Poverty and environment

Poverty in relation to climate change

9. The relation between poverty and our environment


There are interesting relationships between wealth and environmental impact. Wealthy people are generally the biggest consumers and leave the biggest carbon footprint. However the poor are often bigger polluters in terms of dumping rubbish, illegal mining, poaching, and burning forests for agriculture (like in the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil). The wealthy people leave a big carbon footprint flying to a climate conference, while the poor worry less about the environment and just try to earn enough to feed themselves. Poor people depend most on natural resources for their livelihoods, and consequently suffer the most from the impacts of climate change, deforestation, overfishing, and other environmental problems. Environment and development issues can’t be separated.

Under sustainable development, the relationship between poverty and environmental change is described as a two-way interactive process (Gray and Moseley, 2005). Poverty is viewed as both a cause of environmental degradation and a result of people living in fragile and ecologically vulnerable environments. It are often the poorest people who live in ecologically fragile and vulnerable areas like flood plains, mountainous regions, and fragile forest ecosystems. In the cities it are the urban poor who live and work in environments with high exposure to environmental hazards like smog. Some research even shows that in the same city poor neighborhoods can be up to eleven degrees Celsius, or 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than wealthy neighborhoods! This dangerous discrepancy is called the ‘intraurban variability of temperature’ – or simply the ‘heat gap’. It occurs in cities all over the planet, and exists because some neighbourhoods end up getting far less investment than richer areas do. As a result, buildings in those areas tend to be lower quality – with less aircon and more porous walls, which let in heat. There are also fewer parks and green spaces that provide coolness and shade, and more paved areas to absorb heat.

Participatory Poverty Assessment (PPA) is the approach of analyzing and reducing poverty by incorporating the views of the poor. Participatory Poverty Assessments attempt to better understand the poor, to give the poor more influence over decisions that affect their lives, and to increase the effectiveness of poverty reduction policies. A review of 23 Participatory Poverty Assessments from the Department for International Development (DFID) emphasizes how the poor feel vulnerable to environmental shocks and stresses. These shocks and stresses can play a key role in moving people down to a lower state of well-being – they act as ‘drivers of poverty’. It is also said that “the poor live at the whim and mercy of nature”.

Although poor people are often more affected by climate change, they tend to care much less about the environment. One reason is lack of education, but a more important reason is that they have other things to worry about first. This makes perfect sense because unless you live directly from the nature around you, like indigenous people and farmers, your daily concerns are likely: “How to make enough money to pay for food, rent and take care of my family”. Case studies seem to show that unless the environmental impact directly influences the daily life of the poor people, they usually don’t care about the environment. Therefore poor people tend to damage and pollute more nature than necessary. Negative environmental impact from the poor includes:

• Large families (overpopulation)
• Pressure on fragile (farm)land
• Unnecessary deforestation (although this is of course also a problem from the rich)
• Insufficient knowledge and tools to conserve the environment
• Poaching (protected) wildlife
• Inadequate disposal of waste

Tourism can bring a sustainable improvement of the economic situation of the poor, which in return can help the environment.

9.1 An exceptional story about reducing poverty

The bank of José Adolfo QuisocalaAn exceptional story about a positive relation between economic and environmental improvement comes from José Adolfo Quisocala The now 15-year old Peruvian boy is a banker who encourages children to save and recycle waste. By the age of seven, attending a state school in the Peruvian city of Arequipa, he decided he wanted to create a bank for children. He was motivated by seeing his peers skipping lunch because they had spent the little money they had on sweets or football cards. What drove him, even more, was the poverty he saw among children who were not attending primary school at all. “Seeing children living in poverty, seeing many children working in the streets, at the traffic lights selling sweets, begging … made me think, why can’t these children go to a normal school,” he told The Guardian. One of the reasons why those kids were working was to help supporting their family. José decided to teach them the benefits of saving money. To motivate the poor children around him to save their money he founded, at age seven, ‘El Banco Cooperativo del Estudiante Bartselana’, or the Bartselana student bank.

His bank now has more than 3,000 clients between the ages of 10 and 18 and offers loans, micro-insurance, and other financial services. The children can withdraw money from the cashpoints of several banks and building societies using personal bank cards, which no one else can use, and monitor their balances online. He also set savings goals his clients had to reach before they could withdraw money.

But José hasn’t only encouraged children to save money he has combined financial services with environmental services. José came up with an innovative way for the children to earn money by collecting recyclable plastic or paper waste. “The children would sometimes bring savings of a few cents and I had promised that they could buy a bicycle, a computer or a laptop. But with that amount of money it would take a long time,” he says. “I thought there must be a way they can earn money and I thought about rubbish; we all generate rubbish and I decided that was the solution.” Children can now bring plastic bottles, used school exercise books, and old newspapers to a kiosk at their school where it is weighed, and their bank accounts are credited with the corresponding amount of money. For this José Adolfo struck deals with local recycling companies to pay his bank’s clients a slightly higher price than normal.

In 2018 José Adolfo received the prestigious Swedish ‘Children’s Climate Prize’ for his innovative banking system that helps both the poor and the environment. Greta Thunberg was one of the other four finalists that year, but she renounced out of protest that the others arrived in Stockholm by plane.

In 2019 French filmmaker Gilles de Maistre’s made an impressive documentary called “Demain est à Nous” in which he follows José Adolfo and other teen pioneers around the world who rapidly change society.

According to the Shared Socio-Economic Pathways, earlier in this book, environmental programs have a higher rate of success when there is less poverty, better education, better understanding and mutual motivation. The bank of José Adolfo has managed to provide poor children the right incentives and teach them how to earn money, save money and protect the environment. Research published in New Internationalist shows how more equal incomes in a country provide less carbon footprint.

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