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
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.
(Nominal $ Index, Jan 1995=100)
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
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
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.