Global Poverty Up, A Result of Debt and Environmental Decline


The share of humanity living in poverty increased during the 1980s, reversing a 30year downward trend, according to a study from the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.

"Approximately 1.2 billion people, nearly one fourth of humankind, now live below the threshold of basic needs," said Alan B. Durning, author of Poverty and the Environment: Reversing the Downward Spiral. "Just since the decade began, more than 200 million people have joined the ranks of the poor."

The poverty trap of environmental degradation, external debt, population growth, and inequitable development policies is likely to impoverish many more unless it is dismantled soon, Durning said.

"Poverty and ecological decline have formed a vicious circle that
endangers rich and poor alike. If global threats such as the greenhouse
effect are not averted, half of humanity--perhaps 5 billion people--could live
in destitution by the third quarter of the next century."

This vicious circle can be broken if governments join hands with the thousands of grassroots antipoverty organizations that have formed around the world--and if international action is taken soon on debt and the environment.

Global per capita income has more than doubled since mid-century, yet the fruits of success have gone overwhelmingly to the fortunate, according to the report, which was funded by the United Nations Population Fund. Growing inequity between and within nations has resulted in a world where the richest billion people earn 30-40 times as much as the poorest.

In 1980, 22.3 percent of humanity lived in absolute poverty--a state in which income is too low to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. Despite substantial reductions in poverty in China and India during this decade, the global figure stands at 23.4 percent in 1989.

Poverty has risen sharply in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia during the 1980s. "The 14 most devastated countries have seen their per capita income plummet as drastically since their troubles began as did the United States during the Great Depression," said Durning.

The poor are mostly rural villagers in the Third World. Among them, women, minorities, agricultural laborers, and children are all overrepresented. Indeed, perhaps two-thirds of the poor are under the age of 15.

"Growing destitution in an affluent world is the result of interlocking local, national, and international forces that form a global poverty trap," Durning said. "Locally, people are impoverished by growing landlessness, susceptibility to disease, population pressures, and powerlessness."

"These are reinforced at the national level by policies--from tax laws to the structure of development inves.tment--that neglect or discriminate against - more 3 the poor. And globally, the poor are held down by oppressive debt burdens, high interest rates, falling export prices, and rising capital flight."

Environmental deterioration augments these factors. Not only do the poor suffer disproportionately from ecological decline, they have unwittingly become a major cause of it. In their struggle to feed their children they put rain forests to the torch and mountain slopes to the plow.

"Increasingly, economic deprivation and environmental degradation reinforce one another to form a maelstrom--a downward spiral," Durning said. . In hill regions of Nepal, for example, forest clearing has lengthened women's trips to gather wood, reducing their time to grow and prepare food. Deforestation and poverty are so closely linked in Nepal that the health of a village's children can be read in the retreating tree line on nearby slopes."

The result has been that, with uncanny regularity, the world's most impoverished regions also suffer the worst ecological damage. Some 580 million of the absolute poor, nearly half of the total, are already caught in this downward spiral, according to the report.

"But the poor do not suffer alone. Potential medicines lost with the extinction of rain forest species are unavailable to the fortunate and the unfortunate alike. And carbon dioxide released as migrants burn plots in the Amazon warms the globe as surely as does auto exhaust in Los Angeles."

To reverse this downward spiral before it pulls in more of humanity will require national governments and international agencies to redefine development as the struggle to help the poorest break out of the poverty trap.

The report recommends a variety of innovative grassroots strategies gathered from around the world that put the poor--the true experts on poverty in control. Critical components of a grassroots mobilization against poverty are female education, redistribution of farmland, empowerment of communities to control local natural resources, and extension of credit, clean water supplies, primary health care, and family planning services.

"The poor are not so much the problem as the solution," noted Durning. In West Bengal, India, untouchables who received tiny allotments of scrub land from the state started tree farms that enabled them to buy fertile plots from absentee landlords, helping themselves and the environment. In the highlands of Bolivia, home of the Quechua Indians, a grassroots education program unleashed local knowledge and energy that has flowed into dozens of activities, including soil and forest conservation.

The state of Kerala, India, provides a model of fighting poverty with grassroots participation. The state's success speaks for itself. Despite per capita income one-third below the Indian average, the state's literacy rate is almost twice the national mark, its people typically live 11 years longer, its birth rate is one-third lower, and its infant death rate is two-thirds lower.

Yet local and national efforts will come to little in the absence of fundamental changes at the international level. Without accords to reduce debt dramatically and to head off climate change before it becomes cataclysmic, the downward spiral will accelerate out of control.

"In an ecologically endangered world," the report concludes, "poverty is a luxury we can no longer afford."

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