Socioeconomic Structure and Policy Failures

Poverty and inequality strain resources and minimize the incentive to conserve. The poorest people in many countries are often forced onto marginal lands with infertile soil or at higher altitudes that are difficult to cultivate. Unable to subsist on these lands and lacking other economic alternatives, they turn to the resources around them to survive, often hunting or pushing resources to their limit. A lack of access to land or land tenure rights further strains resources. There is no motivation to conserve land that has no clear owner. In many countries, forested land is public property, while cleared land is considered "improved" and guarantees the right to the land; thus to claim land, settlers are forced to deforest areas.

Although poverty may cause people to misuse resources, wealth also puts strains on resources by leading to increased consumption. Globalization of trade and markets has expanded production in some developing countries to meet international demand, often at the expense of biodiversity. Conversion of wetlands for shrimp aquaculture, deforestation for cattle, coffee, or soybean production are just a few examples of how globalization has contributed to biodiversity loss. Global markets also mean that consumers are often unaware of where the items they buy are from, or how they were harvested, though specialized labeling of food, paper, and wood products, sometimes called "green-labeling" or "eco-labeling," can allow consumers to choose products that are managed sustainably. Markets do not necessarily reflect the full value of something or its full cost to the environment. Existing policies and government incentives often encourage overuse of resources. The phrase "perverse subsidies" was coined to describe these incentives. Governments heavily subsidize four main areas: energy, road transport, water, and agriculture. Farmers usually pay a discounted price for water, and as prices do not reflect its true value, farmers have little incentive to conserve. Industries rarely have to pay the full cost of polluting the environment. Society usually incurs these costs.

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