The development of sustainable livelihoods needs balancing human need for natural resources and the capacity of the environment to provide those resources consistently over time.
This requires innovative approaches to livelihood and economic development that thoughtfully weigh the lifestyle choices of a population and make changes that favour long-term sustainability of natural resources over fast short-term economic gains.
When environmental considerations are not integrated in livelihood programming, the interdependence of ecosystems and livelihoods is frequently overlooked. In an effort to quickly restore people’s capacity to earn a living, the long-term and complex requirements of raising awareness and changing how people interact with their environment are often forfeited for a rapid return to previous unsustainable livelihoods. Without a more comprehensive understanding of the environmental context in which people strive to support themselves and their households, recovery initiatives often further weaken the ecosystems upon which livelihoods depend.
Many societies have built up, through hundreds of years of experience and intimate contact with the environment, a vast body of knowledge on environmental conservation and disaster management. This knowledge, passed through generations and tested by time, is a valuable resource that can ensure more sustainable livelihood practices while mitigating the adverse impacts of natural disasters in these areas.
In the design of environmental and livelihood programming, building upon indigenous skills and knowledge increases the social acceptability of new approaches, facilitates awareness-raising and is often more easily replicated in similar socio-economic and environmental contexts.
Factors such as increased population and greater demand of natural resources have led to over-fishing, desertification, deforestation, and other forms of ecosystem degradation. Yet, in many cases it is not the use of natural resources, but the means by which these natural resources are acquired and managed that damage ecosystem health.
For example bottom trawling, drift nets and explosives are fishing methods that heavily damage the marine ecosystems upon which the fish rely. The extensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides are agricultural practices which can strip soils of valuable nutrients, thus diminishing their capacity to support the growth of crops.
When alternative practices are insufficient to curb environmental degradation, diversifying the range of income-earning strategies can enable affected populations to meet their livelihood needs while decreasing the strain placed on ecosystem resources.
Livelihood diversification is already a widely-recognised phenomenon amongst rural populations. “Studies of rural income portfolios generally converge on the once startling figure that, on average, roughly 50 per cent of rural household incomes in low income countries are generated from engagement in non-farm activities and from transfers from urban areas or abroad (remittances and pension payments being the chief categories of such transfers).”
However, rural low-income populations, “tend to diversify in the form of casual wage work, especially on other farms leaving them still highly reliant on agriculture.”
Diversification may take place within a given livelihood strategy, such as diversifying crops, livestock, or fish populations. Diversification may also be cross-sectoral, in which commerce or a skilled trade might supplement the incomes of farmers or fishermen. In most cases diversification is a reaction to limited earning potential rather than a planned strategy to rehabilitate an ecosystem’s productive services.
However, as a proactive strategy, coupled with ecosystem rehabilitation measures, livelihood diversification has been observed to reverse environmental degradation while also providing populations with a ‘buffer’, when natural events, such as droughts or floods, adversely impact an ecosystem’s productivity.
In situations where an ecosystem’s productive services are seriously threatened, the sole means of reversing the damage may be to develop alternative livelihoods. This requires a comprehensive and longer-term commitment, capital investment and market infrastructure.
However, when well implemented, the removal of productive stresses on an ecosystem is one of the most effective means of environmental protection and rehabilitation.