United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 3: Policy Responses and Directions

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Current Changes in Approaches to Environmental Policy

Population and Poverty

The global concern for the issues addressed in the GEO Report emerges from the recognition that the environment affects all people and future generations. Many people are living in absolute poverty without security of food, shelter, health care, education, or other basic survival supplies. Unsustainable consumption in the North and rampant poverty in the South are great threats to the achievement of sustainable global development. Poor people are very vulnerable and the primary victims of environmental degradation and ecological disasters. Few issues have aroused more controversy and political, social, and moral divisiveness than that of population growth. The dual concerns of population growth and the increasing number of poor people world-wide, despite all development efforts, offer a great challenge to planners everywhere.

The growth rate in the world population as a whole passed its peak in the mid-1960s, when it was more than 2 per cent a year. The rate slowed to 1.54 per cent in the early 1990s. A large absolute increase is however still to be expected in the coming decades, due to the momentum of population growth. (See also Chapter 4.)

The demand that this burgeoning population places on global resources is a function of both the numbers and their per capita consumption. Poor people often eke out a living based on natural resources and they are often forced to live in areas that are environmentally vulnerable or fragile and prone to risk. Policy responses vary and depend on the region, culture, and economic status. It is increasingly acknowledged that social investment such as female education, better nutrition, and employment generation for women will have direct impacts on the rate of population growth and the degree of poverty. (See also the Health section of Chapter 4).

Policy responses addressing the dual and complementary targets of stabilizing population growth and reducing poverty, in addition to the traditional approaches of employment generation and macro-economic stabilization, include the following (Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, personal communication, 1996):

  • Pro-poor planning: Central planning has often worked against the interest of poor people and its macro-economic thrust and control has seldom been pro-poor or pro-environment. Pro-poor planning means "make benefiting poor people the main objective of planning;" if not, poor people will remain peripheral to the planning and development processes.

  • Social mobilization: This involves making development itself more participatory and equitable, among other things through education and empowerment, particularly of women. An educated mother with some resources is the best insurance for a sustainable future in any culture. Children are good agents of change too: they raise awareness among their parents. Child education can create awareness of environmental realities along with economic opportunities.

  • Using indigenous knowledge and local coping and risk minimization strategies: Poor people have survived in specific ecosystems for many centuries while developing their own indigenous knowledge, technologies, institutions, and support systems. The lessons to be learned here have true value in developing new intervention strategies.

  • Ensuring people's participation in decision making: This entails involving all stakeholders in decision-making at the local level, particularly in natural resources management. Dialogue, the participation of local poor populations, and conflict resolution among stakeholders strengthens the acceptablility and adaptability of concepts, projects, and programmes and makes interventions more cost-effective and culturally appropriate.

  • Linking informal to formal economic systems: Most of the large contribution that poor people make to a national economy is informal and never enters national economic accounts (such as domestic and agricultural work by women). Formal micro-credit has proved to be one of the few tools to fight poverty and to enter the formal economy. Adapted technology also offers opportunities for poor people to enter the more formal, assured markets (such as better preservation of local agricultural products, so that goods can be sold when the market is favourable).

  • Enhancing resource availability: Usually landless poor people need access to common or state-owned property, from which they extract resources for survival or economic development. The resource base can be made more secure by planting trees for construction material, firewood, and organic soil fertilization, by increasing fish productivity, and by installing hand pumps to ensure a nearby supply of clean drinking water.

  • Involving poor people in eco-specific interventions: This involves developing local-level participatory eco-specific plans, managed and implemented by poor communities themselves, thereby creating employment and supporting livelihood systems. It can mean offering opportunities to regenerate areas and parts of degraded ecosystems to improve environmental conditions and productive potentials.

  • Information technology as an aid to awareness raising and local issue debate: Though many poor people are illiterate, this need not be a hindrance to the use of modern technology. It can be effectively used for human resource development and empowerment. For instance, computer technology with interactive graphics is more and more used directly in the field to demonstrate impacts of projects or programmes to the local poor involved.

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