The eradication of poverty has been on the international agenda for many decades and yet, although some progress has been made, the problem persists with the gap between the world’s rich and poor widening at an alarming rate.
The UN Development and Environment Programmes jointly launched the Poverty-Environment Initiative in 2005 to help countries integrate poverty and environment objectives into their development plans and policies. The first of the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals, launched in 2015, is to end poverty in all its forms and dimensions by 2030. The World Bank was established in 1944 with the ambition to end poverty and promote shared prosperity with a clear focus on developing countries.
All this notwithstanding, there are 1.3bn people living in poverty worldwide on the equivalent of a couple of dollars a day or less.
The ultimate cause of poverty is known to be the degradation of the environment. In 2020 alone the world’s poor increased by 124 million, of which 31 million was solely due to Covid-19 restrictive measures coupled and the failure of health systems globally. The latter should also be considered an environmental cause as viruses are making the jump from animals to humans because of the slaughter of wildlife worldwide.
Poor people are often caught in the downward spiral of being forced to deplete natural resources in order to survive, with this degradation of the environment impoverishing them further. When the land can no longer sustain them, they move further afield and repeat the process leaving devastated ecosystems in their wake. They otherwise move to urban slums where there is a constant exposure to precarious sanitary and environmental conditions. The poor are made to suffer the same fate of the animal and plant species that once thrived in the region, migration or extinction.
Poverty is often concentrated in environmentally fragile zones. Although people are attracted to such areas by the promise of economic development, in many cases the pace of development depletes the very resources that are fuelling the growth. It is therefore not surprising for poverty numbers globally to be concentrated in areas of environmental degradation. This downward spiral of ecological deterioration threatens the security, livelihoods and health of many of the world’s poorest people.
It is the poor that are worst affected by environmental disasters such as earthquakes, floods, storms and harvest failures with the most devastating impacts being the loss of life and destitution. Natural disasters are increasing in number as a result of the ecocide being perpetrated across the globe by people.
The globalisation of trade driven by large multinational companies has meant that very often environmental degradation in one part of the world is caused by demand for food or products in another. The people causing the collapse of ecosystems with their production and consumption behaviours cannot see it and the people who are suffering their ecosystem collapse cannot control or stop it. Developing countries are held at ransom by international industry lobbies that are heavily influencing the terms under which these countries can trade with other countries. Developing countries are forced to accept cheap labour, overexploitation of natural resources and lax or non-existent environmental protections.
All this is a far cry from the wellbeing of nations of indigenous peoples that existed in preindustrial times and well before that. There is evidence that the tribes of the Amazon forests in South America had been thriving there for at least 5000 years living off nature whilst contributing to its biodiversity and abundance.
The Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, has stated clearly that we cannot eradicate poverty unless we restore and protect the natural world. The International Red Cross, UNEP, UNDP and the UN Security Council have warned that unless we halt and reverse the collapse of ecosystems across the planet humanity will experience unprecedented poverty levels, mass migrations and conflicts for food and water in our lifetime.
We cannot go back to the way things were. We can however move from the economic growth model to a more ecologically sustainable one that puts the brakes on, and to some extent reverses, the expansion of globalisation and one that encourages local water and food security, local community values and local environmental protection and restoration and finally the end of poverty.
This article was published in the Senior Times of the Times of Malta on the 18th June 2021
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United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 1: End of Poverty in all its Forms, Everywhere