Resources Article

Environmental Management in Developing Countries

Jun 8, 2012 | Allen Blackman

Twenty years ago, in Rio de Janeiro, the first United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development put environmental management in developing countries on the map and helped spur considerable progress. Nevertheless, the environmental problems confronting delegates to this year’s Rio+20 conference are at least as daunting.

Dirty air and water in developing countries kill and sicken millions each year. Degraded forest, freshwater, and coastal ecosystems undercut livelihoods and threaten biodiversity. And fossil fuel use, deforestation, and other activities generate about half of global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, environmental regulatory institutions are still relatively weak, and poverty and other social problems continue to place enormous demands on scarce financial, political, and regulatory resources.

RFF has a long history of engagement in developing countries as part of its mission to improve environmental and natural resource policymaking worldwide. As early as the 1970s, RFF posted researchers to satellite offices in Mexico and Chile and translated RFF books into Spanish. In the 1980s and 1990s, a group of RFF researchers began to specialize in developing-country environmental problems and policies. And for the past five years, RFF has helped the University of Gothenburg in Sweden lead the Environment for Development (EfD) initiative, a consortium of six environmental policy research institutes (in Africa, Asia, and Latin America) that aims to support poverty alleviation and environmental management through the increased use of environmental economics in the policymaking process.

This issue of Resources showcases research and policy commentary on pressing environmental and natural resource issues in developing countries by leading researchers at RFF, its EfD sister-centers, and other notable affiliates. Articles by Róger Madrigal-Ballestero on drinking water systems in Costa Rica and by Jintao Xu and Juha Siikamäki on forest tenure reform in China both show how natural resource management can be enhanced by devolving control to local communities that have the strong incentives to manage them sustainably. My article on eco-certification of Costa Rican and Colombian coffee presents some of the first hard evidence that this market-based approach, which circumvents weak regulation, can actually help improve environmental management. The articles by Drew Shindell on developing-country soot and methane emissions and by Maureen Cropper and Kabir Malik on electricity generation in India make compelling cases for controlling air pollution to protect human health and enhance food security. More broadly, Ed Barbier discusses a number of innovative international mechanisms for financing environmental management in developing countries.

While sobering, the overall message is far from discouraging—all of the articles highlight promising approaches to overcoming the environmental and social challenges developing countries face.