Biodiversity and poverty | unlikely linkages

Biodiversity and poverty are supposed to be linked. We assume that poorer people across the globe, especially in Africa and Asia, rely more than most on what nature can provide them in food, fibre and shelter. 

Consequently we also assume that avoiding biodiversity loss will be good for human well-being. So much so that in 2002 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity [CBD] agreed... 

“to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on earth” 

The UN General Assembly adopted a similar objective. Its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) included the CBD “2010 Target” as a new target within MDG7.

Unfortunately the world missed the 2010 target. 

But this failure did not stop the UN in the 2010 MDG progress report from stating that...

“The irreparable loss of biodiversity will also hamper efforts to meet other MDGs, especially those related to poverty, hunger and health, by increasing the vulnerability of the poor and reducing their options for development” 

How are biodiversity and poverty linked?

The simple answer is directly. Biodiversity helps deliver essential ecological services that support all humanity — we all have to breathe clean air, drink water [even if it is disguised in a soft drink bottle] and eat solid food. 

It is the biological diversity of the earth that provisions, regulates and supports many of these essential goods and services.

What happens when people are poor is that their use of these goods and services are compromised by lack of access and control of biodiversity resources. 

On the ‘what is biodiversity’ page, ask alloporus used the CBD definition of biodiversity 

“the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”.

This means biodiversity has 

  • components [genes, species, ecosystems] 
  • attributes [diversity, abundance, composition]

and both are important. 

Poverty also has many definitions from material wealth to the absence ofwell-being. 

The Millennium Development Goal to “eradicate extreme poverty” refers to the billion-plus people whose income is less that US $1 a day. 

The World Bank describes poverty as ‘to be hungry, to lack shelter and clothing, to be sick and not cared for, to be illiterate and not schooled’ 

Researchers from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) provided this very useful framework for the link between poverty and biodiversity...

framework to place the linkages between biodiversity and poverty from a review of the science in the journal Environmental Evidence by Roe et al 2014

What this graphic really says is that biodiversity is linked to poverty when it provides income — and especially when that use has a feedback to the components or attributes of biodiversity.

Interest in how poverty and biodiversity link

There is considerable research evidence confirming that biodiversity and poverty linkages are dominated by direct [usually consumptive] use of biodiversity by people. 

This is an active research theme that has grown in recent times. In the 1990’s there were fewer than 10 research publications per year on the topic. Since 2010 the annual average is closer to 50. 

Public interest has also held its own as this Google trends graphic suggests...

Most of the research focuses on the positive links and positive contribution of biodiversity to poor peoples’ wellbeing. Maybe this is because research funding follows the positive — as does the inclination of the researchers.

However, there are also negative impacts of biodiversity on poverty because...

  • human-wildlife conflict
  • pests
  • pathogens 
  • disease vectors

are also part of biodiversity and tend to affect poor people the most.

Also conspicuous by its absence from research is exploration of the role of below-ground biodiversity in maintaining or improving soil productivity which in turn results in improved crop productivity which in turn contributes to increased income and improved food security.

Ask alloporus page on soil degradation shows how important this omission might be.


Biodiversity and poverty are linked because many poorer people rely directly on goods from biodiversity for subsistence and income. 

When you try to live on $1 a day the supermarket is not really an option even if you have access to one.

Whether sensible management of biodiversity resources can help alleviate poverty is debatable. Biodiversity loss will make it worse but improvements to well-being usually require that basic needs are met. In most parts of the world this is achieved through the market economy —where natural capital is mobilized.

It’s a nice link to have but it’s not really a solution.

Consider these two images...

Now, ask yourself honestly, where you would rather be?

› biodiversity and poverty

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making a living from selling produce at a market, Mannokwari, West Papua

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