Rural communities: A hotspot for sustainable development

The Equator Initiative has launched a call for nominations for the 9th Equator Prize, a prize recognizing excellence in communities taking nature-based actions for local development. It is for people like Fatima Ahmed, and the community initiative that she founded, that this prize was established. Fatima is President of Zenab for Women in Development in Sudan, a women’s agricultural cooperative that empowers girls and women, promotes sustainable agriculture and helps reduce deforestation.

The Zenab Initiative embodies the three basic principles of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):  indivisibility –  we cannot achieve one goal at the expense of any others; inclusion –  we can leave no one behind in our race toward economic prosperity; and acceleration –  we must focus on actions that have multiple development dividends.

If we are to implement the SDGs, however, we need more than guiding principles. We also need to understand how key global trends affect development. The late Hans Rosling, a renowned statistician who was often called “The Jedi Master of Data Visualization” and the “Global Data Rock Star,” did just that. Whether the topic was the role of washing machines and poverty, or the role of religion and population growth, Rosling made analytics cool, and he left a legacy of helping us look past data points, trends, and correlations, and to step back and see a larger story.

We can take the same approach when thinking about the trends affecting the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

A forthcoming UNDP report, Global Trends: Challenges and Opportunities in the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, outlines many of these trends. If we are to address the SDGs by 2030, we must recognize some basic facts:

  • By 2030, demand for food will increase by 35%, water by 40%, and energy by 50%;
  • 70% of the world’s food is produced by rural communities farming small plots of land;
  • 1 billion of the 1.4 billion living on less than $1.25 dollars a day live in rural areas where agriculture is their primary livelihood;
  • We have lost 10% of wild areas in just 20 years, species populations have declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012, and we are likely to lose much more before 2030;
  • The world’s population living in rural areas shifted from 66% to 46% over the past 55 years, and by 2030, will decrease to 40%;
  • Wealth inequity is likely to be most acute between urban and rural communities – more than 80% of global GDP is generated in cities;
  • Rural people disproportionately bear the brunt of climate change impacts; over 96% of disaster-related deaths occur in developing countries; and
  • Indigenous peoples’ lands safeguard 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

Each of these trends has its own set of implications for the SDGs. But it is only when we step back and view them together that we can see with clarity a larger, inevitable conclusion: one of the major battlegrounds for achieving the SDGs is at the intersection of people and nature in rural communities around the world.

A more urbanized and wealthier world depends on increasingly stressed and fragmented ecosystems, and on the labours of a shrinking and proportionally poorer rural population. At the same time, rural communities continue to be disproportionately responsible for maintaining the world’s biodiversity and for producing increased volumes of food and water, while becoming ever more vulnerable to the impacts of over-consumption, to the fraying of the ecosystems that they depend on for their livelihoods, and to the impacts of climate change.

However, if rural communities are a hotspot of challenges for implementing the SDGs, they are also a hotspot for innovation and creative solutions. It is for this reason that UNDP’s Equator Initiative, a partnership for people, nature and resilient communities, focuses on rural communities. Since 2002, the Equator Initiative has recognized, shared and celebrated indigenous and community nature-based solutions for local development.

These solutions range from the Articulação Pacari network, a community-based medicinal plant cooperative in Brazil, to the Zenab Women in Development agricultural cooperative in Sudan. They are examples of how a local community or indigenous peoples can protect, sustainably manage and restore nature to attain their own sustainable development needs. These solutions can often be replicated and scaled up nationally, including for example Community Tours Sian Ka’an, a tourism operation replicated across Mexico, and the Tree Kangaroo community conserved area, that now serves as a model for Papua New Guinea.

Hans Rosling once said that he was neither an optimist nor a pessimist but a “possibilist” – he believed that data can tell a story, but not the whole story. At the Equator Initiative, we are also possibilists; we believe that the data and trends cited above do not condemn rural community members to lives of poverty and helplessness. On the contrary, we believe that rural communities are an engine of ideas and solutions for local sustainable development. It is for this reason that we are proud to launch the call for nominations for the 9th cycle of the Equator Prize.

Nominations are open through 8 March 2017. Join us in the search for innovative nature-based solutions for local sustainable development.


Reference list: Jamison Ervin. 2017. Retrieved from

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