Environmental Negotiations

  • 29/04/1997

In June 1997, the world will complete five years since the Rio Conference - the largest ever gathering of world leaders that was billed as the 'last chance to save the Earth'. Now, the General Assembly of the United Nations, meeting in June five years after, will find that the performance rating of governmental action for a green world is next to zilch. No government has shown any serious commitment to take action on green global issues. The framework convention on climate change is yet to result in binding targets on controlling greenhouse gas emissions. The Convention on Biodiversity (cbd) - established to safeguard the world's threatened biodiversity - has not yet been signed by the us, the world's largest user of biodiversity resources and knowledge. And, Agenda 21 - the global action plan for environment - has gone largely unfunded.

But before we sing a requiem for Rio, it is important to understand what went wrong. Why is it that our leaders were not able to meet the environmental challenge which threatens the survival of the globe? The first reason, clear to anyone who has followed the post-Rio inter-governmental dynamics, is that environmental negotiations have slowly turned into petty business transactions, not the establishment of fair and just global environmental governance systems. While business transactions are built on principles of mutual benefits regardless of their societal costs, governance systems are built on principles of democracy, justice and equality.

This is because when governments meet to negotiate environmental treaties they come mainly to protect their economies from the increased costs of environmental protection rather than to protect the global ecology. Governments have taken over the business of environment after Rio while the civil society, which led governments to take action in Rio, has merely followed the inaction of the governments in the post-Rio days.

The second problem with Rio+5 (as the event five years after Rio is known) has its genesis in Rio itself. The one at Rio was totally a Northern one. Southern governments participated in it as petulant juveniles who were worried about dictates from the industrialised countries. The Earth Summit was, therefore, the outcome of an unwilling partnership.

In the last five years, the track record of achievement is, not surprisingly, poor. The worst performance has been that of Southern nations. Even though the cbd declares biodiversity a national resource and, therefore, leaves regulatory action with governments, Southern governments have neither done much to develop appropriate laws and institutions to protect the biodiversity nor the knowledge that makes biodiversity useful - largely because this knowledge belongs to the poor.

The most pathetic output has been that of the Indian government which has great potential clout to push for change but whose diplomats lack any desire to do anything beyond rhetorical outpourings. The Indian government's position on every green issue has been a 'non position'. In the last five years, the Indian government has not proposed a single idea to protect the world's environment, especially for the poor.

As in Rio, the issue of poverty and environment and creation of sustainable livelihoods remains a non-starter. No pressure has even been put on the Global Environmental Facility (gef) to include this on its agenda. If there is anything that India's environment movement has been able to show in the last two decades, it is that good village-level environmental management - what I would call 'village ecosystem management' - can greatly improve the local economy of the poor. Millions of villagers today live in degraded lands, face uncertain food production, increased vulnerability to natural calamities, male migration, heavy female work burden and a continuing state of poverty.

Combating poverty was an area of work clearly identified in the Agenda 21. But this issue, which affects the developing world and its poor citizens so intensely, remains totally neglected - both by the North and the South. The North had gone to Rio largely with a global agenda and a focus on issues like climate change, biodiversity conservation and sustainable forest management. The interface of poverty and natural resource management received little attention at the conference - the Southern leadership showed no desire to push the concern, and that situation prevails even today. One can only hope that this interface between poverty and environment which has the potential to turn environmental management in the developing world into a real mass movement, will not get neglected again.

The bankrupt Indian negotiating strategy has been simple on all issues put forward by the North: first oppose and then cave in. Individual bureaucrats and diplomats involved in the negotiations only further their own nests searching for lucrative employment in the new green international agencies set up after Rio.

It is the failure of the Southern leadership to develop a coherent vision of a greener and equitous world, that is at the heart of the failure of Rio+5 today. The us and various other Northern nations may be resistant to change. But an even bigger problem is that the Southern leadership has no agenda of its own to push. When the Northern machos propose, the Southern damsels play coy. And, of course, they have nothing to say on their own.

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