In their struggle to survive, the growing number of rural poor may eventually destroy their natural environment. They are caught in a self-destructive trap where their immediate survival often depends on the over-exploitation of fragile lands. As victims of entrenched poverty, the poorest of the rural poor are being forced up mountainsides, into jungles or to deserts to eke out their existence as best they can. Unaided, the environment will not withstand this continual human onslaught.
The problem is seen as a cyclical one in which population growth, past development strategies, increasing debt, declining terms of trade and natural disasters are leading to the over-use of productive soils, forests and waters. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Bank and other international and regional bodies are trying to relieve some of the pressure through a more balanced trading system and debt reduction.
Other organizations like the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) are meeting the challenge in the field by getting the rural poor involved and committed to their own development, which ultimately is linked to the preservation of their environment. This grass-roots approach is based on field evidence that the rural poor prefer to participate in their own sustained economic growth rather than receive short-term handouts. This same evidence has shown that success in breaking the link between poverty and environmental degradation depends on the level of local participation in development projects. Unless the rural poor are involved in project design and implementation, and unless they are assured of some immediate benefit from the environmental components, they will have little interest in its maintenance.
The greatest challenge in following this approach is to convince the local people that environmentally sound practices such as crop rotation, afforestation and other soil conservation measures are not only in their long-term interest but are also instrumental in meeting their immediate nutritional needs. One of the best ways to achieve these objectives is to work through the traditional tribal groups. These groups often have their own conservation methods that may have gone into disuse because of demographic pressures and government land-use policies.
For example, in Yemen, as in the entire Arab peninsula, a traditional system for the control of common lands ( heman ) evolved under tribal authority. There were rules affecting grazing and free harvesting, livestock sizes, and areas set aside for beekeeping. As government authority gradually expanded, tribal authority and the heman system declined. The result has been overstocking, overgrazing, soil erosion and overall environmental degradation. The Fund has proposed that the former heman -governed lands be controlled by tribal communities with exclusive contingency planning rights.
Another way to ease the pressure on agricultural lands is to encourage off-farm employment in rural communities. Some progress has already been seen in this area but increased efforts should be made to encourage entrepreneurship--especially among rural youth and women. By providing employment for laborers, women and young people who cannot be absorbed in the agricultural sector, the rural economies will become more diversified and stable.
Moreover, traditional conservation techniques stand a better chance of being maintained and the quality of life can be improved for those who would otherwise be forced to migrate to the already overcrowded cities. In Nepal, Bangladesh and other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, IFAD-sponsored credit proposals have helped women start small weaving businesses that allow them to practice a traditional skill and earn money, without having to leave their homes and children.
IFAD is including many such components in its development projects in an attempt to break the link between poverty and environmental degradation. Support, however, is needed on the national, regional and international levels to direct more resources to applied research and to adapt existing technologies to the needs of the poor.
Poverty is both a cause and an effect of environmental destruction. By starting with the principle of self-reliance and by drawing on existing local resources and capacities, external assistance can stimulate the creativity of the poor and thus serve as a catalyst for self-supporting and sustained development.
Eradicating rural poverty, which affects more than 1 billion of the world's population, is the most direct way to ensure environmentally sound development in the Third World. When the prognosis is that the global land-production system faces possible long-term climatic changes that, compounded by the greenhouse effect, may accelerate further the process of resource degradation, do we really have any other choice?