Ignoring environment, culture could keep people in poverty - researchers

by Sophie Hares | @SophieHares | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 3 May 2017 18:00 GMT

Men work on a farm in a village in Nigeria's northern state of Kaduna, Nov. 15, 2016. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

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A narrow focus on boosting farm production can result in land degradation, deforestation and pollution

By Sophie Hares

TEPIC, Mexico, May 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Efforts to fight rural poverty need to take better account of the environment and local culture to avoid exacerbating the problems they are meant to solve, researchers said.

Agricultural development programmes should consider more than just economic growth when trying to move people out of the poverty trap, and consider the links between social and ecological systems, said a paper published on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

"If you're ignoring nature and culture, even the economic equations show there would be adverse consequences," said co-author Jamila Haider from the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Traditional seed types and agricultural practices risk being lost, alongside cultural links to crops, through development projects to introduce higher-yielding and more marketable crops.

In some cases, a rise in production has resulted in worse land degradation, including deforestation and pollution, and left communities more exposed to shocks, said the researchers.

They also noted cases where new seed types failed because local customs and environmental conditions were neglected.

The report said "resilience thinking" could shed light on why many aid projects - including those that pay for seeds, fertilisers and machinery - fail to help people out of poverty.

Some communities have remained resilient for generations by using traditional seed varieties, Haider said.

Noting that 78 percent of the world's poorest people live in rural areas, the report highlighted the concept of "transformative development" - for example, where farmers are encouraged to retain some of their local crops and farming techniques, instead of switching to single cash crops.

Poor farmers often keep bio-diverse agricultural land in good condition, but intensifying production can damage it, the report said.

"Rather than increasing production through inputs of physical capital, the transformation delivers increased production due to increases in natural capital and cultural capital," said co-author Steven Lade in a statement.

Where risks are high that traditional aid will fail, alternative approaches can be pursued that build on "historically successful cultural practices to manage the local ecology", he added.

Andy Jarvis of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), who was not involved in the study, said that while strategies adopted in the 1980s and 1990s may have lacked a clear linkage between development and the environment, most programmes now have a broader perspective.

For example, they might weigh up the benefit of sticking with lower-yielding traditional crops against newer varieties when considering how best to support communities.

"You've got all of these environmental safeguards in the huge development funds that move through the development banks... they are thoughtful on that," said Jarvis by phone from Colombia. "Ten, 15 years ago, there was probably a lot less."

(Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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