlighting the importance and potential of poverty-environment linkages has had its strengths, but it has varied considerably in direction and priority. The nexus is rarely, if ever, prioritized. In East Africa, advocacy is often affected by SANREM ’s expectation of how the governments may react. SANREM  has a patchy record in using capacity development to promote the links between poverty and environment. SANREM  has opportunistically used the climate change agenda for advocacy, demonstrating that it could become a good advocate through appropriate capacity development and targeted advice.

Capacity Development Regarding Poverty-Environment Linkages

One of the primary ways in which SANREM  advocates for poverty-environment linkages is through its capacity development activities in East and Horn of Africa region. This work is increasingly being carried out with other like minded local government partners and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This brings consideration of poverty-environment issues more directly to communities. The SANREM  programme has produced handbooks and guidelines to inform decision makers about the importance of taking the nexus into account and to provide guidance on how to do it. Workshops, seminars and other trainings have touched on the nexus, but addressing the linkage has not been a primary subject in these activities.

Capacity development is often targeted at particular agencies, such as ministries of planning, in order to encourage incorporation of the nexus into national planning. However, handling of nexus issues in plans such as vision 2030 and CIDPs has been found inadequate.

Linking the Environment and Poverty

SANREM  believes that both environmental degradation and poverty alleviation are urgent global issues that have a lot in common, but are often treated separately. Consider the following:

  • Human activities are resulting in mass species extinction rates higher than ever before, currently approaching 1000 times the normal rate;
  • Human-induced climate change is threatening an even bleaker future;
  • At the same time, the inequality of human societies is extreme:
    • The United Nations 1998 Human Development Report reveals that, “Globally, the 20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures—the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%”
    • To highlight this inequality further, consider that approximately 1 billion people suffer from hunger and some 2 to 3.5 billion people have a deficiency of vitamins and minerals
    • Yet, some 1.2 billion suffer from obesity
    • One billion people live on less than a dollar a day, the official measure of poverty
    • However, half the world — nearly three billion people — lives on less than two dollars a day.
    • Yet, just a few hundred millionaires now own as much wealth as the world’s poorest 2.5 billion people.
  • Sources: Poverty facts and statistics; Loss of Biodiversity; Climate change and global warming.

SANREM  also concludes that issues about environment, economics and politics are inter-related through the way humans interact with their surroundings and with each other.

Biological diversity allows a variety of species to all work together to help maintain the environment without costly human intervention. We benefit because the environment sustains us with the variety of resources produced.

However, there is often a mainstream belief that for poor countries to develop, environmental concerns have to be sacrificed, or is a luxury to address once poverty is alleviated.

Therefore, the approaches to such issues require rethinking. The overloaded phrase “sustainable development” must recognize the interconnectedness between human beings and the environment if true environmental and social justice is to be obtained.

As Delhi-based environment organization, the Centre for Science and Environment, points out, if the poor world were to develop and consume in the same manner as the West to achieve the same living standards, “we would need two additional planet Earths to produce resources and absorb wastes … and good planets are hard to find!”


The Impact of Poverty on the Environment

SANREM  studies show that forests around the east African region face increased pressures from timber companies, agricultural businesses, and local populations that use forest resources.

Some environmentalists, from rich nations especially, also raise concerns about increasing populations placing excessive burdens on the world’s resources as the current major source of environmental problems.

This makes for a worrying situation for third world development and poverty alleviation. However, an environment-only approach risks “blaming the victims.” While humans are largely responsible for many problems of the planet today, not all humans have the same impact on the environment. It is important to consider, for example, that the consumption of just the world’s wealthiest fifth of humanity is so much more than the rest of the world, as highlighted at the beginning.

Thus, putting emphasis on population growth in this way is perhaps over-simplistic. However, this does not mean we can be complacent about future population burdens. Sustainability is critical for the world’s majority to develop without following the environmentally damaging processes of the world’s currently industrialized nations.

Also adding to the complexity is that resource usage is not necessarily fixed. That is, while there may be a finite amount of say oil in the ground, we may have not discovered it all, and further, overtime the use of those resources may increase in efficiency (or inefficiency). This means a planet could sustain a high population (probably within some limits) but it is a combination of things like how we use resources, for what purpose, how many, how the use of those resources change over time, etc, that defines whether they are used inefficiently or not and whether we will run out of them or not.

Poverty And The Environment – Making The Links

If we’re going to reduce poverty in the long term, we need to recognize how it’s linked to the environment.

We all depend on biodiversity and ecosystems, and the services nature provides – but we often take them for granted. Ecosystems provide:

  • food
  • timber
  • fibres
  • fuel
  • medicines
  • fresh water


They also provide essential services such as:

  • water purification
  • air and soil quality
  • pollination
  • pest control
  • climate regulation
  • protection against floods, landslides and other natural hazards

SANREM  assessment in East africa clearly shows a decline in the ecosystems that supply many of these services and products.

Ecosystems and poverty

Poorer communities are most affected by this decline since they are most directly reliant on ecosystem services for their well-being. The livelihoods of more than one billion people depend directly on natural resources.

Damage to the environment, as well as a lack of clean water and land suitable for farming or growing food, leads to more hunger, illness, poverty and reduced opportunities to make a living.

Poorer people are also less resilient to natural or manmade disasters, including climate change. Conflict over natural resources threatens their development – illegal logging, for example, robs governments of revenues and deprives local communities of forest resources.

Looking after natural resources makes poorer communities more resilient. Forests, for example, can protect agricultural land and villages from soil erosion and flooding. Mangrove swamps provide protection from storm surges and coastal erosion. Sustainable management of agricultural land provides food for people to eat and sell.


We need to invest carefully in environmental goods and services. Priorities include:

  • integrated water resource management
  • sustainable fisheries
  • restoring degraded land
  • sustainable forest management

These will bring long-term benefits for the economy and human development.

What SANREM is doing in the region:

We support local communities in East Africa to help them manage their natural resources – such as land, water, forests and biodiversity – in a sustainable way.

We do this by giving people the skills they need to manage their environment and creating opportunities for them to have their say about the way this is done. This can help improve livelihoods and reduce poverty in the long-term.

It’s not a one-way process either. We can often learn from the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples. Their local wisdom and survival skills, often learned and passed down over generations, can teach us a lot about the natural world and how to live in harmony with it.

Our community-based projects show that with local people involved it’s possible to find the delicate balance between development and conservation.

For example, we’ve linked the small-scale forest enterprises we helped set up to local and international markets. This creates a reliable source of income for poor communities, and gives people an incentive to manage their environment in a sustainable way.