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Issue 7, August-September 1999

Newsletter Index

wpe17.jpg (1486 bytes)     THE ENVIRONMENTAL DECADE IN REVIEW
The Brundtland Report
No review of the decade would make sense without referring to the Brundtland Report, "Our Common Garden" which was truly groundbreaking and comprehensive. It launched the philosophy of sustainable development with its three pillars: economic, social and environmental. It addressed all the main areas; the global commons, population and food security, energy, industry, urban challenges, peace, security, development and the environment, institutional and legal change, the problems of debt, aid, trade and investment. It was indeed a huge menu from which we selected certain elements to deal at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in 1992.Many of the issues raised are by their very nature ongoing, e.g. forest policies. Some we have begun to tackle, such as trade, development and environment and there are others where we have barely scratched the surface, e.g. questions of environment and security. The Brundtland Report provided the backdrop, the framework in which environmental actors are still working.
The Rio Summit
In 1990 the negotiations began for the Rio Summit using as a basis the Brundtland Report. Part of the philosophy of this report was that governments are not necessarily the main actors in the process of sustainable development. Any progress implies the involvement of all actors at all levels. Local governments, the business sector, the scientific and academic communities, indigenous people and NGOs both environmental and developmental were involved in the Rio preparatory process. The participation of NGOs in a UN process was decisive mainly because of the number and quality of the NGOs involved and because they were allowed to play a much larger part than is customary within the UN system. In effect, the Rio process opened the doors to the UN for NGOs in a large measure. It was also useful because for the first time, environment and development NGOs were obliged to enter into a profound dialogue in an effort at finding a common cause. This common cause is a condition sine qua non for sustainable development worldwide.
The Rio Summit in 1992 was the first major conference of the decade. It attracted 103 Heads of State who stayed, who negotiated with one another and who endorsed the outcomes. It engendered parallel events by the business sector as well as the joyous forum of the NGOs. The outcomes of Rio were; the Rio Declaration, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention to Combat Desertification, Agenda 21 and the Forest Principles. The Rio Declaration has become a bedrock for environmental policy makers and has introduced two crucial principles; the "Precautionary Principle" and the Principle of "Common but Differentiated Responsibility". The basic bargain struck at Rio was that all countries would adopt a model of sustainable development rather than the "go for growth at all costs" model. Since this would inevitably involve expenses and constraints for developing countries, developed countries were to support them with greater financial assistance and with transfer of technology. All countries, in particular the industrialised countries, should also aim for sustainable production and consumption patterns, consequently reducing the burden that they put on the earth's finite and often frail resources.
The Convention on Global Climate Change
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), when adopted in Rio, was an imperfect instrument. It had no timetables, no specific objectives and no explicit values for emissions reductions. The Convention did however pose the basic principle, namely that it was necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Convention also reflects the precautionary principle and certainly endorses the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility" since the primary obligations are laid upon the developed countries. The UNFCCC has since Rio been completed by the Kyoto Protocol. This Protocol is also not a perfect instrument but at least it has some substance, with some emissions reduction targets to aim for, a timetable and mechanisms for involving developing countries. The Kyoto Protocol will also need to be developed further at the next Conferences of the Parties. Furthermore, for it to become effective it will have to be ratified by the major developed countries, particularly the United States which represents nearly 25% of world emissions. The ratification procedures need to be pushed forward as rapidly as possible. Parliamentarians have an important role to play in this respect, namely by lobbying their respective governments and colleagues.
Biodiversity, Forests and Desertification
At Rio, the Convention on Biodiversity (UNCBD) was adopted. It has now entered into force although it has not been ratified by a major player; the United States. It was not a faultless instrument either and therefore much effort has been devoted to developing it, in particular the draft Protocol on Biosafety. The basic Convention reflects again a bargain between developed and developing countries, which also embodies the Precautionary Principle and the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility. The essence of the agreement was that while most of the biological diversity is indeed in the South, the North would assist the South to protect, develop and sustainably harvest its biological richness. This would be done in situ, and developing countries would always get a percentage of the exploitation of their biological resources. There are different perceptions of what this bargain meant, particularly with all its implications for intellectual property rights. It was on this issue and on that of greater protection for developing countries in relation to the export of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) that the negotiations in Cartagena this year foundered.
The Rio Summit also resulted in a declaration of Forests, which has lead on to the creation of an International Forum on Forests (IFF) and is making some progress. However, the views on how to proceed are so diverse that negotiators have certainly not made as much progress as they would have hoped for in 1992. The Rio meeting also resulted in a Convention to Combat Desertification which was adopted in 1995. Here again some progress is being made, but both in the case of Forests and Desertification there is a clear need for better co-ordination, particularly between donors and recipients, and for more project funds to be forthcoming and to be better spent.
Other Summits
Many important issues could not be dealt with adequately during the Rio process and merited a conference of their own. The Population Summit took place in Cairo in 1994, the Social Summit was organised in Copenhagen in 1995, Beijing hosted the Conference on Women that same year and the Conference on Human Settlements took place in Istanbul in 1996. All these issues are clearly connected to sustainable development. The nexus of development, environment, population growth, urbanisation and the role of women, is one that is inextricably related. When working for the protection of the environment, the actors must be far more mindful of the social pillar of sustainable development.
Agenda 21
Agenda 21 is undoubtedly the most important and complete document that came out of the Rio Conference. It has become the blueprint for sustainability and forms the basis for sustainable development strategies since then. Although it is not an easy read having being written in UN parlance, nor a perfect document, it has engendered one of the great and unexpected successes of the Rio Conference, i.e. the development of the Local Agenda 21. Those who painstakingly negotiated this document word by word never thought that local authorities and NGOs around the globe were going to pick it up and run with it so successfully. There are now 3000 Local Agenda 21 worldwide.
The UN Commission on Sustainable Development
Rio also created for itself a follow-up organisation, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) which every year reviews overall progress, in particular on Agenda 21. The CSD has had some good successes in its deliberations and decisions on trade and the environment, on waste management, chemicals, sustainable tourism and water. The Commission has also been the venue for the review conference known as the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) or Rio+5. This meeting did not mark the step which had been hoped for, because of the extremely tense atmosphere within the UN in New York, and above all because of the broken promises of Rio in relation to greater aid and transfer of technology from the North to the South.
Trade, Globalisation and the Environment
One of the issues left out in Rio was Trade and the Environment. Lack of time and the fact that the Uruguay Round was grinding towards its conclusion are the main reasons behind this. Fortunately there is a mention of sustainable development within the founding statutes of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and a Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE) has been created. While that Committee is working hard but making very little progress, globalisation has been streaking ahead. As a result, trade is undoubtedly freer but is it fairer? Foreign Direct Investment is now 6, possibly 10 times , as large as Official Development Aid. The multinational corporations have an ever larger share of the world’s trade and are merging to become even stronger organisations. Against this backdrop the negotiations of the CTE do not weigh heavily in the balance. Sustainable progress cannot be achieved on the narrow basis which has been used to date. The next round of negotiations of the WTO will have to be placed in the context of sustainability. Specific measures must also be devised to assist developing countries and trade and the environment must be acknowledged as mutually supportive.
Health, Food and the Environment
This is another issue which was only considered briefly in Rio but has in the meantime become one of the "make or break" issues. In developed countries the concentration has mainly been on GMOs, on their virtues, their defects and also on whether they should be exported to developing countries or not. In developing countries the problem is another, namely the inequality of food distribution and in some cases scarcity, hunger and famine. The issue of contaminated food in which environmental pollutants play a strong role, has been seen embarrassingly within Europe recently, but occurs almost worldwide. Health and environment protection legislation is largely in place already, the problems mostly lie with enforcement. Here again parliamentarians have a strong role to play.
For all those working towards sustainability and a better environment it is vital to keep all the above mentioned issues together in their minds. As the Brundtland Report already underlined in 1987, they are all connected and need to be addressed as part of the same problematic.
There are two important upcoming meetings where sustainability will need to be high on the agenda. These are the Millennium Round of the WTO and the next Earth Summit, Rio+10 which will take place in 2002.
Sustainability is about the long term, whereas conversely much of politics is about the short term. GLOBE has shown itself to be an organisation that is very effective in putting the long term considerations on the agenda and making the short-termists pay attention to them. To consolidate the gains of this decade and truly make a sustainable success of Rio+10 and the Millennium Round, GLOBE will have to keep up the pressure within its respective legislatures and governments worldwide.
Speech delivered at the 14th GLOBE International General Assembly (August 1999) by Margaret Brusasco-Mackenzie, DG XI, European Commission, Vice President UNED-UK.
"People and Wetlands: The Vital Link" - The 7th Conference of the Parties to the Ramsar Convention
The 7th Conference of Parties to the Ramsar Convention (COP7) hosted by the government of Costa Rica took place in San Josť from 10 to 18 May 1999. Over 1 500 delegates, comprising representatives of the 120 Contracting Parties plus observers from intergovernmental institutions, NGOs, the private sector and individual experts, attended the meeting.
"Among other issues, COP7 emphasised the restoration of degraded wetlands, an area in which the Rennies Wetlands Project (RWP) specialises," comments David Lindley, National Coordinator of the RWP. "The RWP was one of the few NGOs in a sea of government representatives. It is also one of the few organisations working on the ground in non-protected areas. Networking with wetlands specialists from around the world made us realise that we are on the right track with our work."
What was the conference about?
The Conference of Contracting Parties (COP) takes place every three years and approves resolutions, recommendations and technical guidelines to further application of the Convention. This year’s theme was "People and Wetlands: The Vital Link" in order to highlight the important role that wetlands play as significant assets of the natural infrastructure upon which human development and well-being is based.
COP7 dealt with a large number of substantive issues ranging from the role of the Convention in the management of fresh water resources and in response to the global water crisis, proposed guidelines for reviewing laws and institutions, developing and applying national wetlands policies, ensuring local peoples’ participation, wetlands risk assessment and international co-operation.
The Secretary General’s report points to progress
Wetlands are rapidly entering national and international agendas, yet in most countries, wetlands are still considered mostly from the perspective of protected areas, noted the Ramsar Convention Secretary General’s report which provided a picture of the current status of implementation of the Convention.
The report was based on the analysis of the 106 National Reports (NRs) received from contracting parties and showed that while progress had been made in implementing the Convention in many countries, only a disappointingly limited number of them used the Strategic Plan 1997-2002 as a planning tool.
Some key points raised by the report included:
- In the area of development and implementation of national wetland policies (NWP), 22 Contracting Parties (CPs) indicated that they had an NWP/ Strategy or Action Plan, 31 said these were being developed and 24 said such instruments were planned for the near future.
- The Ramsar Bureau Book on Economic Valuation of Wetlands was well received and economic valuation is perceived as a key area to help decision-makers and legislators.
- 92 countries reported that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are required by law but most do not know how effectively these are applied.
- 76 CPs indicated that wetland rehabilitation is taking place but most projects are small and piecemeal. Restoration can either cost billions – such as the Everglades rehabilitation project in Florida – or it can be done by local people using low cost technology.
62 Parties reported that they have implemented education programmes including wetland elements, and 66 CPs reported NGO action in this area. Forty-three CPs reported that wetlands are part of formal education curricula.
Expansion of the Convention’s scope
COP7 was significant in that it broadened the scope of the Convention beyond focussing on waterbirds and into sustainable development, biodiversity and global water issues, comments John Dini, environmental officer at the wetlands conservation programme of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, a member of the official South African delegation in San Jose.
Dini says there were a number of useful resolutions and recommendations that came out of COP7 including those of developing national wetland policies, involving local communities, education and integrating wetland conservation into river basin management. COP7 equipped the Convention with the means to broaden its objectives, only to have expectations dampened by the delegates’ unwillingness to increase funding for the Bureau.
"The expansion of the Convention’s scope into highly politicised areas such as water resource management carries potential risks as well as benefits," says Dini. For Ramsar, this means the intrusions of political realities into what had previously been a placid environmental process. Politics is however inevitable as Ramsar concerns itself more and more with the important area of the global water crisis. With less and less water available, it is anticipated that wetlands and their crucial role in the water cycle will take centre stage in global politics.
Key guidelines and action plans adopted by contracting parties
Guidelines for establishing participatory processes to involve local communities and indigenous people in the management of wetlands
Summary of lessons learned from participatory management case studies
1. Incentives for local involvement and wise use are essential: everyone must benefit in the long term.
2. Trust among stakeholders is essential and must be developed
3. Flexibility is required
4. Knowledge exchange and capacity building are fundamental
5. Continuity of resources and effort are important.
Guidelines for integrating wetland conservation and wise use into river basin management
It broadly suggested that countries should:
1. Create Insitutional frameworks
2. Assess the role of wetlands in water management
3. Minimise the impacts of land use
4. Maintain natural water regimes
5. Foster international co-operation