IUCN wants to make sure that all its programmes are responsive to the need for addressing poverty issues; hence poverty and livelihood security concern the whole organization. Social elements of IUCN's poverty-related work worldwide include community empowerment, participatory approaches to promoting change in governance, rights and cultural identity, and strengthening the role of women in decision making. IUCN recognizes that poverty is a cross cutting theme with economics, and economic tools are required in every IUCN programme to address poverty issues.

The poorest countries are to a great degree biomass-based subsistence economies, i.e. the rural poor, who form a high percentage of the population, eke out a living directly from their local environment. Scarce environmental resources, ill defined property rights and erosion of local commons put a tremendous pressure on poor rural households, who then have to invest much more time and effort in fetching water, collecting fuelwood, cultivating crops, and other activities in order to survive.

Clearly the poor depend more directly on natural resources for their livelihoods. Their dependence on natural resources can be categorized as: a) Subsistence for the self and for the family, b) Income generation from natural resource based products, c) Cost saving, for instance use of medicinal plants and animal dung and d) Risk mitigation, for instance diversification of diet with naturally available fruits and nuts.

Conventional assumptions have often held poverty to be more a cause of environmental degradation rather than an effect. A counter argument is that the poor may be more likely to conserve natural assets, precisely because they lack access to alternative sources of income and therefore need to protect the only resources that are available to them.

Another linkage between poverty and environment relates to natural disasters. The poor are disproportionately vulnerable to environmental hazards. Natural disasters like droughts, floods, fires and earthquakes increase poverty and hurt poor people by imposing human and economic costs, including loss of life, injuries, disabilities and displacement, as well as damage to agriculture, livestock, and infrastructure. The destruction of assets can trap poor families into chronic poverty. Developing countries face the brunt of natural disasters and at the same time have limited capacity to mitigate their adverse effects. Additionally, social factors such as settlements in hazardous areas increase the vulnerability of the poor to disasters. The poor are unable to afford safer housing or better infrastructure.