The links between poverty and environmental degradation

Poverty is linked to environmental degradation. The poor live in the most polluted places, in proximity to industrial areas, close to transport lines, in neighborhoods
poorly serviced in water supply or garbage collection.

One way of apprehending poverty in other than monetary terms would thus be through a description of the environmental conditions of existence. On top of that, it is the poor who primarily suffer the impact of the environmental crisis: in China, warns Environment Minister Zhou Shenxian, “the environment has become a social issue that stimulates social contradictions.” He indicates that in 2004, the country experienced 51,000 conflicts related to the environment. Among them, one counts, for example, dozens of ‘cancer villages’ bordered by chemical factories that shamelessly spew pollutants into the air and water, causing serious disease among their impotent neighbours. Similarly, conflicts connected to the theft of peasants’ lands to feed unbridled real estate speculation are also increasing: 74,000 in 2004 as compared with 58,000 in 2003. Conflict over land appropriation leads to bloody clashes (6 peasants were killed by the police in June 2005, and 20 in December 2005). Those are not events limited solely to China. Real estate conflicts are violent in Brazil (39 murders in 2004). Climate
change is affecting the peasants of the Sahel first. The spread of soy cultivation in Latin America is occurring in large part at the expense of small farmers. Natural catastrophes—floods, hurricanes, tidal waves—strike the poor all the more violently in that
they have fewer means to protect themselves and no insurance for restoration.
“In numerous cases,” the experts of Millennium Ecosystem Assessment observe,

‘it is the poor who suffer from the loss of environmental
services due to the pressure exerted on natural systems
for the benefit of other communities, often in other parts
of the world. For example, dams chiefly benefit the
cities they supply with water and electricity, while rural
residents may lose access to the submerged land and to
fishing. Deforestation in Indonesia or in the Amazon
is partially stimulated by demand for wood, paper, and
agricultural products from regions far distant from the
exploited areas, while it is the indigenous people who
suffer from the disappearance of forest resources. The
impact of climate change will be felt above all in the
poorest parts of the world—for example, as it exacerbates
drought and reduces the agricultural production
of the driest regions—while greenhouse gas emissions
essentially come from rich populations.’
Moreover, agriculture connects poverty and the environmental crisis. At the global level, poverty concerns mostly peasants: two-thirds of those who subsist on a dollar a day or less live in rural areas. The implicit choice of economic powers across the planet is to consider that the question will be settled by the rural exodus, as poor peasants are supposed to be able to fi nd the resources procured by industrial development in the city. The weakness of agricultural policies favours bad land management, erosion of the land, and then its being abandoned. Peasants, in the end, leave their villages. Now, as we have seen, the city is no longer the place for the promised prosperity. The scrawny peasant’s steps are leading him to the destitution of the slums.

But it’s not only the absence of agricultural policies that breeds this situation. Competition in global markets from Northern agribusiness— overequipped and able to produce almost a hundred tons of grain per full-time employee a year at low cost—with farmers lacking adequate resources and producing less than a ton per person per year leads to impoverishment, bankruptcy, and the exodus of the poor farmers. In fact, as agronomist Marc Dufumier notes, “what some call ‘free trade’ is nothing other than putting farmers whose conditions of productivity are extremely unequal into competition.” That imbalance is all the more absurd in that the strong productivity of Northern agriculture is obtained at the price of significant ecological damage—excessive water consumption, the spreading of harmful pesticides, and massive utilization of fertilizers provoking water eutrophication
or pollution by nitrates.

Overall, poverty and the environmental crisis are inseparable. Just as there is a synergy between different ecological crises, there is a synergy between the global environmental crisis and the social crisis: they respond to one another, influence one another, and deteriorate in tandem.


This is an excerpt from Hervé Kempf’s How the Rich are Destroying the Poor


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