Healthy Planet, Healthy Communities


[1] For half a century and more, citizens of the 'developed' world have banked on the notion that the social and economic capital of individuals and communities are the keys to a better life. Secure where we are, our faith in the efficacy of socio-economic assets is the lens we use to view the needs and prospects of other nations, perhaps especially those who are still 'developing.'

[2] So when overseas development experts tell us the latest statistics on deforestation around the world or explain incessant declines in global biodiversity, they often are met with blank faces. Beyond a passing regret for the loss of pretty scenery and for places where monkeys and tigers once roamed, many might quietly wonder to themselves if vanished forests and little-noticed extinctions are really all that devastating. Deep beliefs in the wonders of technology may suggest that we will be able to stave off a crisis and lift ourselves successfully into the future. Others are more acquainted with the need to protect biodiversity for nature's sake, but how does it relate to people? What is really at stake for our species if all the forests eventually fall and planetary biodiversity plummets?

"A reality lost on modern societies steeped in economic (may we say) determinism is that natural resources, or natural 'capital,' is essential to human life and livelihoods. There is a systemic and perceptual disconnect between urban sectors of the economy and the population and the environmental "goods and services" they receive. Many urban sectors in both developing and industrialized countries "live in a cocoon of shops, tubes, roads and artifacts, which shields their senses and their existence from the decay of forests, fishing grounds, water tables, top soil, and plant diversity in the countryside."1

Though this disconnect greatly reflects the lack of priority given to the environment in mainstream modern society, it does nothing to diminish the reality that the health and well-being of humans is intimately tied to the health of the land.

Learning with Others

[3] Unlike the affluent in urban sectors, the rural poor in developing countries are especially aware of the linkages between environment and development, as their livelihoods are bound up so directly with the natural elements. Environmental resources (particularly forests) directly contribute to the livelihood of 90 percent of the 1.2 billion people in the developing world that live in extreme poverty. For example, those without irrigation depend solely on adequate rainfall to nourish their crops. Rain cloud formation and then soil moisture retention are linked to the presence of forests. Farmers depend on the right amount of sun and minimal wind to ensure a healthy harvest. They are dependent upon fertile soil, especially when chemical inputs are not accessible. Women haul water on their heads and walk for miles to provide water for drinking and household purposes, drawing from rivers or local wells. The rural poor also depend on trees and forests for their fuel needs. Their close relationship to nature also makes the rural poor more vulnerable as environmental degradation increases. They do not have the safety nets of bank accounts, cupboards of canned food, credit cards and health insurance to help them through difficult times. When disasters strike, a degraded environment may become a matter of life and death. People become more vulnerable to the ravages of wind, water, drought, fire and earthquake.

[4] If we can accept that the well-being of humans and of the environment are intimately linked, and that many of us in the urbanized middle class of America are somewhat insulated from this issue, there is considerable cause for alarm. Central America - where more forests were destroyed between 1950 and 1990 than in the previous 500 years - is a good laboratory to examine the reality. It is a region where Lutheran World Relief has worked for more than 25 years.

[5] Between 1950 and 1990, the area of forest in the region fell by nearly half, from 75 million acres to 42 million acres. The majority of newly cleared lands were turned into pastures (often for cattle and partly so for low-cost beef to supply fast food outlets in the U.S.) The total, current deforestation rate for Central America is nearly one million acres per year. Soil depletion is another major problem that contributes to Central America's poverty and environmental degradation. Major causes of soil depletion include deforestation, hillside farming void of soil conservation techniques, and the excessive use of chemicals for farming.

[6] Poverty and environmental degradation make natural threats more common and their effects more severe on the poor. Floods in the region occur with greater frequency, and are not necessarily triggered by tropical storms or hurricanes. Historically, flooding in Central America occurred annually or every two years. Recently the frequency of floods has increased. Both soil depletion and increased flooding are the result of deforestation and the poor management of watersheds.

[7] Droughts, which cause more damage and economic loss than other natural phenomenon are also occurring with greater frequency. Forest fires, global climatic changes, phenomena such as El Niño, and deforestation are causes of this increase. Current climate trends predict a drought every two to seven years, and in some areas, annually. Eight point four million Central Americans currently live in areas susceptible to drought.

[8] So where is hope? In fact it's as close as the hand of God. But it can also be explained in more worldly and more material terms.

[9] Natural capital is a honeybee pollinating plants that supply food. Natural capital is a watershed, a wetland, a forest and a floodplain that stores water, control floods, treats run-off and recycles waste. It is the native species of beans, cacao, tomato, pepper, cotton, and forage legumes that originate in the Central American forest. It is the sun, clean water and air, healthy soil, animals, oceans, and rivers. It is that which is easiest to overlook because "it is the pond in which we swim, and, like fish, we are not aware we're in the water."

[10] Natural 'capital' is most critical for the poor because they depend on it for survival. The ecosystem 'services' it provides are priceless to them, and difficult or impossible even for the wealthy to manufacture. When natural capital is in short supply, communities and people suffer. Poor community health, for instance, is closely linked to degraded soils and scarce or contaminated water.

[11] Biodiversity is more than academic terminology used amongst environmentalists. It is the bedrock of natural 'capital' providing enormous benefits that help populations feed themselves. The livelihoods of families in the global south are dependent not only on their cultivated crops, but from the many natural, uncultivated plants and animals such as small fish, fruits, green vegetables, and tubers found in their communities. Mixed-crop fields and roadside plants -- not purchased animal food -- provide feed for small livestock critical to rural livelihoods in the developing world. Mono-cropping, in contrast, ignores the interconnections at play between people and their diverse environment, and in some cases actually produces less food for rural families as biodiversity decreases. Seed diversity and ownership is also one key to securing livelihoods. Women in Bangladesh, for example, barter seeds amongst each other according to the growing season and availability.

[12] Of the various types of natural capital, one of the most life-giving for rural sustainable development is fertile soil. Conversion processes carried out by literally millions of organisms maintain soil fertility. According to gardener and biologist Evan Eisenberg, "One teaspoon of good grassland soil may contain 5 billion bacteria, 20 million fungi, and 1 million protoctists." 10 Soil provides other essential eco-system services such as cycling nitrogen, carbon, and sulfur, and it stores and releases water slowly into streams to prevent flooding. 11 Fertile soil capable of maintaining moisture is essential on a farm enduring the effects of erratic weather. Maintaining and increasing soil fertility through organic methods rather than artificial fertilizer and taking measures to prevent runoff will help preserve one of the most important forms of natural capital available in impoverished rural communities.

[13] Water, and access to water, is another essential form of natural capital. Yet a world water crisis is afoot. Access to safe drinking water is unavailable for over a billion people. Estimates are that by 2025 more than three billion people will face water scarcity. Lack of access to water is expected to be one of the major obstacles to food security in the coming decades. Water security and water resource management will have to be given central priority in development strategies in order to make possible, and sustain, the health and livelihoods of the poor and of the rich.

[14] Terrabona is a mountainous, rural township in Nicaragua, only a two-hour drive from Managua on a dusty, windy road just off the Pan-American highway. There is a bus twice a day, only a handful of phone lines exist in the whole township, and parking spaces in the town square are occupied not by SUV's but horses and mules. No roads are paved, and finding even a daily newspaper is difficult.

[15] Mountainsides where forests once stood are now mostly bare, logged off or cleared for agriculture. Only fifty years ago, roaring rivers of clean water ran in every direction. Now they are dry except on days of torrential rain. Terrabona was a major casualty of Hurricane Mitch when landslides destroyed homes and farms. But Mitch was only the final blow to a natural system already weakened. Before and since, conditions here reflect the grinding poverty, sparse infrastructure, environmental decay, and vulnerability characteristic of most of Pacific rural Nicaragua.

[16] Terrabona is surrounded by some twenty rural communities. Lutheran World Relief works in ten of them, supporting and partnering with farmers like Mercedes Espinoza. Like many Nicaraguan farmers with natural capital instead of financial capital, Mercedes has learned to be crafty and resourceful with the little he has in order to improve the well-being of his family. There is only one water source in the area, and the soil is heavily depleted from deforestation and slash-and-burn agriculture. The area gets less rainfall than it used to, and conventional irrigation methods and chemical inputs are beyond the financial grasp of the majority of farmers.

[17] Mercedes waters his garden crops through a slow-drip irrigation method using old soft drink bottles. He boasts that by using this system, a five-gallon bucket of water is enough to water his crops and newly planted trees for up to five days. Mercedes also co-manages the community tree nursery, home to 5,000 fruit and hardwood trees. These reminders of what used to cover the Terrabona hills are grown from seedlings and transplanted by community members to homes, farms, and common areas. They are seedlings of hope.

[18] Mercedes' water and soil conservation techniques, his leadership in community activities, as well as his personal conviction that more trees mean a more prosperous Terrabona are making healthy land and a healthier community a reality in this small corner of the developing world.

[19] People and the environment have the same future. Remembering that we share our future with the rest of creation leads to good new and good old solutions for food and water security. Awareness of human vulnerability also helps people prepare for and mitigate disasters. It is a privilege, at this global Lutheran ministry, to stand with people for whom these are not empty notions. They know where their future lies, in good times and in bad. They recognize that God has given them the capacity to serve the common good in its broadest sense. We who are judged to be more fortunate must do likewise.

[20] Protecting and regenerating natural capital is a task for all who are moved to see our lives through the eyes of God. Humankind's best actions and achievements demonstrate that we are stewards and co-creators of the world we live in. The responsibility that many faithful people exercise over our financial and material resources also extends to our stewardship of the earth and its resources. To shirk the fact is to risk becoming an accomplice in idle neglect, unthinking exploitation, or even willful vandalism that threatens life systems on an unprecedented scale.

[21] Perhaps one of our greatest challenges is to look honestly at the critical connections between the natural capital we own with God and the other forms of capital we have created for ourselves. If secular wisdom would lead us toward technological 'capital' where social and economic capital has failed, the wisdom of faith would turn us instead toward creation, toward the environment. To see correctly, and to do what is necessary, now more than ever, is to begin to bring healing to a broken relationship between people and the land.


End Notes

[1] Sachs, p.40

© May 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 3, Issue 5