Population, environment and development

Krishna Ghimire argues that successful policies must address people's needs and enhance livelihood security.

The author is a researcher with the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development and has coordinated several of their global research programmes on environment and social change.

Population growth is commonly assumed to be directly responsible for environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources, especially under conditions of poverty. A recent analysis, based on case studies of thirty localities in Costa Rica, Pakistan and Uganda, suggests quite the contrary.

The commercialization of production and various state policies have contributed more substantially to environmental degradation, primarily by undermining customary resource use and management and by encouraging the concentration of population in certain areas.

The policies which have been adopted to stabilize population or reverse environmental damage have had limited success because of their narrow focus on fertility control and strict nature conservation. For the most part, such measures have not addressed the needs and constraints of the rural poor, especially enhancing their livelihood security.

Existing population structures in Costa Rica, Pakistan and Uganda represent different extremes. In Costa Rica, fertility rates have been more than halved over the last 25 years. The average life expectancy at birth has increased from 54.3 years in 1950 to 74.9 years in 1990 - the level of industrialized countries.

As a matter of fact, in 1990, life expectancy in Costa Rica was the same as that of Luxembourg and higher than that of Austria. During the late 1980s, some 63 per cent of rural families had access to health care and the rate of contraceptive use was 70 per cent. The spread of social consciousness over the population issue is such that even illiterate mothers use family planning methods to control the size of their families. The adult literacy rate reached 93 per cent, and the literacy level is the same for men and women.

This is also reflected in a significant level of female participation in the labour force. One study asserts that the high participation by women in the labour force is one of the major causes of fertility decline in Costa Rica. By the year 2005, the country is expected to have a population growth of 1 per cent per annum.

Pakistan's major demographic challenge is that, while mortality rates have gone down significantly since 1950, fertility rates remain more or less stable. In 1990, its 5.8 per cent fertility rate was not only the highest in South Asia, but also one of the highest in Asia as a whole. Yet, the country was one of the first among the developing countries to introduce family planning programmes. The available information suggests that, even when family planning services are placed at the disposal of the population, they are not well integrated with wider social provisioning requirements. Improved health care facilities, the supply of potable water and sanitation are still non-existent in many rural areas.

In 1990, the average literacy rate was 35 per cent, but among women it was much lower. Women hold a very low social position and their participation in the labour force is one of the lowest in the world. Besides religious and cultural values, general economic impoverishment and vulnerability tend to reinforce higher fertility rates.

In the case of Uganda, fertility rates have even increased. The only comfort that the country has is that the size of its present population is still small vis-a-vis the land resources that are available.

Land pressure is critical in a few selected districts in the Mufumbiro mountain range in the southwest, the Mount Elgon region in the east, and some parts of the Lake Victoria crescent. In these areas, the average standards of living have often declined. This is not due purely to demographic pressures, however. In fact, it has frequently been found that people do not produce food crops and, at the same time, are unable to purchase food to supplement their diet due to the low prices they have set for their cash crops.

The spread of AIDS, which is believed to affect as much as 11 per cent of the population, or 1.9 million people, is likely to influence the present as well as future population size and structure. The government has neither the capacity to cope with the AIDS epidemic, nor well coordinated population and development strategies. Roads, schools, health and other systems of social services are still in ruins - as a result of past political turmoil. Not even half of the population is literate, and the literacy rate for women is significantly lower than for men. The rate of contraceptive use is one of the lowest in the world.

Despite relatively high labour force participation (i.e. through access to land for cultivation), women hold a low social status and their economic position has often declined. Some authorities studying population dynamics in sub-Saharan Africa argue that the low social and economic position of women has in fact been the leading factor favouring large families.

The central question, then, is why has Costa Rica managed to reduce its fertility rates so successfully when Pakistan and Uganda have failed?

It is clear that the key to Costa Rica's "positive" demographic transition has been the improved economic conditions and social services for the majority of the population. The demographic policies themselves have played a secondary role in this process. As a matter of fact, the country had no formal national population policy until 1968, and the government has carried out no direct fertility control measures even after that date.

Costa Rica has a relatively fair economic system by Central American standards. The national economy, particularly the agricultural sector, has remained dynamic, providing employment and income to a large number of rural people, although this, too, has been somewhat unstable in recent years. Already by 1950, the rate of literacy was nearly 80 per cent and, since then, the government has made significant investments in promoting free and compulsory education. There have also been improvements in health and sanitation. Furthermore, the country has enjoyed remarkable political stability, allowing many policies to be implemented on a long-term basis. Most importantly, Costa Rica has a GDP per capita five times superior to Pakistan, and as much as eight times higher than Uganda. Also, Costa Rica does not have a military and hence has been able to economize the defence expenditure.

If one were to look carefully at the experiences of Pakistan and Uganda, the opposite has usually been the case. In the late 1980s, Pakistan spent only 2.6 and 0.2 per cent of GNP on education and health, respectively, while Uganda spent 3.4 and 0.3 per cent. Indeed, there has been a negligible increase in public investment in these sectors since 1965. In certain cases, it has even declined.

For example, the government of Pakistan allocated proportionately more of its budget to the health sector in 1965 than in 1989. On the other hand, military expenditure increased to 6.7 per cent of its total GDP for the same year.

Uganda's experience is similar regarding the resource flow imbalances between the military and social sectors - although precise data are lacking. The expenditure on population welfare, health and education is low and has declined in part because of the recent structural adjustment programmes and the high priority being given to the restoration of a devastated physical infrastructure.

From the empirical base that we have, it seems fair to suggest that the demographic transition characterized by high life expectancy, improved quality of life and declining fertility rates is very closely linked with the improvement in basic needs and the opportunities for employment and income. This livelihood security must be linked with access to education, health and other social services. These opportunities must be accessible particularly to women and the poor.

An integrated population policy is useful, but it needs to be accompanied with an increased investment in both human and economic sectors. This also depends upon whether these measures generate interest and participation. As one specialist rightly says, "a population programme without popular-based development is like trying to mop up the floor with the water turned on."

Deforestation and soil erosion have been the most prevalent environmental problems in all three countries.

In Costa Rica, deforestation is the direct result of substantial land clearing for pasture and export crops. Deforestation has not only led to the loss of wildlife and their habitat, but is also associated with the degradation of watershed areas. The land use change from forests or long-fallow swidden cultivation to permanent export crops or cattle ranching has especially intensified soil erosion. Export crops such as tobacco, coffee and bananas require no bunds or terraces. Tobacco and bananas are grown in cleared areas, and the new improved varieties of coffee need no tree cover. The production and processing of export crops are usually associated with a high application of agrochemicals, which tend to pollute both soil and water. On the other hand, the increase in cattle grazing has resulted in a higher level of soil compaction, as well as soil erosion through greater exposure to wind and rain.

Pakistan has one of the lowest percentages of forest coverage in the world. The remaining forests, from mangroves to high altitude forests, are under intense pressure from local populations, urban consumers and industries alike. The mangrove forests are also affected by the construction of large-scale barrages on the Indus river, leading to a reduction in the supply of fresh water, silt deposition and changes in soil texture. Besides the degradation of mangrove forests, the coastal area villages confront such environmental problems as overfishing, shortage of potable water and waste disposal.

In the northern villages, deforestation, pasture degradation and soil erosion have been the pre-eminent environmental issues. While the Punjab area does suffer from most of the problems mentioned above, new ones, such as salinity and waterlogging, have emerged as a result of rapid modernization in agriculture - especially the expansion of irrigation networks.

In Uganda, too, deforestation has been a widespread phenomenon. Local needs for agriculture and fuelwood, combined with urban timber and charcoal demands were the main causes of deforestation. Forests are also degraded by frequent bush fires and reduced fallow periods. The degradation of rangeland is another related problem. The decline in forests or vegetation has caused a severe soil issue in the mountain areas, too, resulting from the combination of steep terrain, damage to upstream watershed areas, and the lack of proper terracing and bunding.

Draining of wetlands for cattle raising, cultivation and brick making has been another environmental issue. Industrial damage to soil and water - especially in and around Lake Victoria - has also emerged as an important environmental problem.

Population expansion is only one of many factors behind environmental degradation.

In densely populated areas such as the northern villages in Pakistan or Uganda's Kabale and Mbale districts, a lower demographic density might have lessened pressure on the existing natural resources. However, achieving a low population would not necessarily imply that existing resources would be equitably distributed, or managed sustainably.

What appears especially important in most case study areas are the roles played by market forces and state institutions.

The research findings suggest that, where market forces have been powerful, natural resources are rampantly used or overexploited; logging, clearance of forests for commercial cattle ranching and export crops, overfishing and mining are all examples of such development. These process have also resulted in many environmental side effects such as contamination of soil and water by agrochemicals and industrial waste, at times involving highly toxic substances.

What is most notable is that not a single instance could be found where market forces had played a positive role in managing natural resource sustainably in the case study areas.

As for the state, increasing official intervention in the rural environment has emerged from specific development styles and strategies pursued by these countries. These have usually been strongly influenced by market forces.

For example, Costa Rica's "agro-export" development strategies have been intimately tied to the interests of local markets and international trade opportunities. Similarly, the attempt of the Pakistani state to introduce the Green Revolution and Uganda's promotion of cash crops and commercial cattle ranching have not been independent of market forces either. State policies have been directly responsible for certain environmental problems such as forest clearance for agriculture and pasture in Costa Rica, salinization and water logging in Pakistan, and the clearing of trees and thickets to establish commercial ranching in the Mbarara district in Uganda. However, the indirect impact of policy measures has also frequently been destructive to the environment, e.g. the provision of credit and subsidies for agriculture, logging and cattle ranching.

A number of institutional conservation initiatives have run parallel to the negative environmental processes observed in all three countries.

Numerous laws have been coded. Considerable stretches of natural resources have been brought under direct state jurisdiction with the intention of halting the perceived "free access" situation. Various programmes and projects have been implemented to rehabilitate natural resources, including soil conservation, pasture regeneration, tree planting and watershed management.

However, the long-term success of these initiatives has been rare. The protection and regeneration of natural resources can scarcely be achieved merely through legal or policing measures. The attempts to bring natural resources under state jurisdiction - such as the creation of national parks or forest reserves - have usually meant growing institutional appropriation of local resources.

On the other hand, most conservation programmes introduced in the settlement areas have remained piecemeal, and have not been followed through until they produce the anticipated results. More importantly, the majority of these programmes have been restricted to conservation goals, failing to address wider livelihood requirements at the local level.

One important objective of the present study has been to examine whether local livelihood conditions have improved as a result of the development strategies implemented in these countries.

We saw above how livelihood systems have been affected by the recent institutional conservation strategies, resources taken over, restrictions imposed on customary resource use, and "in-settlement" conservation programmes not coordinated with wider basic needs. The impact of general agricultural and rural development strategies on livelihood provisioning may be briefly referred to here in order to provide an integral picture.

It is evident that, in the past decades, government rural development strategies have led to an improvement in schooling, health care and physical infrastructure in all three countries - with the exception of Uganda during the period of civil war and political disorder. There have also been certain changes in agrarian technology and productive systems such as the introduction of new crops, improved varieties of seeds, chemical fertilizers and modern irrigation systems. These innovations have sometimes opened up new opportunities for income generation, employment and social mobility. However, in general these processes have rarely been an instrument of economic security and sustained social progress for the majority of rural dwellers.

In Costa Rica, the process of agricultural modernization has put peasants and rural communities into the market economy, but peasants hold little leverage over market forces. Although the production of cash crops - such as tobacco, coffee and bananas - and cattle ranching have opened up a few new prospects for additional income and employment within rural areas, the gains have generally been temporary, and have accrued mainly to the richer elements of the society. Peasants were dispossessed of their land by large estate owners and cattle ranchers, thus increasing their economic and social vulnerability.

Pakistan experienced many similar processes. In the coastal villages, increased penetration of market forces and dependence upon middlemen for credit and employment have not only undermined community cohesion and the customary forms of resource management, but have also affected the whole range of subsistence provisioning activities based on fishing. In the northern villages, the outside income of a large number of people is derived from remittances. In the Punjab, although the Green Revolution has had some positive impact on agricultural productivity and the creation of wage employment, its benefits have not been proportionately distributed across tenurial groups. Indeed, there has been a rapid decrease in the sharecropping practice and more peasants have joined the ranks of the landless.

In Uganda, there has been a continuous disintegration of many basic facilities for a number of years. Over the past decade, the repairs to and construction of schools, dispensaries and roads have fallen on the shoulders of the peasantry, frequently involving mandatory "corvee" labour and cash contributions. Though a country with a favourable people-land ratio and fertile soil, Uganda is experiencing increasing poverty and malnutrition. The "extensification" of agriculture is curtailed by the government's new conservation strategy, while "intensification" remains limited and focuses on cash crops - thereby exposing peasants to market forces and price uncertainties. The agricultural sector has failed to generate any significant wage employment. In addition, the industrial or urban sector has remained altogether stagnant, incapable of producing wage employment even for the urban labour force.

The main recapitulation which seems to emerge from the study is the need for a more careful look at the linkages between environmental changes, population dynamics and development processes. These aspects are interrelated in an extremely complicated manner, frequently differing from one context to another. Only an analysis based on a specific place, people and time period can contribute to a better understanding.

Regarding environmental changes, it appears that all three countries have faced many common as well as unique environmental issues. Degradation of forests, pasture areas, soil and watersheds have been the main prevailing problems. However, there are also country-specific environmental questions that have become increasingly serious, such as waterlogging and salinity in Pakistan's Punjab region, contamination of soil and water by agrochemicals in the Pacific zone of Costa Rica, and draining and contamination of wetland areas in the Lake Victoria region in Uganda.

These environmental problems have emerged as a result of a combined impact of many socio-economic, political, demographic, as well as ecological processes. There are certain local socio-economic and ecological contexts which render no two situations alike. Reducing all the emerging environmental issues to simple local population growth is unhelpful.

Except in a few villages studied in Pakistan and Uganda where rising population growth or density have had an exacerbating influence, demographic dynamics have not generally been determinant in environmental change. Indeed, the Costa Rica case studies have indicated that rapid environmental degradation such as deforestation and soil erosion can occur without having a high population density. This is also consistent with the findings in Uganda's semi-arid Mbarara district which has one of the lowest levels of population density, but where the current environmental problems are deforestation, pasture degradation and soil erosion, including gully erosions.

Peasants and local communities have made various attempts to accommodate not only environmental changes but also population levels and livelihoods. People have generally been well informed about the scale and the impact of such problems as deforestation and soil erosion in their localities, as well as the need for tree planting, soil conservation, forest protection, etc.

In certain locations such as Costa Rica's Pacific zone or Pakistan's northern villages, some positive environmental initiatives have taken place, promoted by NGOs and other external forces. However, even there, environmental concerns have rarely led to initiatives at a level required to maintain the ecological balance and quality of production systems.

The adjustment process regarding population changes differed between Costa Rica, Pakistan and Uganda. In the first country, the main demographic strategy was an effort to lower fertility, while in the other two, it revolved around having large families as a safety net against livelihood insecurity. Out- migration has however been a common demographic action in all three countries.

With respect to the modifications in livelihood strategy, where feasible, peasants have sought to bring additional land under cultivation. They have also intensified household labour to increase production. For this purpose, many peasants have remained receptive to modern agrarian technologies and practices. Searching for wage employment in and outside agriculture is one of the chief ways for people to cope. Some villagers also out- migrated to new locations more congenial to employment, income and family welfare. However, despite all these efforts, ensuring a stable livelihood has become progressively more difficult for many rural households.

While local level responses to change in population levels, resource bases and livelihoods have generally been short term and ineffective, attempts to change or improve these parameters through policy measures have also had little success.

Government policies have tended to consider many of the rural social, economic and ecological problems primarily from the demographic angle. It is assumed that a growing population not only causes increased environmental degradation, but also frustrates economic development. Even in Costa Rica, which has generally emphasized social provisioning, the dominant tendency has been to consider the present population structure more of a burden to the investments in health, education, housing, energy and employment, and one of the main causes of environmental deterioration. Pakistan's population policies focus directly on birth control measures, while Uganda is yet to have a coordinated population policy.

Thus, in all three countries, population is viewed primarily as a problem. The options for local people are narrowed due to this bias among policy makers. There is little room for stable and structural interaction between people and government. The implication of neglecting human resources, which comprise among other things labour power, skills, knowledge and creativity, is that no long-term social and economic progress can be achieved. It also disregards the ability of people to assess their own demographic behaviour or resource use patterns.

Institutional involvement has also failed to tackle the processes of environmental degradation or to manage the remaining natural resources more sustainably.

Most conservation initiatives have been unrealistic from the standpoints of local communities. They are too narrowly focused on nature conservation and rely on a superficial knowledge of other vital areas, namely local social, economic and cultural relationships and constraints. In fact, when looked at carefully, even the experience of Costa Rica, where the government is believed to have done more to improve the environment than most developing countries, is full of contradictions.

Most conservation programmes in the country were initiated by "outsiders," with little understanding of peasants' livelihood concerns. These programmes, therefore, attained a low level of popular participation. At the same time, the creation of strictly protected areas strongly contradicts local survival interests and generates social conflicts. In general, there is a large gap between what is proposed in conservation measures, and what is actually realized. The experiences of Pakistan and Uganda, on the other hand, are even more discouraging.

Similarly, the development strategies experienced in these countries have scarcely brought about livelihood security or self-reliance. Indeed, increased social and economic vulnerability has become the daily experience of the majority of rural dwellers.

It is no secret that a precarious economic existence leads people to rely greatly on their surrounding resources, at times causing severe degradation. It is easy to tell people how and to what extent natural resources should be protected; but mandates are worthless if they cannot be enforced because no better, more secure livelihood alternatives are provided to the people who are affected.

In conclusion, it can be said that the government policies and actions in Costa Rica, Pakistan and Uganda have not reflected an adequate understanding of the interrelationships between population dynamics, environmental changes and development processes.

Naturally, much also depends upon how the existing policies and programmes are implemented. In general, extremely complex concepts, questions and processes have been interpreted in too simplified a fashion. The result is that the nation states and international development agencies have frequently tended to limit themselves to easy or immediate issues such as birth control or the establishment of strictly protected areas, and failed to address wider basic needs and social development issues.

The gist of the research findings is that the environment-population nexus is more complex than a simple deduction that "more people cause more environmental degradation."

The foremost aspect is not the "sheer numbers" of people, but rather how those people act within a given socio-economic and ecological context, and how they interact with the wider society around them.

Neither the "contraception/family planning route" nor the "nature preservation route" is sufficient to address recurrent demographic dynamics and environmental degradation. Improved living conditions or more secure local livelihoods are the central prerequisites for both a decline in fertility, as well as a more sustained and balanced environment.

What is also required for any effective policy action is to have the "right balance" between outside intervention and local involvement.

The state and aid agencies have played too overwhelming a role in many case study areas. Most projects and programmes have been implemented without adequate local participation. They have also left market forces, which are concerned with short-term gains or profits, to operate freely at the local level, frequently with a negative impact on both the environment and the poorer rural people. This has been especially so in Costa Rica and Pakistan. In Uganda, too, state involvement has increased in recent years, particularly in the economy and the environment.

Successful management of local human and natural resources can scarcely be achieved through the actions of external and distantly located authorities. Undoubtedly, the state can play an active role in the process of development. We observed a noticeable improvement in physical infrastructure, schooling, health care and in other sectors, through state involvement. Undeniably, the state can offer new technologies, resources and services to promote agricultural development, rehabilitate degraded natural resources and undertake population welfare programmes.

Outside development agencies, such as the AKRSP in northern Pakistan, can sometimes also play a positive role in promoting sustainable social and environmental development. However, their role cannot be expected to be anything more than that of catalysts.

The role of the state and outside agencies is limited for two reasons in particular:

  • first, the resources available are limited and far from capable of fulfilling every local expectation or need; and,
  • second, the state cannot substitute local institutions and resource management practices.

Thus, the question is not whether or not the state and other development agencies should be involved, but how they should go about it.

Heavy-handed institutional intervention has produced indifference and apathy at the local level in many case study areas. People feel powerless and uncertain in the face of state pressure and involvement.

The Pakistan study, in particular, sought to analyse this process in some depth. It found that individuals and communities now look increasingly to government and aid agencies to resolve problems instead of drawing on their own resources, skills and energies. This phenomenon of "de-responsibilization" has occurred because outside intervention has failed to create a favourable enough space for local populations to act.

The question of how traditional forms of collective decision-making and responsibility sharing practices can be revived in order to address the problems related to different aspects of population, environment and livelihoods is a pertinent one, which has not been investigated in the present work.

In essence, without active local participation and initiatives, government development strategies can bear little fruit — even when the linkages and complexities between population, environment and the economy are recognized and attempts are made to integrate them in the planning process.

Further information

Krishna Ghimire, UNRISD, Palais des Nations, CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland.

The report Linkages between Population, Environment and Development by Krishna Ghimire can be obtained from UNRISD, Reference Centre, Palais des Nations, CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland.