State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

, ,

In the Fight Against Poverty, Higher Priority Needed for Environmental Sustainability

Land degradation and soil erosion are primary concerns on hilly terrain where pineapples and bananas are grown in the Millennium Village of Ruhiira, Uganda.

By Cheryl Palm

As the state of the environment directly affects human health and economic wellbeing, the attainment of Millennium Development Goal 7: Ensuring environmental sustainability is critical to the success of all the MDGs.  This is especially so in locations that are poverty and hunger hotspots such as the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) sites. In these hotspots the population directly depends on the natural resource base for their livelihoods. Prior to the project, most of the Millennium Villages were characterized by land degradation and depletion of soil nutrients, resulting in poor crop production and reduction of ecosystem services, such as water quality. Thus increasing food production, agriculture-based income, and securing the availability of other ecosystem services over the long-term requires restoring and conserving the local environment.

At the village level, the MVP promotes interventions that enhance, rehabilitate and protect the environment and its associated ecosystem services while minimizing the negative environmental impacts of agricultural and economic development.  These include promoting tree planting, biodiversity preservation and carbon storage; improving the fertility, organic matter, water infiltration and storage capacity of soils; protecting streams, rivers and other water sources; stabilizing slopes; and developing renewable energy strategies.

A uniform package of environmental interventions will not meet all the MDG7 targets across the MVP sites, which are located in diverse agro-ecological zones.  Instead, targets must be localized by identifying locally important eco­system services and the major threats to those services. To be effective these targets must be selected through a participatory process so they address highly variable local needs in a way that can be scaled to provide data relevant to national targets and MDG7.

For example, at the forested MVP site in Mbola, Tanzania, a maize-based farming system, where tobacco (cured by firewood) is an important cash crop, key environmental interventions support household woodlots, protect forests, and promote alternate cash crops that do not require fuelwood processing. However, in a site like Ruhiira, Uganda, a banana-based farming system, where plots are located on steep, deforested hillsides, soil degradation and soil loss are the primary concerns. Project activities focus on integrated soil fertility management, soil conservation measures and reforestation. We need to find better ways to link these village level interventions and data to the regional and national scale to ensure the most accurate MDG reporting.

The variety of interventions and targets being set by the MVP sites reflects a similar diversity across of activities across countries. A number of countries have realigned their national indicators to be more relevant for MDG 7.  Of the 158 countries that submitted Millennium Development Goals Reports (MDGRs) in 2005, 85 (54%) of them had adapted MDG targets to be more reflective of site-specific environmental issues and aligned to national development plans.

There is an increasing recognition that because of the challenges of monitoring MDG7 indicators, strategies to monitor progress must be rethought. Critical in this effort is to provide greater guidance for nations for monitoring environmental indicators at meaningful scales. The targets and indicators set for global monitoring of MDG7 ( do not adequately guide these activities, nor monitor progress. Some of the targets are not relevant to many areas, including degraded landscapes dominated by agriculture, where many MVP sites are located.  For instance, indicator 7.2, “Achieve a significant reduction in the rate of loss of the proportion of land area covered by forest” should also look at rehabilitation of forest ecosystems, which should be an important focus of many of these areas.

In conjunction with the MDG Summit, Columbia’s Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program and Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC) hosted a side event on September 20th, 2010 to discuss these challenges, entitled, “Localizing MDG7: Ensuring Environmental Sustainability.” This event shared several leading organizations’ experience measuring environmental sustainability.  Panelists outlined strategies that link local indicators to MDG7, discussed the contributions that the environment can make towards the other MDGs, and highlighted two case studies: the MVP’s metrics for evaluating, monitoring, and facilitating success in achieving MDG7 targets, and TransLinks, a USAID funded program supporting income growth of the rural poor through conservation and sustainable use of the local natural resources. The side event also introduced a policy brief outlining strategies for assessing local environmental sustainability using examples from the MVP’s 5-years of experience and illustrating how these indicators relate to the regional and global targets of MDG7.

MDG7 must immediately be given a higher priority as we near the 2015 deadline and beyond. Local­izing MDG7 means setting relevant targets at small scales and connecting them to national and global goals. This is necessary to obtain an accurate picture of the state of the environment at the forefront of the development landscape.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments