POVERTY AND ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION
February 28, 1990
At the 1990 MCC annual meeting, the inclusion of environmental issues as one of MCC's priorities for the coming year was the subject of much debate. Here is my perspective on the issue.
MCC's overall priority is to help people in need “In the name of Christ.” Those in need are the hungry, the poor, the oppressed. We not only want to assist with the immediate needs of these people, but also work to eliminate the causes of their problems. This involves development. In development, hunger, poverty and environmental degradation are interrelated. Hunger is caused primarily by poverty. “Poverty is a major cause and also a major effect of global environmental degradation.” That's the way Gro Harlem Bruntland, former prime minister of Norway, puts it.
Let's look first at poverty as a major cause of environmental degradation. Regional overpopulation in many regions of the world has resulted in destruction of grazing lands, forests and soils. Air and water have often been degraded. The carrying capacity of the natural environment has been reduced. As the people become poorer, they destroy their resource base ever more quickly.
In the 1990 State of the World report, Alan B. Durning, a staff researcher for World-Watch Institute, says in a chapter entitled “Ending Poverty”, “As the global trap tightens and the world's poor become increasingly insecure and dispossessed, the conditions for ecological degradation spread to more of the earth's fragile lands.”
Durning presents two examples of Third World poverty causing severe environmental degradation—one from Nepal, another from Costa Rica.
Half of Nepal's original forests have been destroyed in the last 10 years. For a variety of reasons, farmers are driven to cultivate steep marginal land. Women must go miles for firewood. A recent study done in Nepal by the International Food Policy Research Institute finds “not only that food consumption in the region has fallen by 100 calories per person per day on average, but that in village after village childhood nutrition rates and deforestation rates are closely coupled.” The receding tree line is a reliable indicator of general child health. Poverty causes environmental degradation.
In Costa Rica, the poor have contributed more indirectly to environmental destruction. Land distribution is part of the problem.
The relatively few wealthy landowners have gotten into the cattle-raising business. Forests have been destroyed in the process.Costa Rica was once almost fully covered by forests. Recent data estimates that half the nation's arable land is covered by pasture and only about 17 percent of the original forest cover remains. Soil erosion is rampant and, again, the poor have been forced to use steep and marginal land, thus causing further environmental degradation.
Because of the relationship between poverty and environmental degradation, MCC workers have been and are working at environmental enhancement. If they are going to help the poor, they have no choice but to do so. In Bangladesh, Bolivia, Haiti, Honduras and many other countries, MCC workers work to develop a sustainable agriculture—one that is ecologically sound. Nurseries and tree planting are priorities in countries like Haiti and Nigeria. Dams are constructed and wells are dug to counter the encroaching desert in countries like Burkina Faso. Appropriate technology, using wisely what dwindling natural resources are left in a country, is used by workers in most Third World settings.
All of these activities have an environmental dimension. Fortunately, many MCC workers have some training in care of environment. Those who do not learn quickly on the job.
Poverty is also a major effect or result of environmental degradation. This is not just a Third World issue. A few examples:
In summary, MCC must continue to promote environmental issues as one of its top priorities. Overseas workers cannot do development without that priority. Domestic workers need to work with those who have been made (kept) poor by despoiling of the environment. They should also be working in advocacy roles to keep environments from being further despoiled. The constituency must recognize the role of First World people in the present environmental crisis. Affluence, after all, is the greatest cause of environmental degradation and thus a cause of the poverty which we seek to eliminate. Any work with the poor and oppressed must include environmental concerns as an integral part of the program.