Poverty: A social challenge that must be addressed
Around 1.3 billion people live in conditions of extreme poverty, generally in areas of high biodiversity, who depend on biodiversity for food, health, and livelihood1. Three quarters of the worlds’ poorest citizens, or the sum of those living on less than USD2.00 per day, rely on the environment in a major way for their daily existence2. Environmental income, or nature-based earnings, is crucial to the livelihoods of the rural poor as their household economies are anchored on natural resources. In the last decade, the connection between environment and the livelihoods of the poor had been well elucidated. Environmental income, the main sources of which are small-scale farming and the collection of wild food, materials and medicines, often contributes from one-half to two-thirds of the total income stream of poor rural families. Case studies show that the better management of ecosystems producing these goods and services can significantly increase the household incomes of the poor3.
Poverty often leads to unsustainable pressures on nature and its biological resources. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) of 2005 found that 15 out of the 24 major ecosystem services it assessed were being degraded or used unsustainably. These included plant pollination and the provision of fresh water, wood fuels, wild food and fish. The MA concluded that the greatest burden of ecosystem degradation already falls on the poor, and it will continue to do so in increasing measure should current trends persist. This makes world poverty intrinsically linked to ecosystem deterioration and biodiversity loss4.
The ASEAN economic growth rates have fluctuated through the years, suggesting its dynamism and resilience during periods of economic adversities. This pattern is also reflected in its social development. The growth in incomes has allowed for increased public sector investments to meet the rising cost cover for providing social services. The region is home to 580 million people, with a steady annual growth rate of 1.9 per cent. Human development, as measured by the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index (HDI) values, varies widely among countries, signifying disparities in the level of development. While the variance is understandable, it should be noted that the 2005 HDI of individual ASEAN Member States have exhibited progressive increases in values since 19955, especially those bracketed in the medium ranked countries (i.e., Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam). Increases in the HDI can be attributed to significant improvement in life expectancy, rising prosperity with the expansion of middle-income families, and growing access to information and knowledge as literacy improves. Notably, the dramatic increase in HDI values was due to those from the least developed countries of the ASEAN.
A key social issue that remains challenging for most ASEAN Member States, except Singapore and Brunei Darussalam, is the attainment of Millennium Development Goal 1: the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, which targets to cut the incidence of poverty by half by 2015. Many of the ASEAN Member States have made significant strides in achieving this goal. However, over 50 million people in the region are still living below the poverty threshold, at USD1.00 a day6. This number may be much higher should the poverty threshold level be raised to USD2.00 a day. It is important to note that a significant number of the poor are in rural areas, and they exert intense pressure on the state and condition of natural resources in the region.
Although ASEAN economies continue to be largely agricultural, some significant shifts in the key drivers of economic growth are being noted in the region. Over the past decade, the share of the agriculture sector as a driver of growth has been declining. Conversely, the share of the industrial and service sectors have been rising significantly. This trend was manifested in 2005 and 2006 when economic growth in the region was attributed to the boost in the exports of electronic products and increases in services relating to the electronic industry7. While this shift may be a welcome transition for many Southeast Asian countries that have relied on agriculture to propel their economies, this may also generate negative social and environmental impacts if done without the necessary policy and infrastructure support. In the context of the sustainable management of natural resources, including biodiversity, the implications of such a growth pattern could be far-reaching, potentially affecting the overall sustainability of economic growth in the region. Concern among ASEAN Member States that unbridled growth may lead to unsustainable economic growth patterns is not unfounded. As has been observed, a number of the environmental issues currently being experienced are invariably linked to the way the countries pursue economic growth.
Rural-urban migration is significantly rising in the region. In 2005, the United Nations reported that 42 per cent of the ASEAN Member States’ population is in the urban areas, which is double the ratio of rural-urban population in the 1960s8. At the current population growth rate, it is projected that more people will live in urban areas than in rural areas by 20209 . This trend has profound implications on the quality and integrity of the environment, not only in urban centers, but also in the immediate vicinities of cities. Unabated urbanization has given rise to water and air pollution, solid waste management problems, unsafe disposal of toxic and hazardous waste, the proliferation of informal settlers, and the conversion of other productive land areas for urban use. Urbanization has also resulted in a major change in the consumption patterns of people that exert additional pressures on the environment. This change is particularly significant since the ASEAN Member States are also renowned for producing environmentally sensitive products for export and domestic consumption.
While economic development is crucial to meeting the Millennium Development Goals on poverty reduction, long-term sustainability will be undermined should biodiversity issues not be taken into account in all decision-making processes across all sectors. Many actions that could be taken to eradicate extreme poverty are likely to accelerate biodiversity loss in the short-run. The Convention on Biological Diversity further emphasizes that the existence of trade-offs implies that environmental considerations, including those related to biodiversity, should be integrated into the implementation of all relevant MDGs.
The eight developing countries of the ASEAN, namely: Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam, have adopted MDGs as a platform for development (Table 1). However, disparities in MDG performances exist, and observations are made based only on available data. Indonesia, Malaysia, Viet Nam and Thailand are considered as early achievers in meeting Target 1: Halve the proportion of people whose income is less than USD1.00 a day.
Table 1. Progress in achieving MDG 1 Target 1: Halve the proportion of people whose income is less than USD1.00 a day
On MDG 7: Ensuring environmental sustainability, the ASEAN Member States have shown a decline in the proportion of land area covered by forest from 56 per cent to 47 per cent between 1990 and 2005 (Table 2). Forest resources play a key role in poverty reduction and food security. Many people depend on forests for subsistence and as a source of livelihood 18. Thus, the proportion of land area covered by forest provides a good indication of achievement in meeting MDG 7, Target 1: Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs and reverse the loss of environmental resources.
Table 2. Progress in achieving MDG 7 Target 1: Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country
policies and programs and reverse the loss of environmental resources
In the midst of worsening ecosystem trends, and in recognition of the close connection between poverty and the environment, there is a need to scale up efforts to improve economic conditions in a way that helps arrest rather than exacerbate environmental damage19.
2World Resources Institute in collaboration with United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme, and World Bank. 2008. World Resources 2008:
Roots of Resilience–Growing the Wealth of the Poor. Washington, DC: WRI.
3World Resources, 2005
4Ried et al, 2005
5United Nations Development Programme. Human Development Report 2007-2008.
6United Nations Development Programme. Human Development Report 2007-2008.
10United Nations Development Group. 2003. Cambodia Millennium Development Goals Report. Available online at http://www.undg.org
11United Nations Development Group. 2005. Indonesia Progress Report on the Millennium Development Goals. Available online at http://www.undg.org
12United Nations Development Group. 2008. Lao PDR Millennium Development Goals Progress Report. Available online at http://www.undg.org
13MDG Report 2005
14United Nations Development Group. 2005. Malaysia: Achieving the Millennium Development Goals: Successes and Challenges. Available online at http://www.undg.org
15United Nations Development Group. 2007. Philippines Midterm Progress Report on the Millennium Development Goals. Available online at http://www.undg.org
16United Nations Development Group. 2004. Thailand Millennium Development Goals Report. Available online at http://www.undg.org
17United Nations Development Group. 2005. Vietnam: Achieving the Millennium Development Goals Available online at http://www.undg.org.
18World Resources Institute et. al. 2008. op. cit.
19World Resouces Institute. Roots of Resilience–Growing the Wealth of the Poor. Washington, DC: WRI.
ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity. 2010. ASEAN Biodiversity Outlook: Poverty - A social challenge that must be addressed. pp.95-99. Los Banos, Laguna, Philippines. 2010.