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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
Environment key to helping poor
By Richard Black
BBC News website environment correspondent

Elephants, zebra and a giraffe in a Namibian nature reserve, BBC
Environmental protection can reward people and wildlife
The key Millennium Goal of halving poverty in a decade cannot be met without better environmental protection, according to a new report.

The World Resources 2005 document says that most of the world's poor depend on nature for their income.

Its authors say a focus on aid has taken attention away from more complex issues such as the environment.

The report is endorsed by the UN, and comes two weeks before a major summit to review progress on the Goals.

In the Millennium Goals, the environment was treated as an afterthought
Jonathan Lash, World Resources Institute
Pertinent publication

World Resources is a biennial publication from the US-based research group the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The release of this year's edition, sub-titled Managing Ecosystems to Fight Poverty, is particularly pertinent, coming as it does in the run-up to the UN World Summit, which will see representatives of more than 190 countries gather in New York to review progress on the Millennium Goals adopted by world leaders five years ago.

The first and possibly most important of those goals is to halve the number of people living in poverty, defined as less than US$1 per day, by 2015. This a particular issue for sub-Saharan Africa.

Income and the environment: win-win solutions

"We have the Millennium Goals summit coming up, we have Tony Blair making Africa and poverty a major theme within the G8 - there's never been a time when poverty has been higher on the agenda," the WRI's President Jonathan Lash told the BBC News website.

"But if we don't make the key linkages between poverty, the environment and good governance, it will be impossible to achieve the poverty target.

"Seventy-five percent of the world's poor are rural poor, who depend directly on natural systems for their livelihood."

Making the case

The report presents five case studies to reinforce its argument that environmental protection and poverty alleviation go hand in hand.

  • in Namibia, handing communities the power to conserve wildlife led to increased incomes from employment and tourism, and a recovery in wildlife numbers
  • in India's Maharashtra state, better management of water resources through measures like tree planting removed dependence on water imports and improved incomes
  • in northern Tanzania, restoring traditional land management with plants improved diets, raised incomes and brought back wildlife
  • in several Indonesian islands, training local people to document and report illegal logging protected forests and allowed the growth of activities such as river fishing which depend on trees for their sustainability
  • in Fiji, encouraging communities to put quotas on shellfish catches returned stocks to a sustainable condition, ensuring long-term incomes.
Demanding a quick fix

But Jonathan Lash is pessimistic that the link between environmental protection and poverty is understood at the highest level.

Sudanese woman carries maize to market, AFP

"In the Millennium Goals, the environment was treated as an afterthought," he told the BBC News website.

"And I think there has been a tendency to focus on big global-scale issues like aid, trade and debt relief; these things are necessary but not sufficient.

"Focussing on the needs of the rural poor is harder because it tends to go one community at a time, and it doesn't give the quick payback that I think we sometimes demand of global leaders - you know, 'do something big that we can see on our TV screens tonight'."

But unless the importance of the environment is grasped and acted upon, the report concludes that the key Millennium Goal on poverty will not be met.

Disappearing world

A foreword co-written by senior figures in the World Bank and the United Nations Environment and Development Programmes notes the devastating figures which emerged earlier this year from a four-year study of global environmental decline, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment:

  • organisms are disappearing at 100 to 1,000 times the "background levels" seen in the fossil record
  • a third of all amphibians, a fifth of mammals and an eighth of all birds are threatened with extinction
  • some 35% of mangroves and about 20% of corals have gone.

"If the natural resource base is not managed for the long term, if it is exploited and polluted for short-term gain, it will never provide the fuel for economic development on the scale demanded to relieve poverty," the World Resources foreword says.

This is the latest in a stream of reports which have publicly doubted the will and ability of the global community to ensure the Goals are met, particularly in Africa, though it is unique so far in linking that lack of progress to environmental concerns.

There is also concern that leaders of the developed world have chosen to downgrade the importance of the Millennium Goals at the World Summit, which opens on 14 September, and focus instead on security and terrorism.


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