Enviromental Degradation and Poverty in Less Industrialized Nations

Thomas J. Kelly, Mwangi wa Gîthînji

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Existe evidencia de que los problemas ambientales y el ingreso bajo per cápita están relacionados geográficamente. La mayor parte de lo que ha sido escrito respecto a los vínculos entre la degradación del medio ambiente y la pobreza se centran en descubrir por qué los pobres utilizan sus recursos naturales de manera insostenible. Este trabajo enfatiza principalmente el daño que la degradación del medio ambiente provoca a los sectores pobres de la población. Enseguida, el artículo revisa la explicación de la economía ambiental estándar en cuanto a por qué los pobres aceptan vivir con niveles altos de contaminación, y argumenta que debe agregarse alguna noción de poder al análisis clásico. Por otro lado, también examina el papel que juegan las altas tasas de descuento, el crecimiento acelerado de la población, las estructuras de incentivos e instituciones en el vínculo entre la pobreza y el medio ambiente. Finalmente, se formulan algunas conclusiones en cuanto a la pobreza y la degradación ambiental.


There is empirical evidence that local environmental problems and low per capita income are geographically correlated. Most of what is written about linkages between environmental degradation and poverty focuses on why the poor use their natural resources in an unsustainable manner. This paper emphasizes first the damage which environmental degradation does to the poor. Next it reviews the standard environmental economics explanation for why the poor accept high levels of pollution, and argues that some notion of power must be added to the standard analysis. Then it examines the role of high discount rates, rapid population growth, incentive structures and institutions in the poverty-environment link. Finally, some general policy conclusions regarding poverty and environmental degradation are drawn.

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Alan Duming, "Poverty and the Environment: Reversing the Downward Spiral," Worldwatch Paper No. 92 (1989); Stephen D. Mink, "Poverty, Population, and the Environment", World Bank Discussion Paper No. 189 (Washington, D.C.: the World Bank, 1993); James A. Tobey, "The Impact of Domestic Environmental Policies on International Trade," Ph. D. dissertation, University of Maryland, 1989.

Mink, ibid.

Conference on the Social Dimensions of Environment and Sustainable Development (COSDESD), Development, Environment and People: Report of the Conference on the Social Dimensions of Environment and Sustainable Development (Geneva., 1992).

See Mink, op. cit.

In Development, Environment and People: Report of the Conference on the Social Dimensions of Environment and Sustainable Development (COSDED, op. cit.) it is argued that while the poor bear the brunt of the effects of environmental degradation, within poor households women suffer much more than men. Women are the primary health care providers; they are the procurers of water and fuelwood; they have less opportunity to migrate to escape environmental degradation; and in times of environmentally induced famines their caloric intake drops disproportionately.

Mink, op. cit.

Sergio Margulis estimates that the annual costs of health damages from pollution in Mexico City alone approach U.S. $1.07 billion. This estimate includes only costs associated with medical treatment and productivity loss — it ignores suffering which Margulis terms as "subjective pain" due to the extreme difficulty associated with quantifying it. See Margulis, "Back of the Envelope Estimates of Environmental Damage Costs in Mexico," Policy Research Working Paper No. 824 (Washington, D.C.: Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Office, The World Bank, 1992).

Most air quality studies have failed to demonstrates a clear-cut relationship between income level and air pollution level (Mink, op. cit.). However, this failure is due in large part to limitations in the capability to measure airborne contaminants and does not necessarily imply that no correlation exists.

Mink, op. cit.

Margulis (op. cit.) estimates that annual productivity losses due to soil erosion in Mexico are approximately U.S.$1 billion. Unfortunately, Margulis does not estimate losses separately for small and large landholders. Regardless, given the large amount of agricultural land owned by smallholders and the relatively high susceptibility of these lands to erosion, it can be assumed that a significant share of these productivity losses are borne by the poor.

Shubh Kumar and David Hotchkiss, "Consequences of Deforestation for Women's Time Allocation, Agricultural Production, and Nutrition in Hill Areas of Nepal," IFPRP Research Report No. 69 (1988).

If one considers the assimilative capacity of the environment to be a natural resource and defines pollution as the production of waste in excess of the assimilative capacity, then the existence of pollution is not physically distinct from other forms of environmental degradation. Nevertheless, environmental and natural resource economists have found the distinction between pollution and other types of natural resource degradation analytically convenient, and we follow that convention here.

See, for example, David Pearce and R. Kerry Turner, Economics of Natural Resources and the Environment (Baltimore, Md.: John Hopkins University Press, 1990).

Presumably a goverment's environmental policy (or lack thereof) will be some reflection on the nation's tolerance for pollution. Tobey (op. cit.) points out that by the mid-1970s most developed nations had instituted pollution control measures and had begun to enforce them actively. In contrast, by the mid-1970s few LDCs had adopted pollution control measures, and of the few who had policies in place, fewer still enforced them. In 1979, Walter and Ugelow (quoted in Tobey, op. cit. ) constructed an index for stringency of national environmental controls and used it to regress environmental stringency and per capita income to have a correlation coefficient of .77.

The sample consisted of 101 countries and used 1989 data from World Resources 1992-1993 and the World Development Indicators 1992 database, published by the World Bank.

U.S. Congress, "U.S.Waste Exports" (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989).

James Boyce, "Inequality, Inefficiency, and the Environment: A Power Theoretic Model," Department of Economics Working Paper 1993-7 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1993).

Paul Ehrlich, Gretchen Daily, and Lawrence Goulder, "Population Growth, Economic Growth and Market Economies," Contention 1:2 (1991).

Keith Griffin, "A Comment on 'Population Growth, Economic Growth and Market Economies'', Contention 2:1 (1992).

Durning, op. cit.

N. Vijay Jagannathan, "Poverty-Environment Linkages: Case Study of West Java," World Bank Environment Department Divisional Paper No. 1990-8.

In this context the term "government failure" might be somewhat misleading. The Indonesian government actually succeeded in their professed goal of increasing rice production (Jagannathan, ibid.); but of course, the goals of governments are not always the same as the goals of economists.

Mwangi Gîthînji and Charles Perrings, "Social and Ecological Sustainability in the Use of Biotic Resources in Sub Sanaran Africa," AMBIO 2-3 (May 1993).

It is also important to note that the causality between population growth and environmental degradation may also run in the other direction; that is, environmental degradation creates incentives to increase family size (COSDED, op. cit). As the amount of labor time needed to complete basic household tasks increases due to environmental degradation, women may choose to have more children to help with the increasingly arduous tasks like fuelwood collection. The increased labor requirement may also lead to lower educational levels for females, as young girls are required to work at home rather than attend school. As low levels of education are highly correlated with high fertility, this could spur population growth. Finally, the degradation of agricultural land worked by women will decrease their productivity, and so lower the opportunity costs to their labor time devoted to child rearing.

Jagannathan (op. cit.) emphasizes the importance of the labor absorption of rural industries. His figures indicate that in Indonesia 64 percent of the income of landless laborers comes from off-farm activities.

United Nations, "Poverty Alleviation and Sustainable Development: Goals in Conflict?" Views and Recommendations of the Committee for Development Planning (New York: United Nations, 1992).

N. Vijay Jagannathan and A.O. Agunbiade, "Poverty-Environment Linkages in Nigeria: Issues for Research," World Bank Environment Department Divisional Working Paper No. 1990-7.

The increase in the perceived needs of the rural producers is a critical element in determining their rate of resource exploitation.

It is Jagannathan and Agunbiade's (op. cit.) contention that just such a phenomenon of environmental degradation following market integration has occurred in remote areas of Nigeria.

Durning, op. cit.

Jagannathan, op. cit., Durning, op. cit.


Gîhînji and Perrings, op. cit.

Charles Perrigs, "Pastoral Strategies in Sub Saharan Africa: The Economic and Ecological Sustainability of Dryland Range Management" (Riverside: University of California, Riverside, 1992), mimeo.

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