Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Poverty of Environment Planning

The consequences and causes of environmental problems have always been corelated with poverty. This correlation has frequently resulted in environmental activism ending up perpetuating and exacerbating poverty instead of alleviating it.

Funnily enough, poverty has been cited as a reason for environmental degradation. It started with the very first report on sustainable development in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission. The report explicitly said, ‘Poverty is a major cause and effect of global environmental problems.’

So to avoid environmental degradation, it was first considered necessary to eradicate poverty by giving poorer countries the ‘right to development’. But environmentalists realised that waiting to eradicate poverty before dealing with issues like global warming might make those issues worse in the meantime. And, of course, this was always assuming that poverty could be eradicated and that the removal of poverty would solve the problems of environmental degradation.

This particular corelation between poverty and environment is dubious. Is poverty automatically a "cause" of environmental degradation? It has been repeatedly proved that much environmental degradation in cities is caused by the consumption patterns of the rich and the middle class, not the urban poor. 

In fact, the poor face much more direct health & economic risks from environmental degradation and pose much less risk to the environment themselves because their consumption of resources and consequent waste-generation is so much lower than the rich and middle-class.

Raw Sewage trickling into the abandoned Dronacharya water reservoir
Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi (image source: author) 

"Environmental problems in the Third World are often manifested far more intensely and more immediately than in the highly industrialised part of the world because survival margins there are very small; even minor decreases in yield and productivity may have disastrous socio-economic effect." - John Martinussen

It has been said that the poor have to necessarily over-exploit and harm their environment just to survive. In fact, the resources used by the poor themselves are very little in comparison to the resources they have to use to meet the demands of the formal economy and international market. Much of this exploitation of the environment is also related to a denial of access to resources and controls on land ownership.

For example, one of the planning solutions to ‘common pool’ natural resources has been to privatise them which has deprived the poor of even more resources, forcing them to continue or increase over-exploitation of the few resources they have left.

This brings one to conflicting viewpoints of the 'Green Agenda' and the 'Brown Agenda'. The Green Agenda is concerned with issues of environment protection, ecosystems and bio-diversity, resource depletion and long-term survival. The Brown Agenda is concerned with the direct risk to human life due to environmental degradation - and the effects of this on day to day survival of people.

The conflict between the two has already had direct consequences. The Green Agenda’s focus on preserving eco-systems has led to declaring vast tracts of land as nature preserves even as it denies indigenous people access to resources that form their traditional livelihood.
 Children sort garbage to sell for recycling in the toxic environs of the 70 acre Ghazipur Landfill Site 
East Delhi, India (image source: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Planning that addresses both agendas remains a challenge... and it is an even bigger challenge in developing countries. 

1. Protecting the environment is frequently seen as harmful for investments. So the comparative advantage for developing countries in the international market is subject to the use of its natural resources and production of goods - unhampered by environmental planning and regulation.

2. Poorer countries can't afford 'Green Infrastructure'. This requires collective spending that third world citizens can't afford. And neither can their governments - due to a combination of low tax collection & high corruption. Economic activity has to occur in a taxable, formal economy with a population having a per capita income high enough to pay for ‘green’ infrastructure.

3. Citizens in poorer countries do not have the time or money to lobby their governments. Much environmental legislation in developed countries happens due to citizens' activism. Day to day survival takes precedence over activism. 

Until, of course, there comes a point when day to day survival becomes impossible without activism. This is what generated the CHIPKO Movement. Chipko in Hindi means "To stick to" or to hug. It is the origin of the phrase "Treehugger". It was a form of environmental protest that first occurred in the western Indian state of Rajasthan in 1730 AD. The village of Khejarli saw the sacrifice of 363 members of the Bishnoi community who died protecting the vital and sacred green Khejri tree from the loggers of the local Maharaja.

About 200 years later, the problem of deforestation became endemic under the British. Forest "conservation" policies like the Indian Forest Act of 1927 restricted the access of local communities to their forests while auctioning tracts of "un-listed" forests to timber contractors - a practice that has been continued by Indian governments after independence. This led to reckless deforestation and those must affected, at the fundamental level, were poor women villagers. 

In the lower Himalayan Garhwal regions of north India, the crisis came to a head as women found themselves walking further and further, sometimes a few kilometres a day, just to collect firewood for survival. Finally, unable to sustain the hardship any longer, they fought back. On the night of March 26, 1974 - a group of 26 women led by Gaura Devi, collectively started "sticking to" and hugging trees to protect them from being felled by commercial loggers at the risk of their own lives. These women were the original and literal - Treehuggers.
"Maatu hamru, paani hamru, hamra hi chhan yi baun bhi... 
Pitron na lagai baun, hamunahi ta bachon bhi"
Soil ours, water ours, ours are these forests...
Our forefathers raised them, it’s we who must protect them.
- Folk Song (Garhwali language) -

Author: Shahana Dastidar
Notes: For references or further information, please write to the author at urbanruralfabric(at)


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