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Poverty Environment Nexus

Poverty, in both absolute and relative terms, has increased dramatically over the last twenty years and is often associated with environmental degradation. It has been estimated that roughly half the world's poor live in environments that are highly degraded. This has led many observers to postulate a causal link between poverty and environmental degradation.

Recently there has been increasing recognition that the linkages between poverty and the environment are complex, and strongly influenced by local demographic, institutional and cultural factors. In some circumstances a positive relationship between poverty and environmental degradation has been identified, lending support to the hypothesis that poor producers will systematically degrade the resources on which they depend if they have no alternatives. In other cases it appears that over-exploitation of natural resources (such as forests and fisheries) is more likely the result of actions of relatively wealthy interests engaged in the pursuit of commerce. Much depends upon the strength of local institutions engaged in environmental and resource management, and the extent to which they represent the interests of poorer groups.

Conceptions of poverty have also changed in recent years, with more attention now given to non-market aspects of deprivation. For example, the World Bank has developed a three-part analysis of poverty that includes not only economic opportunity but also relative vulnerability to risk (security), and influence or access to the levers of power (voice/empowerment). Others have promoted a portfolio concept of "livelihood assets", including human, built and financial capital, as well as natural and social capital, all of which contribute to human well-being. A more subtle understanding of poverty and inequality can help guide focused and practical analysis of the links between environmental quality, environmental policy, and efforts to reduce poverty.

Efforts to reduce poverty and inequality must also consider gender differences. Men and women use resources differently and have different roles in society. To be effective, strategies to decrease poverty and preserve the environment must therefore pay close attention to the impact of disparities between women and men with regard to access to resources and opportunities. Moreover, there is much evidence that gender equality and empowerment of women has positive effects on a variety of other important aspects of development - notably population growth and health.
Notwithstanding the above, addressing gender disparities should not be reduced to a means of ensuring the effectiveness of poverty reduction strategies. Gender equality is a development objective in its own right, and sustainable development strategies must aim to foster women's empowerment and effective participation. This implies involving women and men as partners and allies in formulating and pursuing strategies for more equal societies (OECD 2001, p. IV-7).

Research during CREED has contributed both to changing conceptions of poverty and to an improved understanding of the links between poverty, gender and the environment. Key factors underlying the poverty-environmental degradation nexus were examined critically and the hypothesis that poverty causes environmental degradation was challenged. A significant gap in the literature was also identified: the role of inequality and conflict among resource users in environmental degradation. Research in Kenya was initiated to address this issue, focusing on conflicts between pastoralists in an area where common property land was being privatised. Some research was also carried out on the distributional impacts of pollution taxes in the transport sectors of Brazil and Costa Rica.

In the PREM Programme it is proposed that there should be further empirical studies of the poverty-inequality-environment nexus, focusing on specific resources, gender issues, policies and populations, in order to provide clear results. Research projects should address poverty, gender and environment linkages both for rural areas and natural resources (e.g. land, forests, wildlife), as well as in an urban context (e.g. water, sanitation, waste, transport, housing).
Key issues for further research include:

· The distribution of costs and benefits of environmental change, and how adverse impacts on poorer groups can be minimised. For example, are poorer households disproportionately affected by environmental hazards? Which households in particular and why? This should include specific attention to impacts on the vulnerability, opportunities and empowerment of poorer groups.
· How environmental policies can help to reduce poverty, as well as satisfying environmental goals. Research should consider not only the distribution of financial effects (e.g. household income and expenditure by decile), but also the distribution of environmental impacts (positive or negative).
· The role of social and gender differentiation and conflict in environmental degradation, and potential policy responses. Case studies are needed to provide a basis for comparison with CREED research carried out in Kenya, and to allow for more robust conclusions to be drawn.
· The impact of poverty reduction or income generation programmes on natural resource use and environmental quality, and accompanying measures to avoid unsustainable environmental damage.
· In tackling the above issues, the ‘gender dimension’ must be addressed whenever it has a specific relevance.

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