The sustainable development conundrum

What is sustainable development? I have been working in this space for over 15 years so you would think that I would know. Trusty Google often uses this UN explanation – “sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the well-being of future generations”.

Sounds delightful. Sadly, it is not that easy and often there is a tug of war between sustainable environment and sustainable livelihoods.

Working with artisanal miners is a case in point. Artisanal mining is associated with several environmental impacts, including deforestation, land degradation, mercury pollution, dust and noise pollution. It also brings toxic exposures that produce adverse health effects on local and surrounding populations.

Many would agree that the environmental and health costs would exceed the benefits. However, over 90 percent of the world’s mining workforce work in artisanal mining and it provides a livelihood for over 40.5 million men, women and children (Source: Global Trends in Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining).

Just telling these men and women living in abject poverty not to do something because it’s not good for the environment is simply not going to work. They don’t have a choice.  

Governments, multilaterals, non-government organisations (NGOs) and also the resource sector have acknowledged this conundrum. In September 2018 at the International Conference on Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining and Quarrying (ASM18), 500 delegates focussed on reducing rural poverty via enterprise – interlocking with agriculture livelihoods to stimulate jobs, develop markets and wealth creation in rural communities, as well as national economic growth through taxation and exports of raw and value-added minerals (Source: ASM18: Placing the voices and visions of women artisanal miners at the heart of policy discussions). 

For me it is clear – you are highly unlikely to achieve environmental outcomes, especially in countries where there is extreme poverty, without economic outcomes for those causing the environmental issue. All environmental programs – from reducing use of pesticides to decreasing a herder’s flock of animals so it doesn’t degrade the soil – need to ensure that if they reduce the capacity of that person to earn an income, then they need to provide an alternative means for them to earn a living.

Otherwise, you are certainly not meeting the needs of the present or future in rural communities.