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DEVELOPMENT: Poverty, Environmental Damage Undercut World Stability

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, May 22 2003 (IPS) - The persistent gap between rich and poor nations, continued environmental decline and higher military spending are all undermining global stability, according to the latest annual edition of WorldWatch Institute’s ‘Vital Signs’ report.

Global poverty is directly linked to environmental degradation, as well as the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and possibly SARS, according to the report, produced this year in co-operation with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

”The world’s failure to reduce poverty levels is now contributing to global instability in the form of terrorism, war, and contagious disease,” said the report’s co-author, Michael Renner on Thursday. ”An unstable world not only perpetuates poverty, but will ultimately threaten the prosperity that the rich minority has come to enjoy,” he told a news conference.

Almost one-half of the world’s more than six billion people survive on less than two U.S. dollars a day, while the disparity in per capita income between the 20 richest and 20 poorest countries more than doubled in the past 40 years, even as the world economy has become increasingly integrated, the report said.

”It’s terribly important to not lose sight of the fact that there is a very large share of the human population that has been left behind,” said WorldWatch Director Christopher Flavin. ”That is the bottom line”.

The world is now divided between a minority that enjoy ”plentiful food, seemingly unlimited mobility, access to cutting-edge technology and other amenities of life” and a large majority that have ”scant opportunity to look past the worries of daily survival”, adds the report.

Two different types of environmental destruction occur under these conditions: ”the wealthy impose the heaviest toll on the planet by dint of their materials-intensive, pollution-laden lifestyles, whereas the poor generally live with some of the worst local environmental conditions, eking out a meagre living only by taxing their croplands, forests and waters resources to the limits”.

The consumption choices of the rich inevitably hit the poor hardest, making their life even more difficult.

While the United States, for example, produces roughly one quarter of the world’s carbon emissions from the burning of oil, gas and coal that contribute to global warming, it is the poor nations who suffer the brunt of the weather-related and other disasters that are believed to result from warming.

Last year, for example, rains in Kenya forced more than 150,000 people to leave their homes, while almost one million Chinese were affected by the most severe drought in more than a century.

Over the past two decades, floods and other weather-related disasters forced some 10 million people to migrate from Bangladesh to India, while people living on at least seven small-island nations may soon have to give up their homes due to rising sea levels caused by warming.

”It is almost impossible to ensure lasting peace and stability when massive inequalities exist and the natural systems that support us remain under threat,” said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer in a statement. ”Little will ever be achieved in terms of conservation of the environment and natural resources if billions of people have no hope, no chance to care.”

”People are losing hope that there is a better future out there,” added Renner, who noted that ”young people who are unemployed or don’t have educational opportunities” make up a potent recruiting ground for terrorism.

Unfortunately, he added, the response from the United States and other governments engaged in the ”war on terrorism” – is to use military force without addressing the economic, social, and environmental roots of these problems. ”The lessons being given out by these governments is that, ‘Violence pays’,” he added.

Indeed, rising military expenditures may be contributing to these problems if for no other reason than money spent on weapons and soldiers is money that cannot be used to address poverty, inequality and environmental decline.

Military spending, which was in steady decline during the 1990s, is now rising once again, led in particular by the United States, which now accounts for nearly 40 percent of total global military spending, the report said.

And while the world’s 51 poorest countries account for only about seven percent of total spending on arms, that amount still represents double their share of the world’s gross economic product. In some countries, such as Eritrea, Burundi and Pakistan, military spending equals or exceeds the combined government budgets for education and health.

There is also a link between armed conflict, poverty and wealth gaps between the industrialised and developing countries, the report noted, as most of the world’s recent wars in poor countries have involved a struggle for control of natural resources that are ultimately sold to wealthy countries.

Such conflicts have displaced million of people, especially in Africa, who are forced to fend for themselves in already-overcrowded towns and cities or in wilderness areas where they try to carve out a living at the expense of the environment.

Another threat to both the poor and the environment is the international trade system, which, according to WorldWatch, is ”rigged against the interests of the poor”. Farm subsidies of more than 300 billion dollars a year permit food crops exported by farmers in rich countries to be sold at prices 20-50 percent below the cost of production.

Unable to compete, farmers in many poor countries have turned to drug crops – like opium or coca – in remote parts of the countryside, further encroaching on wilderness areas.

”The human tragedies behind these statistics are compelling reminders that social and environmental progress are not luxuries that can be set aside when the world is experiencing economic and political problems,” said Flavin, who expressed ”deep concern” that a faltering global economy and new attention on the Middle East may divert resources needed to reduce poverty.

”Suffering that is allowed to fester today will lead to adverse and unpredictable consequences for many tomorrows to come,” he said.

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