Finding the Balance

April 13, 2004 at 9:32 pm | Posted in Writings | Leave a comment

Ten years after the monumental Rio de Janeiro conference in which Agenda 21 was promulgated, stakeholders, experts and government representatives will gather once more on a scale that will probably even outmatch that of the previous World Summit on Sustainable Development (Rio 92).


Agenda 21, in a nutshell, outlines some broad principles which various stakeholders — governments, civil society organizations, NGOs, the corporate sector and the United Nations — have agreed to uphold to guide them in their various pursuits and capabilities. Sustainable development was the term coined to illustrate these principles. It attempts to marry the twin goals of rapid economic growth and the need to rehabilitate the ravaged environment in which we live in and draw much of our resources from.

The realities are daunting — a UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) study presented to the public two years ago revealed just how badly damaged the environment has become after years of abuse and neglect. The Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems (PAGE) Report drew conclusions on the state of five major ecosystems — freshwater, coastal areas, agricultural lands, forests and grasslands. These ecosystems are the ones that have given mankind the raw materials that form the backbone of civilization as we know it today. But in the process of mastering the world in which we live in, it seems that mankind has forgotten that everything has a limit.

For example, rapid population growth has put an almost incomprehensible strain on agricultural lands used for food production — the use of pesticides, inappropriate technology, and ill-planned irrigation systems — have all contributed to soil degradation. Simply put, our agricultural lands cannot produce enough food to keep pace with the demand.

Our coastal areas and marine sanctuaries are suffering from overfishing. Fleets are trawling ocean floors and destroying them in the process. Warming waters brought about by climate change are killing reefs. The end result? Lower fish catch volumes and the disruption of small-scale fishers’ livelihood.

Meanwhile, species are disappearing by the thousands every day, as more and more forests are cleared for grazing land, and the by-products like timber sold for consumption in various industries.

Renowned socio-biologist E.O. Wilson, for example, says that there is an estimated 1.5 to 1.8 million species living on this planet. Man is just one of them. Clearly, we don’t own this planet. But as urban centers get more congested, as we see more sprawl reaching out into more lands; as the air grows thicker with the emissions from our vehicles, buses, trains and airplanes; as our waters darken with the waste of unregulated industries and domestic waste — one has to ask: is it worth it to pursue growth at the expense of the only home we have?

Rio+10, the Johannesburg summit going down this week, will gather people far more knowledgeable than laymen like us to try and find an explanation to our children who will most certainly inherit a ravaged Earth. The documentation of processes like Rio+10 will try to rationalize the speed with which we have collectively wreaked havoc on this planet. And most certainly, Rio+10 will highlight the need for synergy among multi-stakeholder efforts. And this is where the Johannesburg summit threatens to be a failure.

First and foremost, we have to face facts — the principles of Agenda 21 are far from being mainstreamed into our everyday lives, and remains a document of unfulfilled promises. There will be a lot of talk going on in Johannesburg — perhaps thousands of calling cards will be exchanged, hundreds of speeches delivered, scores of demonstrators injured in the protest actions that will most surely accompany the Summit.

But once the conference venues are emptied, the declarations promulgated, and the participants gone back into the business of dealing with reality — how much lesson will really come out of Johannesburg? Worse, just how many will be put into practice? After all the talk, who will actually do the walk?

Conferences like Rio+10 are commendable attempts at dialogue, but in and by themselves are tantamount to an exercise in futility if in the end they don’t result in practicable consensus. What is needed is a paradigm shift. The UNEP report itself is flawed at the very core even as it reduces the relevance of saving the environment to a matter of investing in an economic asset. An asset that perhaps, once restored, can be abused all over again?

We need to go beyond the arrogant framework that tells us the environment is just there to provide us with the tools we need to maintain mastery of this world. We need to think out of the box and do away with the kind of thinking that reduces environmental conservation as an investment in aid of global trade.

This line of thinking is bound to pit ecological concerns against economic growth, when in fact, they should go hand in hand.

This is the consensus that must come out of Johannesburg. And more than being written down in some document, a commitment must be made to actually live it out. The language of any consensus reached during the Rio+10 Summit must beware of the corporate agenda creeping into the text. This responsibility falls onto governments and civil society.

Certainly, our efforts need investments, but we must not tie down efforts at saving the Earth with the financing that flows into it. The ongoing $20-million Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, an offshoot of the PAGE Report, might want to take a look at this aspect of environmental conservation work.

More important than rare photo-ops, admitting that the rehabilitation of our ecosystems is in itself an end goal, and not one that merely helps achieve development should be the marking achievement of the Earth Summit. But if the Rio+10 gathering in Johannesburg fails to live up to all the hype, then the environment will let us know soon enough the costs of that failure.

(originally appeared in BNEXT during the period Sept 2-8, 2002)

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