Ecological underpinnings of rural poverty

A first-of-its-kind effort to examine the ecological drivers of rural poverty combines economic, ecological and epidemiological models. The lessons learned could inform interventions to lift people out of poverty.

Of the 1 billion people living below the international poverty line, most live in rural communities where the natural resources around them present a double-edged sword. Ecological systems provide subsistence, but also spread high rates of infectious diseases through pathogens carried by agricultural pests, rodents, parasites and other vectors.

“These natural enemies compete with the rural poor for resources,” said co-author Giulio De Leo, a professor of biology at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. “They consume biological capital in the form of human health or crops, livestock, forests, wildlife, soils and fisheries, thus eroding people’s livelihood and well-being.”

The picture is further complicated by the need to balance nutrition and health care with investments in land, livestock and crops. This complex web of interactions leads to grim statistics: More than 75 percent of rural poor people in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia die from infectious diseases. It also leads to a poverty trap — the inability to earn enough to save and invest in future earnings. If a farmer or their livestock become unhealthy, income suffers.

The study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, takes a significant step toward understanding persistent poverty and finding solutions for long-term sustainable development. It presents a first-of-its-kind general theoretical framework for modeling subsistence and health of the rural poor by analyzing ecological, economic and epidemiological factors.

Read the full report in Science Daily