|Greening at the Grassroots: People's Participation in Sustainable Development (UNRISD, 1991, 25 p.)|
There is at present much discussion of the relationship between poverty and environmental degradation. The common argument is that poor people are forced to cultivate marginal lands, or to overexploit resources in spite of the fact that they threaten their future livelihood by doing so, because they will not otherwise be able to survive the present season. There is of course some truth in this model, but as a basis for understanding the primary causes of environmental degradation it is not particularly helpful. It may just as easily be said (as it has often been) that the excessive wealth and overconsumption of industrialized societies is responsible for the vast majority of unsustainable resource extraction, and that wealth may therefore be more appropriately blamed for ecological problems than poverty. Again, however, while this way of framing the problem may be accurate, it does not provide substantial assistance in finding ways out of the difficulties. And, as the scale of the ecological disasters in some of the former socialist countries attests, neither does the presence of economic inequality fully account for environmental degradation.
The research on participation in resource management described above, however, has shown that poor communities not only have the highest incentives for managing their resources sustainably, but they have historically often been able to develop a variety of effective and adaptable means of doing so. Environmental degradation in rural areas of the Third World is not due to the poverty of rural communities; rather, poverty is a symptom of one of the primary underlying causes of local level environmental decline in the Third World today: the disempowerment of these communities8. Furthermore, to the extent that local level degradation forms a major component of global environmental problems, this growing inability of communities to participate in resource management decisions has an important impact on the potential for sustainable development. Disempowerment in the course of development can take many forms. People may be deprived of access to the resources on which they depend, their traditional tenure rights and rights to exclude outsiders may be abrogated, or their ability to make their own decisions regarding resource management may be curtailed. In all of the cases the result is similar: resource management decisions are taken over by those with insufficient stake in the local environment, and resources are extracted at unreplenishable levels in order to benefit other, often richer, societies.
8 A full discussion of the concepts of empowerment and disempowerment, and of the problems with these terms, is beyond the scope of this paper. As used here, empowerment refers to a complex process centred around peoples efforts to increase their participation that is, their control over physical and social resources within the development process.
It is clear, then, that struggles for greater participation are essential elements of the foundation of an endurable basis for sustainable development. This process can only be helped by the growing recognition of the importance of the environment for the future well-being of the entire planet. Muntemba argues that environmental degradation is becoming a liberating force:
I have come across communities/chiefdoms where the ecological degradation which found expression in the food crisis of the 1980s pushed people into taking conservation measures which in fact flouted national laws.... Some governments are willing and anxious to try ways of managing the natural resources to ensure the livelihoods of poor people. Where people know this, they are seizing the opportunity for further empowerment. (Muntemba, 1990: 4).
Under certain conditions it is clear she is right - in particular when degradation reaches the point where outside interventions are abandoned in favour of local initiatives, or when an ecological disaster resulting from interventions in one area leads to calls for more recognition of the sustainability of traditional practices in similar ecological zones. The question of how widespread a phenomenon this empowerment process can become, however, is still open. It will depend on the efforts of both development agents and environmentalists not only to support peoples rights for self-determination, but also to recognize that their struggles are essential for the health of the environment.