The Connection Between the Poor and the Earth

Making the Connection Between the Poor and the Earth
Choosing between caring for the poor and healing the environment do not have to be separate efforts – they go hand in hand.

By Scott C. Sabin, Executive Director of Plant With Purpose

I frequently get asked how we, as Christians, choose between caring for the poor and caring for creation, as if we have to choose one or the other. As often as I have been asked that question, it still catches me by surprise because my own concern for the earth first grew out of a concern for the poor.

As someone told me recently, creation care seems like a cause for bored middle-class Americans who want to have chickens in their backyard, whereas the poor don’t have the luxury of worrying about their environment. The idea is that environmental issues are primarily aesthetic and fall pretty high up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

However, if you live in a world in which water comes in plastic bottles and food comes from the supermarket, it is easy to see the environment as purely decorative. In the US, we have been able to use our material wealth to purchase several layers of insulation from the earth. Therefore, I believe we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in rural communities throughout the world. They recognize that there is a direct connection between environmental quality and the most basic of needs: food, water and air.

In fact, the connection between poverty and tropical deforestation has long been one of my hot button issues. Plant With Purpose got its start responding to the needs of the poor by addressing the environmental degradation that contributed to their poverty. Poor farmers were made poorer by deforestation, which caused their soil to erode and their water resources to dry up, robbing them of the two assets they counted on to provide them with food and income. Poor farm families, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, cut trees to clear land for farming. The topsoil from treeless slopes erodes many times faster than before. Streams dry up. Wells give out. Without topsoil and water, crops don’t grow, leading to hunger and despair, and without the natural filter of trees, the water that does flow is contaminated, leading to diarrheal disease.

Ironically, we found that the poor were often caught in a vicious cycle where they were creating the deforestation that made them poorer. Small-scale subsistence agriculture and firewood collection—activities of the poor—are among the biggest contributors to tropical deforestation.

We quickly learned that the problem was not one of ignorance, but rather a lack of opportunity. I have had more than one poor, illiterate farmer give me an elegant description of how a watershed works. But, as I was told recently in Haiti, they also have a saying that translates to “Either this tree must die or I must die in its place.” Nonetheless, they are aware of the long-term stakes and would do more to care for the environment if they had the opportunity.

Thus, helping to create opportunity – serving the poor – helps to serve the environment and helping to restore the environment serves the poor. Both activities serve the Creator. We need not make a choice between the poor and the earth.

And if we choose to raise our own vegetables and have chickens in the backyard, it may not only reduce our impact on the planet, it may teach us what our neighbor in Africa already knows: our connectedness and dependence on the health of land that supports us.

Scott Sabin is the Executive Director of Plant With Purpose, an international Christian organization that reverses deforestation and poverty by transforming the lives of the rural poor in Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Burundi, Tanzania, and Thailand. He is also the author of the book Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People.