Cutting poverty by fostering environmental sustainability

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The project’s insights have helped the Malawi government re-orient its agricultural policy towards sustainability and women’s empowerment.

Forests, lakes, rivers and fertile land provide income and employment for many men and women living in Africa. But unsustainable use of these resources can trap them in poverty. One way to reduce poverty and catalyse change is by producing and using evidence that brings together the environmental, economic and social dimensions of development. This is the so-called integrated approach to sustainable development.

The Poverty-Environment Initiative, a joint project of the United Nations Development Programme and UN Environment, has supported 28 African countries in adopting such an integrated approach to sustainable development since 2005.

In Malawi, for example, the project’s studies and insights have helped the government re-orient its agricultural policy towards sustainability and women’s empowerment.
One report found that the unsustainable use of natural resources is costing the country 5.3 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product, equivalent to $191 million every year.

By contrast, investing in environmental and natural resource sustainability can yield high rates of social and economic returns: A 1 per cent ($300,000) increase in public expenditure on the sustainable management of natural resources could increase Malawi’s Gross Domestic Product by $17 million every year, the Initiative estimated in 2016.

Dopa village in northern Malawi, where the Initiative carried out a case study, exemplifies the complex relationships between poverty and environmental factors.

Most people in the village live from agriculture, but yields are below potential, due partly to soil erosion and loss in soil fertility. Deforestation on the hills surrounding the village is a related problem. On the one hand, the wood provides another source of income and helps to meet energy needs. On the other, deforestation has led to landslides during the rainy season, exacerbating soil erosion and its vicious cycle of reduced productivity, food insecurity and poverty.

In Malawi, soil loss alone has reduced agricultural productivity by an estimated 6 per cent. At the same time, addressing the issue of soil erosion in a 10-year period could have lifted 1.88 million people out of poverty through increased agricultural yields.
A 2016 Soil Loss Assessment for Malawi, however, helps chart a way forward. The assessment “can inform how we design more sustainable land management interventions to combat soil erosion,” says John Mussa, Director of Land Resources and Conservation Department, from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water.

However, there are practical challenges. For example, in Malawi the government in 2015 temporarily dropped its indicator on soil loss and nutrient use because of insufficient information on baselines, and lack of staff capable of monitoring soil loss trends.
Low capacity to monitor environmental trends and its poverty and economic implications is a real challenge in many countries and will be an important barrier to overcome to monitor progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

An integrated approach also implies looking at social factors. Malawi’s women-headed farms, for instance, are found to be 28 per cent less productive than those headed by men, with economic and social implications. Empowering women farmers to be as productive as men - for example by giving them better access to credit - would increase crop production by 7.3 per cent and thereby enhance food security. That would imply gross gains to annual Gross Domestic Product of $100 million and could lift as many as 238,000 people out of poverty, according to the Initiative.

This would be good for the environment too, as low productivity levels lead to more intensive land use, perpetuating a cycle of environmental degradation.

“I see [these findings] as a strong tool to begin to translate the Sustainable Development Goals, and more specifically Goal 1 on eradicating extreme poverty for all people,” said Allan Chiyembekeza, then-minister of agriculture, irrigation and water.
Inspired by the evidence, Malawi’s 2016 agriculture policy has a strong focus on sustainable agriculture and women’s empowerment. The policy aims to enhance investments in climate-smart agriculture, strengthen sustainable land, soil and water management while promoting women’s access to, and ownership and control over, productive and financial resources.

“Our experience in Malawi shows the importance of adopting an integrated approach to sustainable development and putting in place policies that foster sustainable use of natural resources and empower women so that we can increase agricultural productivity,” says Moa Westman, a UN Environment expert working on the Initiative.

When a sector – in this case, agriculture – understands how the unsustainable use of the environment makes it harder to reach its own targets as well as broader social equality and economic goals, the motivation to adopt an integrated approach can be high. There is much to learn from the Initiative’s findings. With this in mind, it will publish a report in June 2017 pulling together the lessons from its experiences in Africa.