Poverty and environment: priorities for research and policy

Poverty and environment: priorities for research and policy

Objectives of this study are: (a) to provide an analytical overview of existing research and approaches adopted to address interlinkages between poverty and environment; (b) to identify gaps in understanding and potential conflicts between adopted approaches and priorities identified by research; and (c) to highlight policy and research priorities for future action by donors, development agencies, and policymakers in general.

Argues that:

  • The key argument of the report is to challenge the existing orthodox view that poverty and environmental degradation are inextricably linked, and are self enforcing. This orthodox view suggests that poverty and environmental damage occur in a ‘downward spiral’, in which it is assumed that the only way to avoid environmental degradation is to alleviate poverty. It also suggests that poor people are forced to degrade landscapes in response to population growth, economic marginalization and existing environmental degradation.
  • argues that many poor people are able to adopt protective mechanisms through collective action which reduce the impacts of demographic, economic and environmental change. In addition, it is argued that many current conceptions of environmental degradation are based on misinformed linkages of human activity on landscape change, and also avoid many current pressing environmental problems which currently affect poor people.
  • presents evidence from a variety of case studies in which expected patterns of poverty and environmental degradation occurring in a downward spiral were actually found to be misplaced. In addition, it is also shown that the continued belief in a downward spiral may also led to land use and resettlement policies that may contribute to poverty and environmental degradation, and also avoid many environmental problems experienced by poor people.
  • presents a brief introduction to orthodox conceptions of poverty and environment in both academic debates and within international policies for environmental protection, and as an alternative approach to understanding their linkages, based on ‘environmental entitlements’. The study then proceeds to criticize orthodox approaches on the basis of new thinking concerning the identification and measurement of poverty, and then of environmental change. The themes of poverty and gender, health and income are assessed, before discussions of environment priorities in rural and urban areas, oceans and rivers, and a consideration of wilderness areas.
  • argues that the environmental entitlements approach offers a way for a local determination of environmental problems and access to resources. Local negotiation between different actors within communities may enable access to agriculture, food, forest and other forms of local subsidence which may reduce poverty and decrease environmental degradation. In urban and industrial locations, the role of interventionary organizations may be greater because of the newer nature of some environmental risks encountered. The political implications of these arrangements are discussed at a local, national and international scales.


  • that the assumption since the Brundtland Commission, that poverty eradication has to come before environmental protection, may encourage the adoption of policies that do not acknowledge the different meaning of environment to poor people, and macroeconomic responses that may increase both poverty and environmental degradation. Instead, it is important to acknowledge the local rather than universal experience of poverty and environmental degradation and to provide enabling circumstances for poor people to create their own institutional responses to economic, demographic and environmental changes.
  • The particular approach of ‘environmental entitlements’ is proposed as a way to address these concerns. This approach stresses the interactions of different institutional responses to environmental degradation at a variety of scales and by a variety of actors. Immediate research priorities include better understandings of techniques to strengthen local institutional responses to change; ways to integrate these into increasingly international markets; and methods to make international environmental policy objectives more representative of local, poor people’s concerns.


Paper was prepared for United Nations Development Programme and European Commission, and discussed via an electronic conference: http://www.sdnp.undp.org/lstarch/povenv/

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