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The Salvation of our Environment Lies at the Feet of the Poor

Nov 10, 2009

by Jihad Bitar, Planner for VIA Architecture
After three days of intensive lectures and presentations about the environment, climate change, ecology, economy, development, theories, corporate progress and grass root success example at the Gaining Ground Summit under the theme of ‘Resilient Cities, Urban Strategies for Transition Times’, there were a lot of messages flying through the air at the Canada Place ballroom. Yet, at the end of it all, I grew rather depressed reading all the data and equations of how long we humans have on earth before we totally destroy it.

In the midst of this ‘Smart’ jungle, I was reminded of a great message from Paul Hawken’s speech and lecture. When asked whether he is an optimist or a pessimist about the future, he replied with what became his most famous quotation: “If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.” And then Hawken later used the word ‘heart’.

For me, I like to think of myself as a scientist with a heart, which by Hawken’s definition, makes me a pessimist-optimist. But when I thought of Hawken’s words, the scientist side of me linked Hawken’s inspiring ideas to Hernando De Soto’s theory which talks about giving the poor full rights over the illegal properties they live on as the first step toward a better future for us all.

These two ideas may sound different at the beginning but, in my humble opinion, when we link property rights and social justice with sustainability and green development; we are actually working towards greater social justice for the people who need it while simultaneously developing their neighborhoods into a safe and sustainable environment. This is the very soul of the current global movement of sustainability and what it means to be green. We must be just and fair to everything around us: air, soil, plants, animals and, above all, humans.

Think about it, the majority of the development we have today is happening only for a lucky few of us who have access to credit and proper basic services like energy and water. Meanwhile, the majority of the population continues to live in poverty in highly polluted and highly concentrated environments.

Do we dare imagine that we are contributing to world-wide social justice and cleaner environments when only a small percent of the world’s population reap the benefits? And of that small minority only roughly 5% are consciously taking measures to be environmentally friendly? How can we achieve the goals we set for our planet if we don’t include the majority of us – the poor – into our plans?

My straight answer is – we cannot. Period.

Regardless of how much we recycle and build green; or how much we develop and force corporations to do their clean duty; or even how much we try to produce environmentally friendly materials and programs; it is all fruitless if the majority of us humans don’t or can’t participate in the global movement.

Therefore, we must address the issues of poverty in order to tackle the problems with our environment.

To further illustrate this, I would like to give a short and quick explanation of De Soto’s theory.

It explains that unregistered properties have no proper ‘value’ attached to that land. For instance, if a person were to take an unregistered piece of land, build on it and use it, the property will still have no value because it is not officially legal. If this person decides to sell their developed land to someone else, there is no proper documentation that can connect this person to that property or transfer the property title from one name to another. Therefore, anyone or any government can simply take the land at any time because it is not properly registered and push those people outside without any legal protection for them. As a result, these properties are entered into the ‘shade’ or black market and are not accounted for in the official market.

In order to grasp the magnitude of this problem, we need to multiply this one property by a million to understand that entire neighbourhoods, communities and even villages that have residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural value currently exist only on the black market. And since these groups are not officially recognized on paper, they do not have any official value to support them in the real market.

So the first step we need to take to get these ‘shade’ properties into the market is to connect each property to its owner and then help them enter formal markets. There, they can retain official value of what they own and have the ability to engage in real business or apply for legitimate loans and credits without fear from any person, organization or law that may have intimidated them before.

Yet before we can implement such a theory, where it is needed, and for it to work properly, several supporting steps need to take place. This includes remedial action such as fixing political problems and fighting corruption, as well as providing awareness and incentives for environmental improvement and sustainability. We also need to factor in the cultural, traditional and custom layers into the property right laws to discourage any corruption among the poor. We simply want to make business easier to do in these communities instead of killing it.

Educating the poor about property rights and then teaching them to be responsible land owners and showing them how to incorporate green practices into their daily lives would be our best contribution to help slow down climate change. Meanwhile, we must also continue pushing corporations to do their share by conducting more research and finding new ways to clean up the earth- an earth that includes everybody, even the poorest of us all.

Majora Carter, one of the speakers at the Smart Growth Conference, shared with us her success story about bringing justice back to her own neighborhood of South Bronx, New York. Carter worked with her community to improve their run-down neighborhood by treating polluted areas, planting parks and building community centres that introduced education programs to help improve community wellbeing.

Yes, we must educate the poor. Yes, we must improve their corrupted systems. And yes, we have to introduce a democracy to them in the way that works for the main goal and not to our western standards. I believe that we can achieve it all by connecting theories and working with organizations that have clear visions and passionate people who work hard for their community. This is the key to slowing down environmental deterioration and it is for this reason I have chose the title to my article.

I started my post with Paul Hawken and now I will close with him saying:
‘Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich’

Image Sources: Gaining Ground, Paul Hawken, Power of the Poor, Poverty, Majora, Flowers


  1. dear Jihad

    a lovely essay, not because i am quoted, but because i agree wholeheartedly with the linkage and integration of the poor and de soto’s work.

    thank you so much. it was wonderful to have met you.

    my best


    (I got this sweet email from Mr. Paul Hawken, and I’m honored that I met him and more honored that he wrote back to me.
    Thank you very very much Paul, our world needs more people like you.

  2. The theory is not about giving people something for free.
    It isn’t like someone living in Yaletown and want to get his property for free, it is about a no-man land around a metropolitan, built by a 3rd world poor person (living on less than $2 a day) living with his family in one room covered by thin metal roof without any kind of sanitary or electricity services to it.
    So by appointing this one room property without any value by the government to someone’s name means that this person can move forward and this property get the value needed to do something positive for the whole society, so it is not really a ‘CHARITY’ or ‘KIND’ act by the government for nothing in return, there are plenty of money behind this act.
    It is only one of the solutions that will solve the government and this person many problems, beside, the money is not coming out from my taxes or your taxes, there is no actual transaction there other than a piece of paper since the property is already gone and there are no way to develop that land without solving the problem at hand, otherwise you are just moving the same problem to a different location, and you will get another tax payer in the system instead of him being out. Giving is GOOD when it is smart. 🙂

  3. Let me just start by saying that I fully understand and agree with the need to get all economic levels involved in change. But when it comes to giving people things for free I feel it is always doomed to fail. I think people need to contribute, even if it isn’t much. Personal “buy-in” is critical in getting people involved and interested in change.

  4. I agree on the influence of our living environment on our behaviors.
    That what we can see in many of the examples we study, we can compare the neighbourhoods’s residents before and after the process and we can see the changes in their lifestyle, it will be identical of what the neighbourhood did changed to. (It can be the other way around to, going from good to bad)
    I believe that everything is connected and the environment around us, be it natural or manmade, determine our behavior and if we are not smart enough in our decisions and have the right vision for the future we might corrupt not only our environment and neighbourhoods but also the human being living there.
    We already did enough destruction to all of those elements beyond repair, so it is the right time to do the right humane thing and repair whatever left regardless how small that thing is.

  5. I also think that if you give people only blight and nasty places/environments to live in, you will get people that react in a similar manner.
    However if you give people a nice place to live and treat their neighbourhoods with honour and respect, those qualities will flow from the residents. Does it happen overnight? No, but we can’t expect people to contribute to the ‘goodness’ of where they live, if we don’t give them incentive and support…

  6. Hi Matthew,
    Thanks for your nice comment, I’m glad you like it. I agree with you about the ‘elitism’ problem.

    I got excellent questions from Amanda and this was my take on them:

    How would you convince a government to just simply give away a bunch of property?
    It is all business, those properties are giving the government no money being occupied without any documentation by the poor so in legalizing them the government will get its TAXES along lots of money from any residential and business sale will occur, and therefore this is the easiest part of the process; to convince the government of the benefits.

    And then even if you did manage to get them to give it away, how do you regulate it so that you don’t end up with the less savory functions there like prostitution, gambling, etc.?
    When the government legalizes such neighborhood and put it under certain zoning is nothing different than planning any sub division, the ‘law’ will take it from there.

    In essence, how would you ensure that these spaces become better over time?
    Just as we see in any new development, it may become heaven or hell, you can’t guarantee that, but poor people don’t move to slums to become poor it is the other way around they move to cities so that they can become better and improve their lives, so the whole property act is nothing but the first push for the little guy to advance and from there its all up to him/her.

    Are there any examples of where this has worked?
    There are few examples around the developing world like in Peru, Brazil, Egypt, and the process is actually just started in Syria to, hopefully it will bring prosperity to those who need it the most.

  7. Thank-you Jihad for a a very enlightening article. In discussions of sustainability, I have never heard of the issue of poverty being brought into the equation and obviously I can see now it is very important. I believe you bring up a very important point, in order for sustainability to truly succeed and be relevant for the majority of people, all people from the impoverished to the wealthy must be able to participate.

  8. Great article, Jihad. I think the markings of a good society is how we treat the most vulnerable, the poor. There is way too much elitism in the developing/developer world with the poor getting labelled as lazy, etc. Unless we can figure out a way to alleviate poverty locally and subsequently globally, all this ‘green city’ stuff we all work on is, as you say, merely catering to a few.
    Thanks for bringing this forward.