©Kat Morgenstern, September 2006, all rights reserved.
‘Sustainable development’ and ‘elimination of poverty’ are slogans that seem to be on everybody's lips these days. But behind the noble words lies a hugely complicated conundrum of intricately linked problems.
It is one thing for the super-powerful to meet every once in a blue moon at exclusive hotels or conference centres to agree that a problem exists and that it should be tackled. It's a good photo opportunity to be seen talking about issues that actually matter to the rest of us. It is quite another thing to translate political good will into real life action. A signature on an international treaty is a good start, but throwing money at a problem doesn't make it go away. Usually something has to actually be done about it as well.
But, I am jumping ahead of myself. I asked myself, what do we actually mean by poverty and what does it take to eradicate it? Poverty is a reality for hundreds of millions of people. It means no access to clean water, it means living in squalid conditions on less than a dollar a day, it means having virtually no access to schools or health care - let alone a realistic chance of social betterment, it often means scraping a meagre living from ever diminishing natural resources on which your life depends. It is a choice of feeding your family now or going hungry to preserve some seeds to grow next year's crop - not knowing if draught or floods will wipe the harvest out, or abandoning your home for the elusive promises of the city - and ending up living in slums.
Children are the biggest victims of poverty - robbed of their childhood they are often forced to work as soon as they can walk, to earn their keep and support their family. Children may be sold into slavery because their families suffer from desperate poverty, or they may be kidnapped. Whether they are forced to work as as beggars, child sex workers, child labourers in sweat shops, where they produce cheap consumer goods for the Western market, or as plantation labour force, braking their backs to ensures our continued supply of cheap chocolate, tea or coffee, or dozens of other crops - these are all common, every day practices in the developing world.
More uncomfortable questions raise their ugly heads - are theses poor children the lucky ones? For each child that lives in such deprived conditions there are hundreds more that die before they are old enough to work, either because of lacking sanitation or sheer hunger, or who have lost their mother while she gave birth to a sibling, or who are born with AIDS.
It's a grim picture that nobody wants to see. We tend to feel sorry for these people, but we rarely feel responsible in a way that questions how we and our politicians actually are actually involved in this scenario. Here is where things start getting complicated. For the same governments that tout the horn of sustainable development, also pursue WTO globalization policies that directly undermine sustainable development. The aim of globalization is to 'open markets' across the globe. What that means is the open exploitation of human and environmental resources at the lowest possible cost.
Globalization means we in the West can enjoy cheap goods derived from the developing world - often thanks to the labour of children, who earn next to nothing for the sacrifice of their childhood and who thus forgo any chance of even the most basic education. Whether it is cheap clothes from Walmart or cheap coffee beans or chocolate bars - our luxuries are made affordable by their poverty. On the turn-side, we become dependent on such cheaply produced goods, since production workers in the West are steadily losing their jobs because their payroll is just too uncompetitive in comparison with labour costs in the developing world. So, with little money coming in, it is only natural to look for the cheap stuff at the dollar store.
But very gradually the idea of fair trade is beginning to cause a slight ripple. Increasingly, Fair Trade products are becoming available, not just at the health food stores and special boutiques, but at larger supermarkets as well. At least as far as chocolate, tea and coffee are concerned. Those who allow their ethics some command over their wallets are given an ever expanding consumer choice - but what defies me, is how the same governments can aggressively pursue globalization, while at the same time signing agreements to eradicate poverty and supporting sustainable development?
Globalization could have a positive impact - if the business community that exploits the cheap labour force of the developing world were to build proper housing, schools and health care facilities for the communities which they employ - instead of polluting their lands and neglecting the responsibilities of cleaning up their act, as is so often the case. It is not the principle, but the practice that determines the level of good or evil that comes of it. Some companies, laudably, now do invest a part of their profits into all kinds of social and health schemes. While governments are slow to act, socially responsible businesses are leading the way.
This is just one miniscule facet of the whole entanglement. Let's look at another. Every year at regular intervals we are flooded with heartbreaking images of starving people, usually in some squalid refugee camp, queuing for hours to receive a bowl of 'humanitarian aid'. That bowl of rice hardly meets their needs. It just about keeps them alive - no more. But why are they so destitute? Usually the answer is one of two things which in another loop of the thought trail are related: either an environmental catastrophe such as draughts or floods are to blame (global warming), or, more often than not, they have been displaced by war.
On the face of it, war is fought over land, over resources, over power or over religion. The truth is, it does not really matter what the reason for it may be. War is a business, a very dirty, multi-billion dollar business. And you and I and our tax dollars are paying for it. Billions of dollars are spent on weapons each year - the arms industry is never short of demand. Conflicts may seem very real, but someone somewhere supplies the arms to fight those wars and these companies do very well indeed, thank you very much. The more armed conflicts the greater the profits while the effects on civilian life are always the same:
Trauma, displacement, destruction of homes, fields, cattle and livelihoods. Landmines endangering every-day life. Food and sanitation shortages. Chaos.
Civilians on all sides are always the victims of war. War displaces millions of people all the time. As a result these millions of refugees become dependent on our compassionate handouts instead of being able to farm their own lands and building their own livelihoods. I dare say that if one was to compare the money made by the arms industry in any armed conflict to the money being spent on the rice and wafers sent to 'aid' its civilian casualties - my guess is that the profits still come down heavy on the side of the arms industry and vastly outstrip any 'losses' incurred on the side of the humanitarian aid bill, which in any event is footed by the tax payer.
So, here is that same question again in another guise - how can we tolerate the madness of the arms business and at the same time delude ourselves with the idea that we are being 'Good Samaritans' to be sending all that humanitarian aid to these desperate people, who should be thankful for it, even if it is gene-manipulated rice, which can't be gotten rid of in the West?
Of course the other side of war -as we have seen in Iraq - is that once it is over somebody has to do the cleaning up and the reconstruction. I don't know, but somehow I don't see how bombing a place to smithereens and then rebuilding it is a particularly sustainable practice. Sure, it 'stimulates the economy', if one might say so, but at what price - not just to the civilian populations, but also to the earth's resources as a whole, and, of course at what cost to the local ecosystems, which invariably suffers the most. Can we afford to carry on destroying entire ecosystems through the effects of war?
Or, let's take another example - oil. We all know by know that fossil fuels have a direct impact on global warming. The effects of climate change have already produced some horrendous 'un-natural' disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina last year. Wildfires and floods have become regular items on the news. The costs related to these disasters are staggering, yet instead of putting all the money and intelligence we can gather up between us to research and develop alternative sources of power, the US government spends all the money it has got, plus some that it hasn't to send its youngsters to fight a war for oil to ensure that we can continue to melt the ice caps with our emissions, and do so 'cheaply'.
California has just taken the unprecedented step of suing some of the biggest car manufacturers for their contribution to global warming. While it is undeniable that cars contribute to global warming, it is up to us as individuals to decide to take the bicycle to run our errands instead of the car. Thus, would it not be more appropriate to sue the government for not signing the Kyoto treaty? Or to lobby for a change in legislation that would require car manufacturers to not only produce cars that run on clean fuel, but that are also built from recyclable materials which the car manufacturer is obliged to take back when the car gets scrapped. Moves in that direction are already underway in Germany, and it is not a new idea - Henry Ford built the first recyclable motorcar entirely from resin fortified hemp fibre, which even ran on hemp ethanol. (http://www.chaozation.com/politics/hemp/FordHemp.htm) That was in 1941, when the automobile industry thought that the future of car fuel would be plant derived ethanol. Perhaps we are ready for it now. Richard Branson has just announced a huge investment in alternative fuel research - at long last!!!
What does climate change have to do with poverty, you might ask yourself now. Actually, a lot. Climate change will affect all of us sooner or later, but many of the poorest nations will be hit worst. Not only may their very lands disappear under the rising water levels (e.g. the island nations of Polynesia inhabit islands that barely rise above sea level now), but even if they manage to keep their feet dry, the changing climate is going to cause havoc to all kinds of crops and plant resources on which people of all nations have come to rely.
Plants are adaptable to a point, but a rise of temperature, even by as little as one or two degrees can wipe out entire species and subsequently degrade a habitat beyond recognition. We may be able to sustain the loss of one or two species, but it does not stop there. The ecological web of life is more than just a metaphor. Losing one species deprives another of its staple diet, and losing that next species along the food chain in turn deprives others of their dinner and so on. No human being is 'exempt' - we all live at the top of the food chain - and are dependent on the integrity of the whole ecological system that provides our sustenance. Without food even the richest people in the world will become poor - though it may take until then before it is generally realised that money itself is not edible.
But, I hate to be so glum. I believe in the power of Gaia, I believe in the power of vision, and I believe, ultimately, in the power of individuals to make a difference. The wind of change is already blowing. Fair trade schemes and consumer choices can make a big difference, but it is also important to let politicians and companies know how you feel.
Fighting poverty is not about humanitarian aid, it is about giving people a chance to climb out of the poverty trap - helping people to help themselves. Economic justice. Wiping out debts. Fairtrade schemes and microcredits support people's efforts to support themselves are among the most successful sustainable development initiatives. Last year was the international year of microcredit - a sign that this avenue for change is moving into mainstream consciousness, thus bringing opportunities for financial security to increasing numbers of the world's poorest people:
Eco-tourism also has a huge impact on creating sustainable livelihoods and preserving ecosystems and their biodiversity. The range of eco-tourism offers is very broad - ranging from low impact tours that focus on activities such as hiking or kayaking, to eco-lodges that are co-owned with local communities, thus creating a sustainable income base and a real monetary incentive to preserve natural resources and cultural traditions. Eco-tourism can also mean going to a language school while staying with a family, or doing a volunteer trip to help build a school or other community project. The possibilities are truly broad.
For some special travel suggestions that can make a difference, please our travel section.
These are all very big issues and by no means discussed comprehensively here. It is often difficult to know how we can make a difference as individuals in our own lives. But however insignificant and small they may seem, there are many things we can do. Apart from the obvious - reduce, reuse, recycle - how about leaving the car at home once a week or sharing rides with a co-worker? Or changing your light bulbs to low energy ones - these don't seem like big steps, but they save huge amounts of energy and taking steps to reduce your personal energy bill will not only be beneficial for your wallet, but also makes a contribution to reduce greenhouse gases.
So, while this article can only barely skim the surface of all those complexities involved in 'sustainable development' and 'eradicating poverty', I hope it provides some food for thought with regard to the intricacies involved and the ways in which each one of us can make positive decisions for change in our every day lives.
Here are some further resources and food for thought:
Eco-tourism can be one of the most effective ways to create a viable basis for sustainable development. Sustainable development is important in all aspects of the economy and should be pursued in all countries, but it is especially important in developing countries. The reason is that these are the countries most vulnerable to exploitation of their natural resources, especially by foreign investors and corporations. But exploitation is never sustainable - sooner or later the resources are gone and the investors will move on, leaving behind them a trail of devastation.
The alternative model seeks to form allegiances between local people and investor money in an attempt to raise the economic subsistence base of the community, directly and indirectly, thus improving the standards of living for all. Some eco-tourism projects are models of sustainable development, where lodges built with investor money are co-operatively run for the first 10 years or so, during which time training is provided to the communities which otherwise are not acquainted with any form of tourism related activities. After this period the lodges are turned over to the communities to be fully operated by them, thus providing and autonomous income base which preserves the integrity of their land and culture, preserves the wild-life and raises environmental consciousness in the whole region.
Some such projects have already been extremely successful and rate among the best eco-lodges in their respective countries. Sacred Earth works with some of these types of lodge in Peru and Ecuador:
Posada Amazonas - Peru
The Posada Amazonas is a comfortable, yet unobtrusive 30 bedroom lodge, jointly owned by Rainforest Expeditions and the Ese'eja Native Community of Tambopata. Thanks to its accessibility, excellent wildlife observation opportunities and first class accommodations, Posada Amazonas is the ideal short, economic introductory nature tours to Amazonia's richest rain forests, because Travel time required to get to Posada Amazonas from Puerto Maldonado is less than 2 hours. Thus you have time to explore the forest the same afternoon you arrive. It offers enough quality natural and cultural resources to keep your agenda busy for your 2 night stay: giant river otters at an oxbow lake, parrots at a clay lick, a canopy tower and an ethnobotanical trail.View more details and itinerary
Heath River - Peru
Only four hours by river from Puerto Maldonado airport, Heath River Wildlife Center is the gateway to the largest uninhabited and un-hunted rainforest in the Amazon. An immensely photogenic macaw clay lick, capybaras, oxbow lakes with Giant Otters, hundreds of birds and mammal species and a lodge 100%-owned by the Ese'eja Indians of Sonene make the Heath the best combination of nature and culture in the this part of the Amazon. This special program combines a trip to Sandoval Lake Lodge (SL.) plus a visit to Puerto Maldonado's closest large Macaw Clay Lick (from a comfortable floating blind) at the new Heath River Wildlife Center (HRWC) and a visit to the extraordinary bio-diverse Pampas del Heath (savanah).View more details and itinerary
Yine Lodge - Peru
The Yine Project heralds an exciting new stage of community-based ecotourism in Manu. Established as a joint project between one of the most respected and longest established eco-tourism companies in Manu and the Yine Indians of the Peruvian Manu Biosphere Reserve rainforest, the ten-year project, began early in 2001. In 2011, the eco-lodge will be handed over to the Yine. Over this period the lodge will be built and the Yine will acquire the knowledge necessary to run an effective community tourism project. At present short 3 day introductory programs are available that introduce visitors to various aspects of Yine culture.View more details and itinerary
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This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.
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