December 17, 2006

Ecology and poverty alleviation

Fabrice DeClerck, Jane C. Ingram and Cristina M. Rumbaitis del Rio argue that "application of ecological theory and knowledge to development can simultaneously meet human needs and conserve ecosystems" (The role of ecological theory and practice in poverty alleviation and environmental conservation, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment).
Here, we outline specific examples of how theories, concepts, knowledge, and tools generated through ecological research can be used to eliminate extreme hunger, ensure a continuous supply of clean freshwater, secure reliable and clean sources of energy, mitigate the effects of disease, and enhance protection and resilience in the face of natural hazards.
If you think this is an overstatement, then you are right - this is an overstatement.

Let's take the case of "securing reliable and clean sources of energy."
Globally, three billion people depend on biomass fuels (wood, charcoal, dung, and crop residues) for their daily energy needs. The task of fuelwood collection falls disproportionately on women and children, taking time away from education and other productive activities. Further negative effects of burning biomass include forest degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, decreased use of crop residues and animal waste as fodder or fertilizer, and increased indoor air pollution. Emissions released from indoor biomass burning are responsible for 1.6 million premature deaths a year, due to acute respiratory infections, pneumonia, and other respiratory illnesses.
After admitting that "a transition to cleaner burning fuels in households accompanies economic development and urban migration" the authors pronounce their solution - to encourage farmers to plant trees, perhaps combined with future "technologies" for "improved combustion and smoke removal."

The paper's conclusion is inescapable:
Ecologists are already well-equipped to address many of the environmental problems that underpin poverty and, as this article has highlighted, are already doing so in many locations. They have learned to appreciate complexity, to consider effects across spatial and temporal scales, to identify the existence of critical thresholds, and to recognize the true value of ecosystems. These contributions are critical if development is to be economically viable as well as environmentally sustainable.

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