Eco-Awareness: Locked-in poverty syndrome

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

I normally write my column in the cool wet climate of County Fermanagh assured that at this time of the year the day time temperature won’t rise about 8 or 9 Celsius. On this occasion I write from Juba in South Sudan where I can be assured that it won’t rain and the day time temperature won’t fall below 38 Celsius.

Living here one cannot avoid noticing the negative impact that the economic imperative to survive, underpinned by cultural practices, has resulted in the near complete negative transformation of a biome.

Outside the sprawl of Juba, the country’s capital with a population of 460,000, are the lands of the Bari Tribe. Over the last few decades, the land has morphed from being a verdant rainforest into a bio-impoverished expanse of savannah. This has been due to the felling of the forest to make charcoal for use in the villages, in Juba and for export to Saudi Arabia. The cultural practice of regularly setting fire to the grass and small bushes prevents the forest regenerating.

The transformation of rainforest to dry savannah is a classic case of what happens when a society lives beyond its eco-regenerative capacities through opting for short-term financial gain at the expense of persistent if not permanent economic hardship.

The loss of the rainforest has led to the loss of the produce and services it provided the Bari people and neighbouring tribes. These include a cooler climate, shade from the sun, a reliable supply of fresh water, medicines, fiber, food, wood, as well as materials for a range of useful implements and decorative accessories. It also meant the loss of agroforestry, which is the practice of growing crops and keeping a small number of economically useful animals among the trees. In addition, the loss of the forest has meant the loss of an important sequester of carbon and has had an impact on the local weather system. When the rainy season arrives, it will inevitably lead to severe flooding as it has done in the past.

There is nothing to replace these losses as given the lack of paved roads, electricity, piped water and the ever-present threat of tribal animosities resulting in widespread violence, economic development, whether indigenous or from an international company, would be difficult or unlikely. Thus, we have a locked-in syndrome of poverty.”

The removal of the threat of widespread violence could see a major company wanting to buy or rent Bari land and use it to produce plantation crops for both domestic consumption and export. Plantations, however, do not aid biodiversity, rely on expensive imported hazardous chemicals, employ relatively few people who are usually underpaid with the economic profits going abroad rather than circulating in the local economy.

This tragic scenario of ecological degradation leading to the locked-in syndrome of poverty is not particular to this part of South Sudan. It is the case in many parts of the world including Ireland as illustrated by the ecological degradation of Lough Neagh, other bodies of water, and the steep loss of biodiversity due to the Forestry Department’s over-reliance on coniferous trees and the farming community’s over-reliance on diary, beef and poultry. Northern Ireland in fact ranks 12th in the world for biodiversity loss.

Many of the businesses that relied on Lough Neagh are in decline as a result of the blue-green algae that has blighted the lough in recent years. Among them are eel fishing and leisure boating. Other bodies of water that were once replete with fish no longer provide suitable habitat for them due to agricultural run-off and the disposal of untreated sewage.

This takes us to the nub of the issue, which is how do we meet our needs, essential and relative, whilst not at the same time undermining and eventually eradicating the bounty of the Earth without which our needs cannot be met.? Is it wise, and do we think it is ethical, to meet the needs of the present at the expense of experiencing chronic need in a few years or decades time? Do we take our ecological legacy into account in the decisions we make?

As a society it seems we have opted, perhaps contrary to our avowed moral code, to live by the credo “I’m all right Jack”.

As a result of the imperative to meet pressing needs, as well as prepare for a rainy day, we by default largely rely on patterns of thought, dispositions and beliefs that are not fit for purpose. We behave in a way that a family business would not which is to use up all of our capitol in the form of the intact ecosystems left to us by passed generations.

Although it is said that we learn from our mistakes we often don’t. In regard to the harms we cause to nonhuman nature, which includes the over-heating of the planet and loss of biodiversity, we have not acted with the urgency, imagination and doggedness necessary to address them.

Like the Bari Tribe, who were unable to modify their long-established land-management practices in regards to felling trees for charcoal, communities the world over are finding that as a result of being unable to live within the regenerative capacities of their ecosystem that they are marooned in a locked-in poverty syndrome. Ecological destruction increases poverty which exasperates ecological destruction which in turn deepens the level of poverty.

It does not have to be this way. The move in the Republic of Ireland to recognize the rights of nonhuman nature in their constitution offers some hope. Many countries already recognize that nonhuman nature has rights comparable to those of people. Imagine the positive transformative impact across society if the rights of nonhuman nature were respected.

Like human rights in many a political jurisdiction, enshrining the rights of nonhuman nature in a country’s constitution does not mean they will be protected but it sets an important moral standard and wrongdoers can be held to account.