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Conservation and……Poverty

Conservation and…is contributed by the Belize Audubon Society (BAS). It is meant to inform, educate and mobilize Belizeans to action on environmental issues highlighting the interconnectedness of environmental issues with other sectors of society.   

In mid-February 2010 the preliminary results of the 2009 poverty assessment were made public. They were grim but perhaps not surprising to many. The findings classified 43% of the population as poor, with a further 14% of households deemed vulnerable to poverty. In other words, 57% or more than half of all Belizean households are either poor or susceptible to being poor.

But what does being POOR mean? Many of us can relate to being “bruk”, but does that make us poor? According to the World Bank, “A person is considered poor if his or her consumption or income level falls below some minimum level necessary to meet basic needs. This minimum level is usually called the “poverty line””. Put simply, poor people have difficulty meeting their basic human needs—food, shelter, water and clothing.  

Unfortunately, the Belizean situation is not unique, global statistics indicate that one in five people in the world live in poverty. These first reported findings of the poverty report can serve as a reminder to Belize that sustainable development is integral to the discussion of poverty reduction. At a macro level, poverty and more importantly increasing poverty, makes us question the planet’s capacity to sustain the almost 7 billion people living on it and its ability to provide them with the resources they need to survive. At a local level attaining a long-term solution to poverty, that is, meeting our basic needs means achieving a balance between the social, economic and environmental aspects of development.

So how exactly is poverty linked to conservation?
We often refer to Belize as a jewel: lush green forest, colourful birds, clear blue waters and an abundance of marine life. These things have existed and can continue to exist if left on their own. The reality is, however, that they share their existence with humans. Humans, who have always looked to nature to fulfil their basic needs: plants for food and medicine; trees for boats, homes, and firewood; animals for food and skins. When the population was small, the demand for natural resources was small, but as the population grew and consumerism evolved, the impacts we create have also grown. The more we develop, the larger our footprint has become.

Conservation aims at re-focusing attention on our use of these natural resources. Conservation, according to the IUCN/WWF/UNEP World Conservation Strategy, is “the maintenance of essential ecological processes and life-support systems, the preservation of genetic diversity, and the sustainable utilization of species and ecosystems”. It is important to note that conservation is more than protection of biodiversity, it includes sustainable use, which is vital to our maintenance of the many environmental services we benefit from nature. But more importantly, conservation aims to maintain the benefits we derive from nature, which contribute to all dimensions of human well-being (subsistence, economic, cultural, and spiritual).

The benefits of conservation are often perceived as minimal and having no direct market value, and the costs and benefits of conservation are usually unevenly distributed in society. But conservation efforts are necessary from a human perspective as poverty and biodiversity are integrally intertwined. The reality is that only if conservation succeeds will the long term usage of natural resources and benefits be felt by locals. Biodiversity serves to sustain livelihoods at the subsistence level and contributes to generation of income and economic opportunities. It has been seen that when people are poor they are often forced to overuse their resources for their survival due to lack of alternatives (leading to a vicious cycle of poverty and resource degradation). Additionally, losses in biodiversity and changes in ecosystem services have caused a decline in human well-being, especially for the poor in rural areas who depend directly on ecosystems and their services for survival. Natural resources are the “wealth of the poor” and conservation of these resources contributes directly to poverty reduction.

The reality…
In the long run, unsustainable land, water and natural resource use will reduce the social and economic benefits to humans provided by the environment. The following are some examples of how the environment is a core component of social and economic development:

Poor people tend to be most dependent on the environment and natural resources, and thus most affected when the environment is degraded. Livelihoods and food security of the poor often depend directly on the natural resources available to them through farming, livestock rearing, fishing, etc. Unsustainable practices in the latter have led to: over-fishing, which has depleted global fish stocks wiping out the livelihoods of small-scale subsistence fishermen and women; deforestation, which not only removes trees but also top soil vital for replanting and farming, destroying any further use of the land. In addition, misuse of resources has diminished the full range of ecosystem services such as water, food, medicinal plants and shelter.  

As poor land management becomes more prevalent, soil degradation and erosion have led to reduced crop yields making many, especially children, susceptible to malnutrition. Water, often referred to as the elixir of life, is one of the natural resources most susceptible to environmental degradation. Pollution of water sources can render them unusable by the masses, furthermore contributing to the spread of water-borne diseases.  

Poverty is a key factor contributing to vulnerability as poor people are most likely exposed to environmental hazards. Their inability to access justice in environment-related matters, environmental injustice is exacerbated among the poor as they are often at a disadvantage, suffering from environmental risks or hazards. Examples of environmental injustice can be found all around the world. For instance mining cultures, around the world, have been known to employ the poor, illiterate and uneducated to work in the mines for nominal pay, in a high risk profession with serious health repercussions. These people suffer great injustice as a result of their low socioeconomic status and limited political influence. The poor are hit the hardest when the land, water and air they breathe are polluted as they have limited options due to their financial situation. The Haitian Earthquake of 2010 is a further example as the nation’s impact and projected recovery time is a testament to the poors’ increased vulnerability and low capacity to cope and adapt with calamities.

Local examples
Livelihoods: Fishing within Belizean waters has traditionally been very productive. In fact within the Caribbean region, the waters of Belize have been described as largely underutilized. Whether this is reality or not, we face competition from other countries for this resource which is becoming exceedingly limited globally. Fishing is an industry dependent on a natural resource that if not properly managed could economically affect a significant amount of livelihoods. For this reason, caution must be paid to nations who have exploited their resources and are looking for new territories to plunder.  

Most Latin American countries suffer great inequities in poverty, minimal access to land, little agriculturally viable land, in other words, they suffer a land shortage for the poor and less privileged. Belize, on the other hand, is still seen within the region as having land, which our neighbours illegally access. Further examples of exploitation of resources include local biodiversity such as Xate, Yellow Headed Parrots, and Scarlet Macaws which with economic drivers such as the impoverished state of our neighbours and high prices in Guatemala have promoted their extraction by any means. These actions are in direct conflict with the conservation efforts of Belize and have proven particularly difficult to deal with. We also see an increase in locals acquiring natural resources by any means necessary.

The bottom line….
Conservation is a feat so large that it cannot be addressed by one organization, or even one sector of society. Conservation affects everyone and every aspect of society as such it must be the responsibility of everyone. To Quote the Native American leader Chief Seattle “What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth. This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man does not weave this web of life. He is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” We all have a role to play.

If you have a question or concern that you would like discussed in this column please write to Belize Audubon Society, Re: Conservation and…, 12 Fort Street, P.O. Box 1001, Belize City; Belize City, Belize or email us at

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