Assessing the poverty-environment nexus in three rural South African villages: environmental degradation, vulnerability and perceptions

Ramatshimbila, Tshifhiwa Violet
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Poverty and environmental degradation are two serious challenges facing developing countries. The poor are often blamed for causing degradation, and degradation is assumed to worsen poverty. This relationship between the two has been referred to as the Poverty Environment Nexus (PEN). The PEN is known to be complex and multidimensional, and is surrounded by a number of theories and controversies. Although the co-occurrence of poverty and degradation has been well explored across the developing world, it has received modest attention in the literature especially on how wealth differentiation within these communities shapes the way in which local people conceptualise, experience, and cope with degradation. The intersection between the PEN and local environmental governance is also under-studied. This study addresses these knowledge gaps by investigating how household wealth status influences 1) local perceptions about woodland degradation, 2) household vulnerability to degradation, and 3) awareness and attitudes about local environmental governance, in three rural villages in Limpopo Province, South Africa. A mixed-methods approach was used, combining focus groups, a household survey (n=213), an individual survey (n=213) and key informant interviews. The influence of household wealth status score (derived from assets and income sources using Principal Component Analysis (PCA)) on individual perceptions, awareness, and attitudes, and household vulnerability to degradation, after controlling for confounding factors, was analysed statistically using multivariate logistic regression models. Focus groups and key informant interviews were useful for identifying themes and adding qualitative insights to the quantitative results. Perceptions: Woodland degradation was perceived both in terms of physical aspects, such as reduction in large trees, and experiential aspects, namely having to travel further to collect resources. The latter perception was influenced by wealth status. Perceived causes of degradation included environmental, socio-economic, and governance factors, and these perceptions were mostly associated with increasing wealth status. However, poorer respondents were more aware of their own household’s contribution to local degradation. For potential solutions, wealthier respondents focussed on using alternatives to harvested resources (such as other energy sources), while the poorer respondents focussed on reducing daily resource consumption. Vulnerability: Poorer households were more likely to use most of 13 woodland resources. Poorer households were thus more likely to report being impacted by degradation, especially by having to travel further to collect resources. Coping responses of the poor were typically inward-looking, focusing on modifying their natural resource use, such as by reducing quantities used or harvesting around other villages. By contrast, the wealthy were more outward-looking and focused on external coping mechanisms such as seeking employment and buying commercial alternatives from shops. The use of social capital to cope with degradation emerged as an important response strategy cross wealth status. Governance: Traditional authorities were widely recognised as important institutional structures for local woodland management. Awareness of relevant government agencies was relatively low. Poorer respondents were more aware of customary environmental laws and penalties, while wealthier respondents were more aware of those of government agencies. Wealth status also influenced attitudes about the benefits of the various institutions for managing local communal woodlands. It was widely agreed that local woodland governance could be improved by delegating more power to traditional authorities and communities, and improving monitoring by government agencies. These views were not influenced by wealth status Key insights from this study include: Even within poor communities, there is wealth differentiation in environmental perceptions that has consequences for addressing the poverty-environment nexus. The poor are hit by a “double whammy” when it comes to vulnerability to degradation – first, they are more at risk to impacts because they are more dependent on natural resources, and secondly, they are less able to adapt in ways which do not undermine human wellbeing or environmental sustainability. Despite their weaknesses, traditional governance structures and institutions have an important role to play in managing the poverty-environment nexus in common property systems, but they need support from government.
A thesis submitted in fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the Faculty of Science, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Johannesburg March 2018
Ramatshimbila, Tshifhiwa Violet, (2018) Assessing the poverty-environment nexus in three rural South African villages: environmental degradation, vulnerability and perceptions, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg,