Environment and Poverty in Africa
Sustainable development requires significant changes in the mind-set whether it is about changing the way goods are produced and consumed, the way we set our political and social priorities, or about the way we sense the dangers to the planet’s ecosystem. In other words, sustainable development is about learning to make better decisions than we have made in the past.
The framework underlying the sustainable development concept is based on the Brundtland definition – to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This very general definition is then expanded into four broad aims:
• a healthy economy should be maintained to promote quality of life while at the same time protecting human health and the environment;
• non-renewable resources should be used optimally;
• renewable resources should be used sustainably;
• damage to the carrying capacity of the environment and the risk to human health and biodiversity from the effects of economic activity should be minimized.
Environmental information is a key element in achieving a good level of public involvement and participation in the process of sustainable development. Africa has enormous resources in their natural biodiversity and traditional knowledge systems that have the potential to be harnessed for sustainable economic development. Effective management calls for a change in the attitudes of the public and civil society in order to identify, assess and record these resources
Poverty and environmental protection are closely linked as Africa’s development blueprint, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), makes clear. NEPAD’s environmental action plan states that
Africa is characterized by two interrelated features: rising poverty levels and deepening environmental degradation … poverty remains the main cause and consequence of environmental degradation and resource depletion in Africa. Without significant improvement in the living conditions and livelihoods of the poor, environmental policies and programmes will achieve little success.
In Africa, there is a strong link between poverty and degradation of natural resources. For example, land degradation and desertification contribute to increased poverty, insecurity and the deterioration of the lives of African people.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) recognizes both the relationship between poverty and environmental degradation in underdeveloped countries as well as the problem of unsustainable production and consumption patterns in developed countries. The protection of the environment and of natural resources is therefore an essential part of development: without adequate environmental capital, development is undermined and this in turn may reduce the resources available for investing in combating environmental damage. Hence poverty alleviation is not only a moral imperative but also a prerequisite for environmental sustainability and sustainable development.
Africa faces many challenges relating to sustainable development. Over the past 30 years, the environment in Africa has continued to deteriorate. Thousands of people in Africa have already died from starvation brought about by environmental degradation. Millions more people are faced with imminent disaster because their water sources have run dry, their land has become so denuded they cannot rear livestock, and the soil so poor they cannot cultivate it. According to the FAO, “poverty alleviation and environmental protection will remain the most important priorities over the next two decades”.
Africa’s severe environmental problems like soil erosion and declining soil fertility, deforestation, pollution of water supplies, and biodiversity loss are everyday, real and critical concerns for African people. The unsustainable management and utilization of natural resources has been exacerbated by poverty and population pressures. With the world’s fastest growing population, averaging about 3% a year, the region will be home to more than a billion people by the year 2025. The continent’s population growth rate ranks highest in the world and therefore places additional strains on all systems.
The majority of poor people live in rural areas and depend directly or indirectly on terrestrial and marine natural systems for income generation. Africa poverty has contributed to accelerated degradation of natural resources. It is estimated that two-thirds of the region’s people live in rural areas and depend primarily on agriculture and other natural resources for income. In Africa, the poor depend on natural ecosystems for their livelihoods and live in the most fragile and degraded rural and urban areas. Though offering an enormous potential in natural and human resources, Africa is plagued by a rampant poverty affecting both rural and urban populations along with tremendous impacts on the environment. Alongside this situation, the standard of living has drastically deteriorated due to the lack of an efficient system of domestic and/or industrial waste management.
The region is losing its natural resources at relatively rapid rates in comparison with other regions of the world. Africa is losing millions of hectares of forest every year. Its wildlife population of rich and unique species of animals and plants is under increasing pressure. Africa’s biological resources are declining rapidly as a result of climate variability, habitat loss, over-harvesting of selected resources, and illegal activities. Yet biodiversity contributes to poverty reduction in at least five key areas: food security; health improvement; income generation, reduced vulnerability, and ecosystem services.
Environmental degradation contributes markedly to many health threats, including polluted air, dirty water, poor sanitation, and insect-transmitted diseases such as malaria. Lack of availability and low quality of freshwater are the two most limiting factors for development in Africa, constraining food production and industrial activities, and contributing significantly to the burden of disease. Land degradation and water shortages in many parts of Africa are a major threat to the ability of poor farmers to earn a living from the land. Land quality and productivity are declining in cultivated areas, rangelands and forests resulting in reduced agricultural yields, affecting economies and food security; desertification of arid areas, raising competition for remaining resources; and increased potential for conflict. Land degradation impacts are felt most keenly by the poor because they are forced to cultivate on river shores and marginal lands such as desert margins which get degraded more rapidly. The poor also often live in degraded urban environments, including sites close to waste disposal areas or vulnerable to flooding
Real, lasting poverty reduction is only possible if the environment is able to provide the services people depend on, and if natural resources are used in a manner that does not undermine long-term development. African countries’ ever increasing population demands creative efforts to find new ways of producing more food from the country’s finite resources. African governments should link biodiversity conservation with policies to overcome poverty, especially in local communities that live around protected areas and in zones richly endowed with biodiversity through the sustainable use of the resources.
Deforestation is a major problem for the environment and is partly caused by unsustainable agricultural practices including forest clearance for agricultural activities, mining and harvesting timber, poles and fuel wood. Environmental damage almost always hits poor people the hardest and the overwhelming majority of those who die each year die from air and water pollution are poor people.
Africa has been experiencing a rapid rate of urbanization which leads to high-density slums, where the risk of contamination from unsafe water and poor sanitation is highest. Most African poor people living in rural communities depend directly on natural resources for their livelihood opportunities. These are under pressure from domestic and foreign consumer demands. Most local communities are heavily dependent on forest products, natural resources and ecological services for their livelihoods and for daily subsistence. They are affected by the degradation of the environment caused by poor land, pollution, and exhausted natural resources.
Natural ecosystems provide most of the world’s poor with food, fuel, medicine, building materials and cultural identity. In addition to satisfying these immediate needs, natural resources provide services such as global climate and are reservoirs for globally important biodiversity resources. Land degradation and forest biodiversity loss are major problems in Africa due to increasing population pressure, climate change, erosion, water scarcity, unsustainable agricultural practices and exploitation of forests. Farmers have little support from their governments who are not allocating sufficient budgets to agriculture. In addition, a large section of the African population in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to electricity or other modern cooking energy, with significant costs in terms of forest degradation, time spent on firewood collection and health problems due to indoor pollution. Undeveloped science and technology and lack of access to energy lead to large post-harvest losses due to spoilage, poor storage and transport facilities.
It is widely acknowledged that climate change is likely to pose a major challenge to community livelihoods, including agriculture, natural resources and fresh water, as a result of rising temperatures. Africa contributes the least to climate change and has the least capacity to adapt, yet will still bear the brunt of extreme weather patterns leading to natural resources deterioration. It is the developed world that has been, and still remains, responsible for most human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. Yet it is the poorest countries that are likely to be the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
- Researching and promoting natural resources, biodiversity and crops that are best suited to higher temperatures;
- Enhancing community based environmental conservation programmes by linking conservation to income-generating potential;
- Supporting the use of ecological agricultural practices such as composting, water and soil conservation activities, agroforestry and crop diversification;
- Promoting organic agriculture which combines traditional agriculture and utilizes both traditional and scientific knowledge, based on appropriate agro-ecosystem management rather than on external inputs that famers cannot afford;
- Researching and adopting new, appropriate and affordable technologies for sustainable farming, sustainable agriculture, access to energy and water and sanitation;
- Promoting sustainable agriculture and traditional farming practices, building on indigenous knowledge in partnership with farmers;
- Developing alternatives to reduce reliance on biomass and to introduce clean energy in rural areas, dissemination of energy efficient tools, introducing fast growing energy trees and training in agroforestry;
- Providing training to farmers in tree nursery management, agroforestry, rainwater harvesting/water use efficiency and monitoring water resources;
- Undertaking research to promote community biotechnology for food security, and develop conservation of community-based strategies including local varieties, domesticated animal and plant species, seed banks, and local seed production and sharing;
- Designing training strategies of farmers in sustainable and climate-smart agriculture practices and improve related extension systems;
- Establishing farmer field schools to develop and disseminate the knowledge base on sustainable agricultural practices and sustainable use of natural resources based on participatory research, farmers’ knowledge and experience;
- Increasing public awareness of environmental concerns, and the influence they have as citizens and consumers on the ecological footprint as a tool for increasing understanding of unsustainable consumption and learning how to make more sustainable choices;
- Creating policies and incentives for in situ conservation by farmers of traditional varieties that are in danger of being lost, including providing incentives to smallholder farmers in Africa for carbon sequestration and ecosystem services.