Briefing Papers Number 2, May 2008 - Page 6

problem is that many countries are not striking that careful balance by providing sufficient environmental safeguards as they struggle to reduce hunger. The small island nation of Timor-Leste illustrates some of the environmental pressures faced by developing countries. Roughly the size of Connecticut and with a population of approximately 1 million, the country has 700 miles of coast line and a varied topography that includes dense forests and steeply sloping hillsides.34 Timor-Leste is categorized as a “least developed country,” with high rates of hunger, poverty, and child and maternal mortality. According to Conservation International, Timor-Leste and its surrounding region is also a biodiversity hotspot.35 It’s an immensely rich ecosystem, but it’s under extreme stress and the threat of irreparable environmental degradation. Rising food prices and the environment The poorest of the poor, smallholder farmers, should not have to respond to the current food crisis by farming marginal land and ecologically sensitive areas. That is why the best investment in poor people and in the environment is to increase agricultural productivity. Those investments must ensure that farming practices contribute to a healthy environment rather than exacerbate existing environmental problems. Food Prices (Nominal $ Index, Jan 1995=100) 200 150 100 50 0 Jan 95 Jan 97 Jan 99 Jan 01 Jan 03 Jan 05 Jan 07 Source: World Bank, Development Prospects Group, 2008. One of the major environmental concerns in Timor-Leste is the loss of forests. Under Indonesian rule, timber was unsustainably harvested as an export commodity. War in the late 1990s heavily damaged forests, turning many areas into degraded scrubland. This problem has been exacerbated more recently by large-scale forest fires.36 Wood also serves as a major source of energy for cooking, and population pressures are increasing the need to comb the forest for available fuel. Efforts to increase food production have also contributed to deforestation as farmers practice slash and burn techniques in order to enlarge and enrich arable land.37 In 1972, more than half of the area that now makes up Timor-Leste was forested. 6  Briefing Paper, February 2008 Today, only about one-third of the country’s forested land remains intact.38 The rapid loss of forest in Timor-Leste presents several important development problems. First, woodlands are an important asset for poor people, providing resources to improve people’s lives and sustain their livelihoods. Rivers, grasslands, and forests provide timber, fuel, food, and water to use at home or sell in local markets. Estimates from the World Bank suggest that 90 percent of the world’s poor people rely on forests for some part of their income or livelihood.39 The declining availability of natural resources means that families, particularly women and girls, must walk greater distances and spend more hours searching for firewood simply to survive. Time and energy spent securing basic goods such as fuel is time that children could instead be learning and adults pursuing economic opportunity. An added problem in resource-depleted areas such as Timor-Leste is increased vulnerability to natural disasters. For example, trees help to anchor hillsides. In their absence, devastating mudslides can occur. Coastal marshes and swamplands help protect against coastal flooding. Poor people are more vulnerable to environmental disasters. They are also more isolated, so it is harder for relief agencies to help them in the aftermath of disasters. Put simply, development gains are jeopardized by environmental degradation. Meeting MDG #7, ensuring environmental sustainability, is critical to achieving sustainable development. But around the world, MDG #7 has proven to be especially challenging. Rapid global ecological changes are threatening to overtake the efforts of many countries. As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change details, environmental degradation, in particular large-scale air pollution and emission of greenhouse gases, is projected to lead to rising temperatures, higher sea levels, and rapidly changing weather patterns characterized by more frequent and more intense storms.40 Countries such as Timor-Leste, already at risk of flooding, face an even graver threat from global climate change. Postscript on Partnerships for Development In 2000, when the world’s nations agreed to the MDGs, developed countries pledged to renew and strengthen partnerships for development, including providing aid and promoting policies and programs to help meet the goals. Eight years later, as we have crossed the halfway mark before the 2015 deadline, it is crucial to focus on the challenges that developing countries face. The challenges described above must be addressed—not ignored because they are too difficult—or we risk putting the MDGs beyond the reach of too many countries. Developing countries must take the lead in overcoming these barriers— without committed governments, progress toward human development is much more difficult—but developed countries also have a key role to play.