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:
- From the 1920s to the present, coal companies have bought up small working farms in parts of Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky for strip mining. Before 1977, when a new stricter law was passed, much of the land devastated by surface mining of coal was not restored. (Today, Ohio has 220,000 acres and Pennsylvania 300,000 acres of this destroyed environment.) A few people got rich from the mining. Most people, however, became poor. Poverty follows wherever the environment is destroyed. MCC works actively in Kentucky, “picking up the pieces” left from mining devastation. That is good. MCC's work in Kentucky stems from earlier environmental degradation. But should MCC also be concerned about other assaults on the environment that will lead to poverty in the future? Certainly. That includes understanding and doing something about acid rain, ozone depletion, toxic waste dumping, air, water and soil pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, etc. Why wait to pick up the pieces?
- Affluent development of productive land and water leads to poverty for some. Black subsistence farmers once lived on the coast of South Carolina. They grew their own food and fished for a living. A few years ago some of their land was bought by developers who built ultra-luxurious resorts like Kiawha Island and Hilton Head. Local taxes increased so much that the farmers went bankrupt. Other developers came in and bought up their land for more housing, etc. In the same area, big timber companies bought up the small farms to develop massive pine plantations. Although there is nothing wrong with pine plantations in and of themselves, they displaced thousands of poor farmers. Such development helps destroy the natural environment and leads to poverty. Eastern Mennonite Board's work in the John's Island region is a response to this environmental destruction.
- Toxic-waste dumping can degrade the environment, making the land useless and the people poor. In addition, toxic-waste dumps are almost always located in poor rural areas. World-Watch says that three-fourths of hazardous waste landfills in the American southeast are in low-income, black neighborhoods. One writer says, “As in the United States, so in the Third World: the rich get richer and the poor get poisoned.”
- One other example of how destroying the environment causes more poverty is seen in many coastal communities around the world. The fishing waters used mainly by the poor are so polluted by human and industrial wastes that they become almost useless. Again, the poor suffer the most.
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.