TACOMA, Washington — In spite of an increasingly developed and wealthy world, poverty persists in countries and communities all over the globe, with about 10% of the world’s population living in extreme poverty in 2015. These populations strive to acquire greater security, access to healthcare, improved equality and human rights protections. Those living in poverty face many challenges to achieving these goals, including environmental challenges that threaten their safety, economic output and overall livelihood. Additionally, 70% of the world’s poor rely on natural resources and their surrounding environment for their livelihood, which can negatively impact the environment with unsustainable practices. Therefore, poverty and the environment have a mutually reinforcing relationship that can be supported through sustainable solutions to improve the state of both parties. A prime example of this is seaweed farming, a sustainable practice that continues to improve coastal communities.
Poverty and the Sustainable Development Goals
In the United Nations’ latest Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) conference, the global eradication of poverty in all its forms was identified as the first goal that must be achieved by 2030. As a subcategory of this goal, the U.N. added that it is necessary to reduce the exposure of affected populations “to climate-related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental shocks and disasters” as disadvantaged populations are particularly vulnerable to the environment.
In an effort to expand upon this environmental aspect, the U.N. Environment Programme and the U.N. Development Programme partnered in 2018 to create the Poverty-Environment Sustainable Action Goals. This framework strives to more deeply integrate environmental consideration and sustainability to countries’ development plans and enhance knowledge sharing on sustainable solutions and practices. In addition to deepening environmental objectives within national and subnational policies to improve resource management, private and public investments will be utilized to more aggressively pursue the SDGs.
Additionally, UNICEF adds that extreme poverty could be reduced by decoupling economic growth from the reliance on natural resources. Due to developing countries’ reliance on natural resources, vulnerable communities will be affected when these same resources come under intense strain and will soon no longer be able to support growing economies.
In addition to efforts by the U.N. and other organizations, the relationship between poverty and sustainability can be improved through the support of key industries.
The Seaweed Solution
The seaweed farming industry has existed in coastal communities for years, especially those in developing countries where the industry plays a vital role in the economy. In Zanzibar, located off Africa’s east coast, many communities rely on seaweed farming as their main source of income, and the industry has employed thousands of workers. The seaweed industry is the third-largest contributor to Zanzibar’s economy and generated roughly $8 million during its most productive years. Furthermore, seaweed farming in Zanzibar has significantly improved the livelihood of women and helped shift gender relations in a traditionally patriarchal society. As men left seaweed farming to enter more profitable industries, such as fishing and tourism, women filled the gaps and can now afford medical expenses, school and other luxuries.
However, experts caution that profits may be at risk due to environmental factors threatening the quantity and quality of seaweed yields. The popularity of unsustainable farming practices contributes to environmental degradation, resulting in the farmers unintentionally harming the ecosystem on which they depend. A new project led by The Nature Conservancy seeks to improve this situation by teaching farmers more sustainable practices so that seaweed can continue to support impoverished coastal communities well into the future.
Sustainable Solutions: Seaweed Framing in Developing Countries
Seaweed is a unique and sustainable crop that is becoming increasingly diverse in its applications. Unlike other crops, seaweed requires no land, food or freshwater to grow, and demands few fertilizers or other products. These characteristics make seaweed an extremely resource-efficient crop, meaning that communities can profit from the growing demand for seaweed without exhausting natural resources. Traditionally popular for its nutritional benefits, seaweed is also profitable through its use to make carrageenan, a gelling additive in food, cosmetics and other products.
As research on seaweed has intensified in recent years, the industry is growing and expanding to other countries around the world. However, its benefits in the developed world revolve less around profit and poverty and more around sustainability. Intensified research has spurred the application of seaweed to create innovative products that fulfill sustainability needs like animal feed, fertilizers and even bioplastics. Additionally, scientists are experimenting with the possibility that seaweed can be used as a renewable energy source in the form of biofuels.
Other Sustainable Solutions
Seaweed farming represents just one nature-based solution to fighting poverty and promoting sustainability and a healthier environment. In fact, this trend is growing around the world as the interdependence between poverty and sustainability becomes more well known. For example, in Mexico, indigenous populations are planting pine trees, which play a major role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and protecting water resources. Furthermore, the community profits from the resin the trees produce. In Costa Rica, the taxation of fossil fuels is being used to fund reforestation, which in turn attracts tourism and provides more resources which the communities can profit from. The implementation of these innovative solutions and others could help bring populations out of poverty while simultaneously improving the environment.
Although it may seem that developing countries cannot afford to be environmentally conscious due to the need to rapidly grow their economies, the reality is in fact the opposite. Adopting more sustainable practices is imperative to ensure that the resources on which these populations depend are not depleted. Furthermore, the growth of seaweed farming and other sectors demonstrate the wealth of opportunities available through sustainability and the economic benefits that turning to sustainable practices could provide. Thus, contrary to traditional beliefs, sustainable solutions and poverty reduction efforts are intertwined and can be simultaneously addressed to improve the environment and lives worldwide.
– Angelica Smyrnios