Poverty and Environmental Degradation

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Between states as within their borders, “where there is social inequality,” we also find “environmental health threats” (according to David N. Pellow and Robert J. Brulle). During the 1980s, an environmental justice movement pointed out the disproportionate exposure of certain ethnic groups and underprivileged populations in the United States to external and environmental dangers. While waste processing and transport infrastructures that are harmful to health are installed in the poor neighborhoods of developed countries, these latter export their waste to countries of the South, to the detriment of local populations. In 2006, the ship Probo Koala discharged toxic waste from Europe into the port of Abidjan, creating lethal gas fumes which, according to the UN, killed 15 people and affected more than 100,000.

The environmental costs of producing and extracting natural resources are also paid by the Southern countries which export them. The most vulnerable populations face undue exposure to the consequences of climate change, particularly in a context of urbanization and the marginalization of small farmers in the global market economy.

Responsibility can also be strategically reversed. In Haiti, for example, national and international political actors, considering charcoal to be the main cause of the country’s deforestation, tend to cast blame on those who use and sell the charcoal, ignoring the historic and structural causes, the economic policies, and the power relationships that are at work. It is another example of how use of trees by the poor is criminalized, something which was systematic throughout the twentieth century.

Conversely, the work of Joan Martinez-Alier on the environmentalism of the poor has demonstrated the role played by the poor in conserving nature in the face of private corporations and states which they oppose, notably in conflicts over the extraction of resources.

World paper, plastic and textile waste trading, 2012-2016

Source: UN Comtrade,

Comment: This map shows the flows of waste materials registered as international trade. This means that there is no record of local or regional waste disposal, or of what takes place within countries; trafficking and illegal dumping also go unrecorded. Apart from the substantial movement of waste between European countries, the main producers of waste (North America, Europe and, to a lesser extent, Asia) send the large majority of their waste to China and Hong Kong.

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" Poverty and Environmental Degradation " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:

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