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Poverty and the environment – making the links

If we’re going to reduce poverty in the long term, we need to recognise how it’s linked to the environment.

Villagers collecting water, Tanzania

We all depend on biodiversity and ecosystems, and the services nature provides – but we often take them for granted. Ecosystems provide:

  • food
  • timber
  • fibres
  • fuel
  • medicines
  • fresh water

African mahogany , Entandrophragma cylindricum. Trees such as this one are a major source of African mahogany, an important commercial logging species of Central Africa.

They also provide essential services such as:

  • water purification
  • air and soil quality
  • pollination
  • pest control
  • climate regulation
  • protection against floods, landslides and other natural hazards

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment clearly shows a decline in the ecosystems that supply many of these services and products.

Ecosystems and poverty
Poorer communities are most affected by this decline since they are most directly reliant on ecosystem services for their well-being. The livelihoods of more than one billion people depend directly on natural resources.

Damage to the environment, as well as a lack of clean water and land suitable for farming or growing food, leads to more hunger, illness, poverty and reduced opportunities to make a living.

Poorer people are also less resilient to natural or manmade disasters, including climate change. Conflict over natural resources threatens their development – illegal logging, for example, robs governments of revenues and deprives local communities of forest resources.

Looking after natural resources makes poorer communities more resilient. Forests, for example, can protect agricultural land and villages from soil erosion and flooding. Mangrove swamps provide protection from storm surges and coastal erosion. Sustainable management of agricultural land provides food for people to eat and sell.

Fishing: Mafia Island © E Parker/WWF-UK

We need to invest carefully in environmental goods and services. Priorities include:

  • integrated water resource management
  • sustainable fisheries
  • restoring degraded land
  • sustainable forest management

These will bring long-term benefits for the economy and human development.

What WWF is doing
We support local communities to help them manage their natural resources – such as land, water, forests and biodiversity – in a sustainable way.

We do this by giving people the skills they need to manage their environment and creating opportunities for them to have their say about the way this is done. This can help improve livelihoods and reduce poverty in the long-term.

It's not a one-way process either. We can often learn from the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples. Their local wisdom and survival skills, often learned and passed down over generations, can teach us a lot about the natural world and how to live in harmony with it. 

Our community-based projects show that with local people involved it’s possible to find the delicate balance between development and conservation.

For example, we’ve linked the small-scale forest enterprises we helped set up to local and international markets. This creates a reliable source of income for poor communities, and gives people an incentive to manage their environment in a sustainable way.

We're working at many different levels to help some of the world's poorest people use natural resources in a more sustainable way – better for them and better for the environment.

Sugar cane workers harvesting sugar cane, Vanua Levu, Fiji

International development

To fight poverty, we need to tackle the root causes of the problem. We need people at every level to take action, from local communities to national governments. And we need policies to help them do this.

Amazon in the wet season Rio Negro forest reserve, Amazonas, Brazil © WWF-Canon / Michel Roggo

Environmental governance

Governance is about decision-making – who makes the decisions, why, and how those decisions are implemented. It happens at all scales, from local community organisations through national governments to global institutions.

Local man at his family burial site, now submerged in water, Navua, Fiji

Climate change and poverty

The poorest people and the poorest countries are being hit first and hardest by climate change. Yet they bear least responsibility for greenhouse-gas emissions.

Alex Kubi sitting amongst a pile of FSC coded logs, Akamba Handicrafts, Kenya

Livelihoods and natural resources

Hundreds of millions of people around the world rely on natural resources for their livelihoods. For example, an estimated 250 million people in developing countries directly depend on small-scale fisheries for food and income.

Members of the Kalpana Women's Group at Mohanpur, near Royal Bardia National Park, Nepal

Women and conservation

We recognise the different roles women and men play in managing natural resources. Every day, all over the world, women make countless choices that affect the environment.

Nature laminate flooring factory, Shanghai. Nature is a member of the WWF's Forest Trade Network

Private sector involvement

The private sector has an important role to play in helping developing economies grow. We want to make sure local people benefit when companies work in developing countries. We also want to make sure the environment doesn’t suffer.