Francisco Noguera

Guest Post: Harnessing and Harmonizing: Making Natural Resources and Markets Work for the Poor

Lauren_WitheyGuest blogger Lauren Withey is a research analyst working on the World Resources Report at the World Resources Institute. She is a contributing writer to the newly-released World Resources 2008 – Roots of Resilience: Growing the Wealth of the Poor.

By Lauren WitheySofia Begum never imagined that she would be running her own poultry business. In 2000, the former housewife from northern Bangladesh was struggling to make ends meet for her family. She and her husband, a fisherman, were too poor to send their children to school. Like most of the families around them, the couple relied heavily on the local wetland to provide the protein and income necessary to sustain their daily lives. But degradation to the wetland from agricultural pollution, sediment from deforestation upstream, and overfishing had taken its toll in recent years. Fish harvests had fallen dramatically and the communities reliant on the wetlands had few other economic opportunities to fall back on.

Fortunately for Sofia, a new effort was just beginning in the area that aimed to help her community develop alternative income sources while restoring the wetlands under community management. The Managing of Aquatic Ecosystems through Community Husbandry (MACH) program was funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and executed by four civil society organizations with the support of the Bangladeshi government.

Communities across northern Bangladesh created two types of groups to carry out this process: Resource Management Organizations (RMOs) designed and implemented wetland management plans to aid the wetlands’ recovery, while Resource User Groups (RUGs) served as training and financing mechanisms to develop alternative income sources. Specialty vegetable farms, fruit orchards, livestock-rearing operations, energy and clothing businesses, small stores are just a few of the fruits of the RUG’s efforts in MACH communities.

Sofia_BegumSofia’s egg operation, launched in 2003, is another result-as is her husband’s furniture-making business. Both were made possible by the loans, training, and information exchanges provided through their RUG.

At the same time that the wetland communities were diversifying their economic options, the waters began recovering under the watchful eyes of the RMOs – fish and other wildlife have returned, and the wetland can carry out its critical ecosystem services, including as a filter for the watershed. Sofia and her husband now make enough to send her children to school and her community has fish to eat again-though they do not need to rely on this delicate resource as much thanks to the new egg and livestock businesses.

The newly-released 2008 World Resources Report, Roots of Resilience: Growing the Wealth of the Poor, builds on millions of stories like Sofia’s. They are stories from among the 2 million rural poor, stories of those who have learned to harness and harmonize the power of nature and enterprise to overcome many of the burdens of poverty. When the rural poor have the proper incentives to sustainably manage the natural resources around them, and when they have the skills to carry out this management and create enterprise within the management guidelines, they become better-off. They can feed their families more consistently and send their children to school, as Sofia has done.

Most critically, however, efforts like that in Bangladesh build resilience among communities-they create diverse economic opportunities, enhance the capacity for community members to work together toward a common goal, and make the surrounding ecosystems stronger. All of these types of resilience help rural communities to cope with shocks-and shocks, such as in the form of extreme weather events or higher food and oil prices, are more likely under the shadow of climate change and shifts within the growing and ever-more interconnected global economy.
How do stories like Sofia’s become common-place among the 2 billion rural poor? Scaling up is critical, and government, civil society, and the private sector all have roles to play in this regard. World Resources 2008 details this process. It emphasizes the central place of government in spreading success and providing a sound enabling environment for rural resource management and enterprise. The book also suggests that banking, insurance, and new technologies will be important for building and sustaining these rural enterprises.

As with microfinance customers, many of these small nature-based enterprise owners will not become wealthy, though they may have more money. The most important outcome in this process is the security that they are building for themselves in what tends to be a world of vulnerability and change. This security-and accompanying resilience-is a crucial step on a pathway of sustainable and equitable global growth. Private companies must collaborate with donors, civil society, and government to take this step: World Resources 2008 provides direction for making this work.

To read more from the report and to order copies, go to this link.