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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 12, Number 1, 1989 (UNU, 1989, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentSustaining the Earth
View the documentAnticipating global trends: Aspects of UNU work for the period 1990-1995
View the document'An uncontrolled global experiment...'
View the document'A little breathing space': Report from the Budapest
View the documentEnergy savings: Sooner much better than later
View the document'The rich get richer...'
View the documentOld wine in new bottles?
View the documentTectonics of the desert cities
View the documentMan in the mangroves
View the documentDiverting the Nile
View the documentLosing the soils of Africa
View the documentIn fairness to the future

'The rich get richer...'

By Gilberto Gallopin, Pablo Gutman and Hector Maletta

The familiar refrain that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" has a clear and sad logic when considering the linkages between poverty, development and the environment. This was made clear in a report to the Tokyo symposium on the Human Response to Global Change by a project team Of Argentine sociologists, economists and ecologists. The truly tragic irony of this reality is brought home by two facts: (V the extent of poverty around the world has reached staggering proportions, with roughly half the global population surviving on only 13 per cent of global income; and (2) such conditions exist even though the eradication of global poverty is perfectly feasible, technologically and economically - the poor can no longer be dismissed as an unfortunate, but inevitable by-product of insufficient production capacity. The work of the project team was co-ordinated by Dr. Gilberto C. Gallopin, an ecologist with the Fundación Bariloche in San Carlos de Bariloche; other members included Dr. Pablo Gutman, an environmental economist who directs the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies in Buenos Aires, and Hector Maletta, a rural sociologist, is a UNDP, FAO, I FAD consultant in Buenos Aires. Mario Robirosa, a sociologist with FLACSO (Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences), Buenos Aires, was also a project team member. - Editor

People throughout history have mined the accumulated stock of wealth of the biosphere for their economic development. But it was only during the last two centuries, following the Industrial Revolution, that those processes began endangering the survival of humankind.

There is no paradox in the observation that this mode of resource development simultaneously creates wealth and poverty. The resources that enrich those that can benefit from development are also depleted by them - leaving those without access, the marginalized people within society, poorer nations, and subsequent generations, that much poorer. The familiar saying, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer," has a real basis in fact. Exploitative resource development - that is, development that degrades the slowly accumulating underpinnings of natural systems and societies (e.g. soils, useful traditional knowledge, and social cohesion) - is an engine of disparity.

Poverty, as the Brundtland Commission reminds us, is, in part at least, both an effect and a cause of environmental degradation: "Poor people are forced to overuse environmental resources to survive from day to day, and their impoverishment of the environment further impoverishes them, making their survival ever more difficult and uncertain."

A Grotesque Disparity

In countries such as Guatemala, where 2 per cent of landowners control 80 per cent of the arable land, it is the grotesque disparity in access to resources that forces the poor to over-exploit the inadequate land they have. The causal connection between social inequity and the use of resources by socioeconomic classes warrants closer inspection. A study of resource use in relation to the socioeconomic status of actors in Argentina's Chaco province suggests that the poorest and richest actors caused greater environmental damage than did those with intermediate status.

The numerous poor over-exploit - just to subsist. The rich, particularly large corporations, are motivated to maximize profits at the expense of sustainability since their capital can be diverted to new investments once a resource is exhausted. In the middle remain local, smaller scale businesses with a stake both in sustaining the resources they rely on and the ability to do so. While this situation should not be over-generalized, since counter-examples can be found in other parts of the world, it is fair to say that it is not uncommon at all.

All peoples of the Earth share the benefits of the functioning of the ecosphere, all share the costs of ecological degradation, all share responsibility for its maintenance. But this sharing is uneven. The more affluent industrialized countries exhibit per capita levels of resource consumption which are many times above those in the developing world, and use most of the world's metals and fossil fuels.


Unsustainable Wealth, Unsustainable Poverty

Two major sources of environmental degradation in the world can be distinguished:

· those associated with prevailing patterns of economic growth in the affluent societies (including the affluent within the poor countries); and

· those associated with poverty.

These two types of situation - unsustainable development and unsustainable impoverishment - may differ in the predominant processes affecting the quality of life and the ecosphere, but they are not disconnected.

At a higher level of analysis, affluence and poverty are complementary sides of the prevailing pattern of economic growth at the world level: an uneven growth characterized by increasing inequality and growing asymmetry between rich and poor countries, and between the rich and poor sectors within many countries.

A limited number of widespread mega-processes favouring social and ecological impoverishment would appear to account for a large proportion of such problems. Some of them are:

· de-stabilization of traditional agricultural systems due to population growth, restricted access to new resources, and to the loss of resources because of over-exploitation and erosion;

· encroachment on the lands of peasant communities by expanding commercial agriculture - particularly in areas with large previously existing indigenous populations;

· growing cash crop production under multinational and national capitalistic enterprises, and changes in production stimulated by the world market. This often implies decreased standards of living for the local rural population - both for those remaining as landless labourers as well as those migrating either to urban centres or other marginal rural areas;

· degradation originating in industrial pollution. As yet, this is mostly concentrated in the industrialized countries, but it is growing quickly in the Third World. The problem in the latter is compounded by the increasing export of polluting industries from the First World to the Third, where legal regulations are weaker and often not enforced, and where the local populations are more vulnerable.

Success: Often Part of the Problem

Even development projects, which often represent attempts to introduce Western-like innovations in the Third World, have not infrequently resulted ultimately in undesired environmental degradation.

There have been a number of efforts to provide foreign aid in various forms from the richer to the poorer countries. Many countries have allocated national resources to development programmes directed to the poor. It is tragic that many well-intentioned efforts to alleviate poverty in lesser developed countries have either failed to improve conditions, or even made things worse. Ironically, it is often the very success of a planned intervention that is the source of greater problems. Some examples:

· In the African Sahel, wells drilled to provide a reliable source of water prompted formerly nomadic people to settle near the wells. The fragile ecosystem has since collapsed under heavy grazing pressure and firewood gathering, stimulating desertification.

· Green Revolution rice varieties and intensive cultivation introduced in Indonesia were responsible for such a dramatic increase in domestic production that the country went from being the world's largest rice importer to self-sufficiency by 1983. But there were unanticipated side-effects. Expansion of rice production into new areas displaced the poorest subsistence farmers from valley bottoms to less productive and less stable hillsides, where poor soil and erosion made their subsistence farming marginal. Meanwhile, the dependence of the rice crop on an uninterrupted supply of resistant rice strains and chemical fertilizers and pesticides - which Indonesia can ill afford given the lower price it gets for its oil - makes the country's economy more vulnerable to crop failures than it was before.

· The cotton crop in the Cañete Valley in Peru during the mid-1940s had three major insect pests. New organic insecticides were introduced. Encouraged by better crop yields, farmers increased the amount of insecticides, and removed trees so that airplanes could easily spray the fields. Birds and beneficial insect predators and parasites disappeared. The pest species soon developed resistance to the treatments. Insect species which had previously been innocuous were released from control by these predators and became pests. By 1955, with the burgeoning pest species resistant to insecticides, yields dropped drastically, causing economic disaster for the farmers.

Failures in Poor, Rich Worlds: The Big Difference

Investments in development projects are made with the expectation that intervention will produce desirable effects: planners generally have a model, not normally explicit, of how they can make the system work for the greater benefit of a society. The same implicit models have been applied to development projects in the North and South - and similar failures and unanticipated negative impacts have plagued industrialized world projects:

· One-third of US croplands is now undergoing a marked decline in long-term productivity because of soil erosion due largely to agricultural overuse of land, paralleling in many respects the Sahelian situation.

· As in Indonesia, North American farm families are being displaced from their land by larger farms and equipment which the farmers cannot afford, and genetically uniform crops are vulnerable to pests; the American corn crop failed in 1966 when a new corn rust strain appeared.

· The Saint Lawrence Seaway project had some unexpected side-effects: predatory sea lampreys, able to migrate into the Great Lakes through the new canal system, decimated the indigenous lake trout population, which had formerly supported a commercial fishery.

These parallel examples of production degradation, displacement of people, increased vulnerability and unexpected consequences of development illustrate that some of the difficulties in designing interventions in the lesser developed countries have the same roots as those experienced in the developed countries. They all demonstrate the consequences of applying an implicit model of development which ignores the interconnections between ecological and social constraints and opportunities. Important contributions are commonly missed when the design of a development project is too narrowly conceived.

But these parallel examples also illustrate the crucial difference between failures of intervention in the North and South. Human populations in developed countries are buffered to some extent from failures and unexpected side-effects by social safety nets which developing countries cannot afford.

A Canadian farmer displaced from the land can rely on social assistance until he finds another job; a displaced subsistence farmer in Indonesia, who must farm less suitable land, is impoverished. The failure of the American corn crop was expensive, but no Americans went hungry as a result. Failure of the Indonesia rice crop could mean famine without substantial emergency foreign aid.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that those social and ecological impoverishment processes in the First World - their severity masked through social buffers and increasing technological inputs - may be only pushing de-stabilization and ecological irreversibilities into the future.