Abstract Much of environmental analyses has focused on national and global issues rather than on local areas and underprivileged people whose voices often remain largely unheard. This paper attempts an appraisal of the environmental concerns and resource values of the poor living in difficult and degraded environment in rural Nigeria. In the study, 831 respondents validated the nature of environmental problems and priorities in relation to their experiences within the community. The results show that the poor are environmentally rational but often handicapped in doing the right thing. While most respondents have a holistic and long-term view of the environmental implications of natural resource use, a host of sustainable traditional environmental resource conservation measures previously embraced by communities have been abandoned in order to meet the exigencies of short-term survival. The self- and socio-economic survival goals, rather than the community and the ‘common good’, appear to form the predominant contexts for the individual's environmental thinking and decision-making. Resource scarcity, declining yields and associated inflation/high cost of living were seen as the major signs of resource degradation. The study demonstrates the need for a proper understanding of natural resource issues drawing not only on scientific and economic evaluations but also on community-centered approaches. Finally, social justice and fairness to communities was established to be critical to sustainable development in poor areas; resources must be harnessed such that they contribute directly to community asset building to improve socio-economic activities and protect the environment.