Justice Is As Important As Wealth When Tackling Poverty

Dr Neil Dawson
February 16, 2017

ESPA researcher Dr Neil Dawson gives us his personal perspective on justice and equity in a guest blog published to coincide with the UN’s World Day of Social Justice on 20 February 2017.

In recent years ambitious global agreements have been forged to harmonise social and environmental goals. The SDGs, Paris Agreement and Aichi Targets of the CBD all present aspirations for social justice alongside halting degradation of ecosystems, loss of biodiversity and slowing global warming. This future vision by multilateral consensus suggests we are living in an enlightened age and provides reasons to be optimistic about the future of the planet, wildlife and people.

But a large roadblock on that path is that collectively we have never been very good at balancing these multiple ambitions. Even in the era of ecosystem services thinking, more than a decade on from the MEA, our report card makes for grim reading. In developing countries (as shown by lots of ESPA research) conservation measures still commonly result in costs to local populations, especially poor and marginalised groups, and economic development often directly causes or indirectly leads to accelerated environmental degradation. To start making progress towards those global goals without all the trade-offs, we can conclude something needs to be done differently.


There are worrying trends to indicate our current trajectory is off course. For example the number of social and environmental activists or land rights defenders being killed (here is just one example reported in The Guardian) increased disturbingly in 2016! Such tragic events highlight an alarming dissonance between global policy ambition and the ongoing struggles for rights, environmental protection and social justice taking place at the local level. We don’t simply need to rehash the jargon of sustainability or relabel the indicators used in assessments and to measure policy impacts. The practice of ecosystem management and development need to change (including relevant sectors such as agriculture). That means we (especially as researchers and practitioners) need to scrutinise the strategies being employed in the name of sustainability, development and conservation.

ESPA research is particularly well placed to shed light on these issues. We don’t need to wait 10 more years until the impacts become clear. ESPA projects have been looking holistically at the impacts of policies pursuing sustainability and poverty alleviation for years, and both measuring and describing their effects on people and the environment in all manner of ecosystems across the developing world. And, let’s be honest, long before that scholars like Sara Berry, Pauline Peters, Tania Murray Li and others were leading the way. But some of those projects have also advanced frameworks for studying different perspectives of equity, social and environmental justice in relation to environment and development policy1 & 2

At a global level mainstream policies are supported by powerful norms relating to macro-economic priorities and market-based solutions (as was abundantly clear when I attended the UN climate conference in Marrakech last November as part of the DFID-ESRC funded project Rethinking Environment and Development in an Era of Global Norms That has been the case for decades and is not about to change imminently because there are considerable economic and political forces perpetuating that development vision (including AGRA, the Gates Foundation, Bayer nee Monsanto etc). So it’s not a surprise that debates about what constitutes sustainable agriculture have been eerily absent from high level policy forums, nor that SDG momentum is not being harnessed to revolutionise agricultural policy and better support ecological diversity or local rights. Instead through late but significant amendments to proposed wording, SDG targets call for increases in productivity of global commodities rather than recognition of customary tenure, indigenous rights, food sovereignty or the traditional seed diversity which may be so important to local perceptions of social justice.

Like policies, indicators can be value-laden too. Sometimes measurements can even give the illusion that desirable change is occurring while masking what is really happening. Policy makers point to wonderful progress in recognising issues related to gender inequality and insecure land tenure. But indicators do not necessarily represent a transformational change in thinking or easily translate to better outcomes. For example framings of sustainability or food security favoured in global policy in turn support intensification policies based on the model favoured by multinational corporations and fail to capture ill-effects such as erosion of cultural diversity or indigenous knowledge. Intensification programs along the same lines of those seen globally since the 1960s and 70s may therefore appear to set us on the path to reaching SDG2 ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’. But, as ample evidence illustrates, those types of policies, i.e. the status quo, often lead to a redistribution of land away from the poorest3, often into the hands of private companies, and impinge on traditional knowledge and systems of food production.

A recent article from the Ecosystem Services, Wellbeing and Justice project in Laos reveal how policies promoting commercialisation of agriculture and strict forest conservation can combine to harm local diets, be perceived to exacerbate injustice4 while all common indicators for poverty and food security suggest the coveted win-win. The environmental credentials and impacts of large-scale intensification policies on ecosystem services are debatable at best. Therein lies the dissonance between the worthy global goals and local perceptions of social and environmental justice.

The results of the ESPA program can be used to highlight these issues for policymakers and practitioners involved in UN SDG, UNFCCC and CBD processes – perhaps the new round of synthesis projects will do just that.

But no matter how you cut it, delivering and measuring social justice will be no easy task and responsibility falls to all those who consume and rely on the world’s natural resources, from rich to poor. In that regard we would do well to remember the wise words of Bryan Stevenson “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. In too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.”


1.     Toward an Empirical Analysis of Justice in Ecosystem Governance

2.     Safeguarding local equity as global values of ecosystem services rise

3.     Green Revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa: Implications of Imposed Innovation for the Wellbeing of Rural Smallholders

4.     Wild food collection and nutrition under commercial agriculture expansion in agriculture-forest landscapes



Featured image (women in field) courtesy of USAID