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People living in extreme poverty face greater exposure to difficult and dangerous environments, yet have less means to cope with the consequences. They often live in polluted areas or those prone to natural disasters and the effects of climate change, be it floods, drought or landslides. They cannot claim their rights, such as healthcare, education, decent work, clean water and sanitation. Their efforts to seek a livelihood puts their very health at risk. In urban areas, for example, this may involve collecting garbage for resale through recycling, which exposes them daily to toxic chemicals. In rural areas it leads to hours spent in fields or plantations, their toil exacting a heavy price on their bodies for little reward.
The response to the challenges of sustainable development must not be to the detriment of those living in extreme poverty, but rather to ensure that they are at the heart of the change. Sustainable development policy must look at the efforts of people in extreme poverty who are often at the frontline of initiatives: transforming living conditions in urban informal settlments by improving water, sanitation or heating facilities; working in collectives on the margins of garbage dumps to move from a hazardous and barely sustainable livelihood to undertake income generating activities. Environmental mitigation and adaptation programs must be thought with the most vulnerable people and populations, and built on their capacities and efforts to ensure all rights are enjoyed by everyone in society.
In preparing the Rio Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, twenty years after the Earth Summit in 1992, the United Nations is "recognizing that eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development" (resolution A/RES/64/236) :
For families living in extreme poverty, sustainable development involves more than anti-poverty programmes, for, in both the global north and south, the children face "injustice and violence all around them", as their parents recount. Among the most visible forms of violence are those linked to armed conflict, police harrassment, criminality and gangs. But when speaking to children and their families, they often first cite the most insidious forms of violence.
“When you get up in the morning without knowing where you will go, with nothing to hand to feed your children, that is violence.
When you are forced to fight against another to defend the little that you possess, that is violence.
When every day you are forced to lower your head, to close your eyes, to not speak, to pretend that you do not understand, that is violence.”1
Sustainable development is not only about a clean planet. It means ensuring that nobody is left behind. Only in this way can peace brought about and development be truly sustainable.
Only a development that includes everyone is sustainable
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