Washington, 8 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - The International Food Policy Research Institute says 2,000 million hectares of land -- an area the size of North America -- has been degraded in the past 50 years, while millions more become unproductive each year as hundreds of millions of poor people try to eke out a food supply by ruining even more land.
This vicious cycle of environmental degradation and poverty has long put environmentalists into disagreement with those pushing economic growth and increased agricultural production in developing nations. It has not been uncommon for leaders of less developed countries to say they can't afford to worry about environmental protection until they are richer.
But a new book published by the Washington-based institute argues that environmental sustainability, poverty alleviation and economic growth are actually closely inter-linked -- that they are three sides in a critical triangle of human and environmental development.
Instead of being pitted against each other, says the book's co-editor Thomas Reardon, relieving poverty, protecting the environment, and encouraging economic growth require each other for long-term success.
Reardon, a Michigan State University Professor, and Stephen Vosti of the institute, talked with reporters Friday about their findings. Frequently, they said, when desperately needed environmental actions are taken -- say to protect a tropical forest -- nothing is done to help the subsistence farmer next door who cannot get an adequate crop out of his depleted land. He can only try planting more -- further degrading the land -- or infringing on the protected forest.
At the same time, his country's efforts at economic reforms -- including pricing fertilizer and farm equipment at market rates -- makes the alternative of increasing productivity on his land too expensive.
The result is increasing poverty, less environmental protection, and reduced economic growth, say the editors. Governments and other policy makers must stop looking at the three phenomenon as separate questions and begin to address them as complimentary problems that can best be dealt with by using over-lapping solutions.
The short-term solution is to provide "complementary investments," the editors say. For example, as part of economic reform policies of pushing prices up to market levels, farmers could be provided cash advances (loans) to be able to buy the fertilizer or other technology needed to increase yields. At the same time, the government must assure access to open markets where the farm products can be sold.
"The question is not whether agricultural growth should take place or how fast it should be," said Vosti, "but rather how it can occur without degrading the natural resource base."
As strange as it might seem, say the authors, many countries have never brought their environment, agriculture and finance ministers together to see how their goals inter-connect.
The editors say it is also necessary to understand there are two kinds of poverty -- welfare poverty, which is not having enough food or a secure livelihood -- and what they call "conservation investment poverty," which is having insufficient resources to make environmental conservation investments. There can be a "huge gap" between those two kinds of poverty, said Vosti, which is why many anti-poverty programs have failed. If environmental degradation is not dealt with, they say, welfare poverty will never be ended.
In the end, says Reardon, success will require public investments in infrastructure to complement farmers' own conservation investments, coupled with new institutions and community arrangements to improve people's ability to use and protect natural resources and improve the management of common areas.