Poverty, if not experienced, is difficult to understand. When the World Bank crowned Nigeria the world’s poverty capital, there was an intense reluctance to accept this new position. And when Humans of New York came, we struggled to believe how poor Nigerians were.
The issue is how we imagine poor people. When we think about extreme poverty, we think about people living on under a dollar a day which is almost nothing. Surely, ₦360 a day is not enough money to afford where to live, eat, take care of medical emergencies, entertain and raise a family. So how can a poor person eat live, work and survive on almost nothing? Well, the answer lies in something Nigerians are familiar with: subsidies. Poor people's lifestyles are subsidised by the environment.
Nature provides us with many benefits, like timber and fish, and we call these ecosystem services. Although rich and poor often have equal access to these services, they are more likely to be exploited by poor people because they can't purchase these benefits on the market. Poor people don't have enough money to buy a bag of rice so they grow their own, they can't afford public transport so they build canoes and ride across rivers, and they can't pay for heating so they light fires instead. A perfect example of the income benefit of the environment is the fish in the river. The fish in the river is available to everyone. However, poorer people are more likely to go fishing to provide dinner. This is the same for subsistence farming and animal rearing. The benefits of ecosystem services for the poor also extend to health care—Nigerians who cannot afford formal medicine can use herbs found in their surroundings to deal with diseases from cholera to malaria.
These ecosystem services are crucial for the poor because they are not traded in a market and are almost always free. This explains the divergence between our view of poverty and the experience of poverty; we struggle to understand how the poor can afford to survive because we incorrectly assume they have to pay for everything they need to survive. Wrong. Nature gives them some things free.
Ecosystem Services and Poverty
Research suggests that these environmental benefits can reduce income inequality and contribute to poverty alleviation. To see how, imagine the importance of ecosystem services for social mobility. Poor people are unlikely to have the human or physical capital required to become entrepreneurs but can rely on the environment to produce the basic raw materials they need to start a business. We see this with hunters and fishermen, or small villages that rely on wind farms for their electricity.
What this tells us is that the environment is a critical determinant of the wealth and lifestyle of the very poor. In truth, the environmental is a critical determinant of wealth in general. Ecosystem services are integral in even the most developed economies—dams providing hydropower and flood control or the famous Northern Lights. But many of us do not actively think about how biodiversity and poverty are linked and this has repercussions for how we approach both environmental and development policy.
While increasing income is an important part of poverty alleviation, it is important that we do not neglect opportunities to leverage ecosystem services by allowing people greater access to these welfare improving resources. This means making sure that ecosystem services are taken seriously. Put simply, the environment is key to making sure that poverty is not as devastating for Nigerians as it could be.
We are already seeing the consequences of our failure to account for the ecosystem and value our resources properly. What happens when drought, floods, deforestation, oil spills and water pollution become the norm? Well, poverty becomes worse, and not-poor people become poor, and the poor become poorer. It is now well-known that the farmer-herdsmen clashes in Nigeria's Middle Belt have been aggravated by climate change and the resulting reduction in grazing areas for nomadic herdsmen who have long-since relied on this gift of nature.
In the case of ecosystem services, health is wealth. A healthy ecosystem means more wealth. When we redefine our measures of a good standard of living we begin to appreciate how protecting biodiversity can help improve human welfare and the overall economy
The concept of ecosystem service is currently a novel idea, and an unpopular way to approach economic development in Nigeria. However, environmental income is a way out of extreme poverty. Households are vulnerable to environmental change due to dependence on the environment for income and sustenance. Since the poor are more reliant on the environment, focusing on improving biodiversity would have a more significant impact on them while still helping the rest of the population.
The poor are at the mercy of many external factors, so policies need to support and build capacity for the poor to adapt solutions to problems. This includes making sure that they have access to free resources and public goods. Therefore, it is important that there is more effort directed at environmental education and awareness. People have to learn about the economic and welfare importance of ecosystem to every Nigerian, especially the financially disadvantaged. We need to start caring about the environment; doing so could just lift many Nigerians out of poverty.