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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Poverty and resource degradation

Variable relationship:

This theory argues that poor or indebted resource users (Economic Status) often choose (or have to choose) to meet their near-term needs through overharvesting or other less sustainable practices (Condition Effect), rather than by investing in more efficient long-term strategies. In a more general context, this is sometimes described as a poverty trap, in order to emphasize the self-reinforcing nature of this relationship. Cinner (2009), in his study of the relationship between fishery poverty and destructive gear use, describes this situation as:

"Poverty traps are situations in which the poor are unable to mobilize the resources required to overcome low-income situations, and thus they engage in behaviour that may reinforce their own poverty."

With respect to environmental commons governance, Acheson (2006), citing Baland and Platteau (1996), states the theory in the following way:

 "... economic pressures also can force resource owners to over-exploit them. With regard to the Third World, Baland & Platteau (1996: 46) state, “for people in ‘extreme poverty’. . . all that matters is consumption today.” Similar pressures can exist in industrialized countries. The economic situation of some private-property owners might be so precarious that they are forced to forego optimal strategies (e.g., selective cutting, crop rotation) in an effort to stay in business in the short run, even though this degrades their property in the long run."

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
Economic statusProximate independent variableResource users that lack financial resources turn to resource exploitation in order to meet their basic livelihood needs and when combined with social or ecological disturbances might increase rates of exploitation. Low
Commons condition trendFinal outcomePoverty leads to resource degradation directly due to a need to meet basic livelihood needs; while also reducing levels of public goods. Worsened

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Marginalization and degradationnested
Forest transition theoryrelated
Environmental kuznets curverelated

Related Studies


Acheson, James M. 2006. Institutional Failure in Resource Management. Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (1): 117-134.


Baland, Jean-Marie, and Jean-Philippe Platteau. 1999. "The Ambiguous Impact of Inequality on Local Resource Management."  World Development 27 (5):773-788.


Cinner, J E. 2009. “Poverty and the Use of Destructive Fishing Gear near East African Marine Protected Areas.” Environmental Conservation 36 (04): 321–326.