Fighting poverty and saving the environment

Around 200 million people in China live in poverty, but the country’s relief programme is not working, warns Jiang Gaoming. Polluters and corrupt local officials are diverting money intended to avert hardship.

There has always been controversy over the link between environmental protection and economic growth, particularly in developing countries, where the need for growth can hinder environmental efforts. Many of China’s environmental problems have their roots in poverty, and economic relief can help with environmental recovery. But poverty alleviation does not always work as it should.

Wuwei county, in east China’s Anhui province, has an annual income of 500 million yuan (around US$64.5 million); its economy has ranked in the province’s top 10 for the last three years, yet it is still classed as a key county for national poverty-relief projects. Similarly, Fengtai county, also in Anhui, has had the largest income in the province for the past three years, and is still a focus of the province’s poverty alleviation programme.

Around 200 million people in China live in poverty, second in the world only to India, with most living in the rural parts of less-developed regions. Although China has seen rapid economic growth, it has been concentrated on the east coast, with the rest of the country left far behind. Some have said that in terms of development, China has “European” cities, but “African” villages.

Two decades of poverty alleviation have achieved significant results, but some areas constantly fall back into poverty – or even seem to worsen with increasing aid. If we want to know why, we must look at China’s poverty-relief policies.

Firstly, we should ask who actually needs this relief. The answer is, of course, the people who are actually poor – and China does not have many impoverished government officials. Travelling to poverty-stricken counties in north China’s Hebei province, it is common to be welcomed by cadres sporting gold jewellery, who will take you to sumptuous banquets in their luxury cars. No-one is more concerned with poverty alleviation than cadres in poor areas, but some seem to aim on getting rich first. They have been known to burst into tears on hearing that their counties are no longer to be classed as “poor”; some will go to any lengths hoping Beijing will keep the title. Clearly these cadres are not really interested in ending poverty. And while the people want to be better-off, but the officials want their hardship to continue, what hope is there of government funds being used efficiently?

Officials also attract investment in the name of poverty relief. In order to increase their tax base they will grant any requests that businesses make, sometimes even portraying local objections as betrayals of the local people – and their factory-building saviours. As a result, polluting industries can move from south to north and from east to west. But how many vulnerable ecosystems have been sacrificed? China’s west is hugely ecologically rich, but development in the east has relied on the west’s water and air, its biodiversity and its energy resources. In losing these precious resources, China ultimately harms itself.

Mismanaged poverty alleviation has given rise to recurring – even worsening – economic hardship, and has caused much environmental damage in poor areas.

Secondly, we must ask who poverty relief has made richer. Cannier business people see both the government determination to tackle poverty and the greed of local government leaders, and build factories in poor areas, knowing it will be welcomed by local officials. They choose poorer areas because their polluting industries are no longer welcome in more developed regions, because preferential policies are in place, because they will have local government support and because the costs of consuming environmental resources are low or non-existent. As a result, vast profits can be made by exploiting local resources. Businesses reach agreements with local governments, who then silence public opposition. Some business leaders even persuade provincial leaders to support projects which result in complete environmental ruin.

Business aims for profit maximisation and a quick return on investments, and will easily forget those in actual need of poverty alleviation. Many government-funded poverty-alleviation projects employ 90% of their workers from other areas, severely limiting their impact on the local economy. Area residents, who 10 years ago hailed a hydroelectric plant for the prosperity it would bring, today are left picking through the plant’s garbage.

Projects that do not take the poor into consideration will not help economic rehabilitation; local governments will simply be left to cope with further environmental damage, as already-vulnerable ecosystems are destroyed.

Thirdly, we must ask what role the poor should play in poverty alleviation. Why are some areas still poor, despite almost 60 years of government poverty-relief policies? The problem is that the people’s own initiative has not been brought into play. We think of these places as lacking funds, but what they really lack is skilled people – and not just in terms of technical skills. Those who can move away do not return, leaving nobody to manage the land. Villages in poor areas are mostly populated by older people and women – all the able-bodied young men have gone to work in the cities. And it is not a trend that should be encouraged: migrants to the cities will see the surplus value of their labour enjoyed by others. Poverty relief would be better used to provide opportunities for those who choose to remain in their villages.

Continual changes in land policy have also caused too much uncertainty for people to rely on it for their livelihoods. Agrarian reforms in the early 1950s brought the people and the land together, but this did not last long. The subsequent move towards communes took the land out of their hands and resulted in food shortages. They were only reunited with the land again under the household contract responsibility system, which ensured an adequate food supply. History proves that China’s rural residents can only pull themselves out of poverty when they manage their own land.

But the poor do not have control over their land: they have been subordinated to the businesses that aim to profit while paying lip service to poverty relief. Rural residents can sell off their land, trees and wildlife, but it will only leave them poorer. If they owned the land, a larger percentage of the money earned by these businesses would belong to them, and they would not need to sell off their resources. After all, when the environment is already depleted, who will invest?

Poverty has become a kind of resource. There is no shortage of money from national poverty alleviation funds, environmental management funds, disaster relief funds, money for education and for irrigation – not to mention money from NGOs, businesses and individual donations. But the poor themselves have no voice in how the money is spent, and many problems have arisen as a result. A change in the basic methods of poverty relief is needed; it must be questioned how the nation’s money can best be spent.

Future poverty relief projects must include the active participation of the poor; they should not simply be implemented by government. The poor need to have a stake in the land, the environment and any projects that are launched in their name. Poverty alleviation policy should be designed to transform what are now passive recipients into stakeholders. This is the only way in which poverty relief can be effective, and the environment in poor areas can be saved from unfettered exploitation.


Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany. He is also vice secretary-general of the UNESCO China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and a member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group.

Homepage photo by Joel Meyerson