Photo by Shaun Boyte

In most ongoing conversations about the planet’s environmental issues, you’ll frequently hear the names of major actors: The United States Government, the Vatican, the oil industry, and the United Nations. These usually-controversial entities often stir up the debate of what should be given priority– economic growth or environmental protection?

Frequently absent from this discussion, however, are the people most in need of economic growth and most affected by the environment. These are the rural poor. Their stories of growth and development bring something very important to conversations about the environment and economic development– proof that the two are not in conflict.

85% of people living in poverty around the world live in rural areas. I was surprised when I first learned that statistic; my experiences had led me to predominantly associate the image of poverty in urban slums and overpopulated metro areas. Most often, however, global poverty looks like a subsistence farmer and his or her family’s challenge of survival.

I work with rural farmers in seven different countries with the international development organization Plant With Purpose. My experiences and interactions with the farmers have helped me realize how connected people’s well-being is to their environment.

Plant With Purpose works in areas that have been hit hard by deforestation. Most often, desperate circumstances lead farmers to take actions that damage their environment. Chopping down trees for cash, selling off livestock, or relying on charcoal production all have fast payoffs, but in the long run keep families trapped in poverty.

Without trees and with exhausted soil, crop growth becomes significantly diminished. For families that rely on the land for their own food and a small income, this can be devastating. The most effective work I’ve seen done to help these populations grow out of poverty features environmental treatment and care as a central component.

Pierre is a farmer in Haiti. He admits that life is difficult, but it used to be much harder. “I didn’t know how to protect the soil,” he explained. As a result, cultivating enough of a harvest to support his four children was an increasingly difficult task. He began participating in sustainable agriculture workshops held by Plant With Purpose’s Haitian affiliate. “They taught me a lot of techniques like soil conservation, grafting, cutting,” he recollects. Those techniques helped his farm thrive. “After the first cycle, I bought two goats with my savings. Thanks to God, now one of them is in gestation.”

Increased economic security and education removed the incentive for Pierre to return to old practices of deforestation, as sustainable agriculture became a new norm in his community. As that economic security helped protect the environment, the environment also helped provide more economic growth.

Stories like these are common among rural farmers all over the world who have adopted environmentally friendly practices. In Northern Thailand, Jataw attests to the impact planting trees has had on his life. “The trees I planted on my agroforestry plot provide me food and income,” he explains. “The trees planted in our community forest and in the village help to provide shade and bring water back to the area.”

It is important for urbanites, politicians, large business owners, and media entities to pay attention to these stories. They are encouraging, and they show us how interconnected economic health and environmental health are, yes, but their lessons are also relevant and applicable at a larger scale.

Rural farmers produce much of the food that the world lives off of, making them an integral part of the world’s economic and biological system. Their experiences also represent entrepreneurship, business, and economic dynamics at a foundational level.

Their stories remind us that ultimately, all of us live off of the land in some way. When we lose sight of the bigger picture and the importance of caring for that land, we suffer in many ways, including economically. When we find ourselves dealing with a scarcity of resources that continue to dwindle, desperation increases and so do the actions that contribute towards degradation.

When poor rural farmers overcome poverty, it gives us a roadmap for how different economies around the world can grow effectively. It with starts looking at the root causes of poverty. It requires making an effort to care for and protect the earth and its resources.

In Tanzania, a cabbage farmer named Mungubariko, explains the remarkable change he’s seen. “When you look at my farm today I can tell you that it didn’t use to be like this,” he explains from his thriving farm beside Mount Kilimanjaro. “There were no trees here, and no one in the community was in the habit of planting trees.”

“We started the first tree nursery in this area. We also learned about protecting the land with terracing, which has reduced erosion and also allowed us to grow a lot more crops. In just the last few years we have planted over 13,000 trees in this area. We have fruit trees of many kinds, and forest trees that grow tall and protect the land.”

“Now when I take my cabbage to the market people buy from me first because they know the food is organic. I even have buyers from Kenya who come to buy my vegetables. Because of what we have learned, I have been able to grow so much more food so that I have enough money and also have money to help others.”

To see that kind of change occur at a global level would be incredible. Mungubariko and his story remind us that it is possible.

At Conscious, we are inspired by stories that cause us to think differently and think big-picture, and so we set out to tell stories with the help of leaders and influencers within the social good community. You can read more stories like this when you join as a member.