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The link between the environment, poverty and development in South Africa

A 2011 World Bank study estimates that environmental wealth accounts for 26 percent of the total wealth of low-income countries. This is contrasted with 13 percent of wealth in middle-income countries and only 2 percent of wealth in OECD countries.

Therefore, investing in sound and equitable environmental management makes good economic sense and is essential to fight poverty because people in developing countries depend directly on natural resources (such as fisheries, pastures, forestry, etc) to earn their livelihoods.

However, increased investment in environmental management alone is not enough. To be effective, investment must also be accompanied by the empowerment of communities, local governments and the private sector to lead the development efforts. Investing in environmental management as well as human capacity could provide the catalyst to benefit the poor and marginalised in developing world countries as well as contributing to the overall enhanced growth in developing economies.

Within a South African context, post 1994, the greatest challenge in terms of rural development has been to reverse the inherited legacy of the marginalisation of the poor in rural regions of our country. This has entailed drastic changes to access to resources (such as land, water, education and skills), rural infrastructure and government services.

18 years in to our democracy, incremental gains have been achieved in terms of the extent and levels of poverty among our rural citizens. According to the 2009 National Income Dynamics study, the rural share of poverty fell from approximately 70 percent in 1993 to 57 percent in 2008. This improved household welfare increase is mainly the result of the large increase in social grant expenditure which has been implemented.

In addition, access to basic services has also improved, however, not at the same rate as that of urban areas in South Africa. Post our democratic dispensation, approximately 6 million hectares of agricultural land have been redistributed – 3.4 million hectares through land redistribution and 2.4 million hectares through the restitution process. And of the 79 696 land claims which have been lodged since 1994, 95 percent of these claims have been settled.

However, even with all the strides made in the last 18 years, rural areas within our country remain riddled with greater poverty and inequality than that of urban areas, with the majority of households trapped in a never-ending cycle of poverty.

According to the National Planning Commission (NPC), by 2030 South Africa’s rural communities should have greater opportunities to participate fully in the economic, social and political life of our country. This could be achieved by citizens having the ability to access high-quality basic services that would enable them to be well nourished, healthy and increasingly skilled. Added to this, rural economies will be supported by agriculture and where possible, mining, tourism, agro-processing and fisheries.

This vision for our rural citizenry includes better integration of our country’s rural areas, which could be achieved through successful land reform, job creation and poverty alleviation. According to the NPC, the driving force behind this vision will be an expansion of irrigated agriculture, supplemented by dry-land production where possible.

In areas of low economic potential, variables such as quality education, health care, basic services and social security will support the development of human capital. Conversely, in areas of mild and high economic potential, non-agricultural activities such as agro-industry, tourism, small enterprises and fisheries will be used to stimulate development.

The vision mapped out above will also need to be supported by ensuring rural citizens have regular access to basic services, as well as ensuring food security and the empowerment of farm workers. Institutional capacities will also be crucial to success, with specific emphasis placed on the reforms required to resolve contested relationships between indigenous and constitutional institutions.

As South Africa approaches the 100th year anniversary of the Land Act of 1913 which formalised the land dispossession of black South Africans, the issue of equitable land redistribution and development will continue to be top of the agenda as well as be an emotional subject matter for many people in our country.


  • Lee-Roy Chetty holds a Master's degree in Media studies from the University of Cape Town and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A two-time recipient of the National Research Fund Scholarship, he is currently completing his PhD at UCT and is the author of a book titled – Imagining Web 3.0 Follow him on Twitter @leeroy_chetty. He can also be contacted via e-mail at [email protected]


  1. manquat manquat 1 June 2012

    Mr. Chetty, thanks for this informative article. In particualr, I’m very impressed at the statistcis you’ve given. We never hear of the improvement that our government is making.
    It’s not all doom and gloom. There are talented people and institutions in government that are working to fix our problems in SA.

    I also appreciate the focus that we have on making life better for all of our citizens. Giving them access to jobs, healthcare and education. These things make life good.

    “In areas of low economic potential, variables such as quality education, health care, basic services and social security will support the development of human capital.” (Quoted from the article above)
    This is what it’s all about the development of human capital. This is what we need. We can’t rely on our natural resources forever. We’ve got the population and it’s about time that we developed our people and valued our people in SA.

  2. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 1 June 2012

    This nostalglia for “the glorious past” when there was much more land and less than a billion people has ruthlessly to be scrapped or the poor will die of starvation.

    ONLY commercial farming will feed the world now AND birth control – or the population will double again in 20 years to 14 billion people.

  3. Enough Said Enough Said 2 June 2012

    The only solution is green socialism or green Marxism. Capitalism is killing the planet and increasing the gap between rich and poor. Capitalism is unsustainable. Tricle down does not work.

    I can hear the howls of protest, ‘Marxism never worked’, however Marxism has never been implemented. It got hi-jacked by egotistical, power hungry megalomainiacs along the way and got stuck in the workers revolution to benefit the megalomainiacs.

  4. Enough Said Enough Said 2 June 2012

    Neither is Cosatu nor the ANC socialist. Since the ANC came to power, they have done away with agricultural marketing boards and most international trade and tariff barriers, and the South African economy is now freer than it ever was under the National Party, while Cosatu are not interested in the poor or unemployed, only representing their unionised workers who pay membership fees. They talk left and walk right.

    The ANC are croney capitalists of the worst order.


  5. Enough Said Enough Said 2 June 2012

    @Lyndall Beddy – only environmental agriculture can sustainably feed the world. Present day commercial farming is killing the planet, it produces huge amounts at what cost to humans and the planet. We have more than enough toxic food from commercial agriculture, but even that is not effectively distributed, that is the cause of hunger and poverty.

  6. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 3 June 2012

    Enough Said

    Bureaucrats and politicians know NOTHING about farming – they have never farmed in their lives.

    My grandfather only farmed organically thank you very much – and I am a grandmother myself now! He died at almost 100 years old in the early 1990s

  7. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 3 June 2012

    Exactly where and how do you idiots think the Voortrekkers got chemical fertiliser from?

    And what makes you think “the bucket system” is new? The difference is the old villages used the “night soil” as it was called as fertiliser.

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