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The ecology of rural poverty (Nature E & E News)

07 / 03 / 2017


The Ecology of Rural Poverty

by Chris Desmond

Feedbacks between biological and economic systems can lead to persistent poverty traps for the world’s rural poor. A combination of economic, ecological and epidemiological modelling helps unravel how these feedbacks and traps occur.

One billion people remain below the international poverty line1. For many of these people, their circumstances act to keep them there. No matter what they do, they are stuck. In the economics literature, poverty traps are attributed to nonlinearities in the capital accumulation process — if you do not earn enough to invest in increasing future earnings, you will never earn enough for such investment2. While economists have discussed a range of possible causes of household-level poverty traps, they have tended to shy away from close examination of the underlying dynamics of the systems that produce such nonlinearities3. For those trapped in poverty in rural areas, where capital is typically biological (themselves plus their livestock and crops), insights into the underlying dynamics may already be available in the form of ecological and epidemiological models4,5. What is needed is a combination of economic, ecological and epidemiological models, to better understand the interactions between wealth accumulation and the environment in rural settings. Writing in Nature Ecology & Evolution, Ngonghala et al. report an important step in this direction, highlighting the benefits of model combination, including, even at this early stage, important policy implications6.