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Building sustainable partnerships

Published by Newsweek on 1999-04-01

The 30th anniversary of Earth Day--April 22--was marked last week by environmentalists in both rich and poor countries not with much celebration but a fresh alarm about a common global peril. Their dire warning: Rapid industrialization is devastating fragile natural resources and undermining the health and wellbeing of everyday people in more and more societies. On what was the last Earth Day of the millennium, developmentalists also pitched in with a sobering reminder that the developed world's spending on promoting sustainable economic and social advancement in underprivileged states was at an all-time low--barely $45 billion this year. In contrast, global expenditure on weapons is almost $1 trillion.

Earth Day has long served as an annual occasion to reaffirm warm, fuzzy resolutions about recycling and tree-hugging. But last week, in the general spirit of eco-grimness, globalization--widely touted as providing a panacea for the developing world's economic ills--also came under resolute scrutiny. World leaders such as President Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka and Vice President Al Gore of the United States emphasized that globalization isn't simply blurring national political boundaries in the cause of rapid economic growth. Globalization, they warned, is insidiously spreading the virus of social and cultural instability, especially in countries whose natural environment had deteriorated perhaps beyond mending.

The linkage between the deteriorating global environment and weakening economic and social structures in a growing number of nations was highlighted in a cascade of troubling reports last week from several international organizations:

_ The World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development--chaired by former Swedish prime minister Ola Ullsten and Indonesia's Emil Salim- said that in the last 20 years alone, forests have disappeared in 25 countries, and another 18 have lost more than 95 percent of their tree cover. Just before World War II, there were an estimated 60 billion hectares of forest; now there are barely 3.6 billion globally. The causes? Logging, cutting for firewood, and desertification. The Switzerland-based World Conservation Union said that such forest decline threatened 12.5 percent of the world's 270,000 species of plants and 75 percent of mammals. And the International Organization for Migration added that the number of "environmental refugees"--those who fled their homes because of depletion of natural resources--was now at a record high of 25 million, mostly in Africa, Asia, and parts of Eastern Europe.

_ The United Nations said that between 1990 and 1999, the number of people infected with HIV/AIDS grew five-fold from 9.8 million to 47 million. In this period, however, global spending on AIDS research and prevention merely doubled to $350 million (of which the U.S. Alone contributes $136 million). The HIV/AIDS virus is frequently borne by environmental refugees, and others displaced by economic and political upheavals.

_ The U.S. Census Bureau said last week that the world's population, currently nearing 6 billion, will climb to 8 billion in the next 25 years. By 2050, there will be almost 10 billion people in the world. And 99 percent of the world's annual growth of 110 million people is occurring in the 130 poor countries. Joseph Chamie, the UN's chief demographer, pointed out that in 1950, Europe's population was three times that of Africa. Today, Africa's population of almost a billion is almost three times that of Europe. Such growth, Chamie told Newsweek, was "simply beyond the carrying capacity of an already beleaguered continent."

At a time when "sustainable development" doesn't exactly seize the imagination of donor-country policymakers--many of whom lament that Western investment in developing country has fetched inadequate returns--this sort of bad news is susceptible to being dismissed as tiresome and predictable. Growing human numbers alone do not fully explain the emerging crises of environmental degradation and economic inequities. Overconsumption of resources in rich countries also contributes significantly to unsustainable development. As Jyoti Shankar Singh, an advisor at the Bangladesh-based South-South Partnership puts it, "Strategies aimed at reactivating sustainable development need to address all the interconnected issues--population growth and distribution, economic development and poverty alleviation, reduction of economic and social inequalities, lowering of consumption levels, where appropriate, and introduction of energy and cost efficient production technologies."

This integrated approach isn't about to come from multilateral organizations which must rely on hard-fought consensus to imprint even punctuation marks. A frustrated Paulo Francesco Fulci of Italy, president of the UN Economic and Social Council, said last week: "We've had enough of documents, resolutions, declarations and paperwork on how to fight poverty and environmental degradation." So what's needed? Fulci's response: "An indication of priorities, a precise agenda of immediately do able things, not impossible wish lists."

So here are two such do-ables:

_ A "Green Interpol." Dutch Environment Minister Jan Pronk suggests that donor countries should band together and form an environmental police force to "bring together the compliance regimes of various global conventions." Last week, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott of Britain enthusiastically endorsed this concept under which a "green Interpol" would handle the inspection, investigation, policing and prosecution of entities--even individuals--who violate international environmental regulations. Pronk said he envisioned the establishment of an international "Environmental Crimes Tribunal."

_ A new dialogue between business and grassroots activists. Sir John Browne, CEO of BP Amoco, told Newsweek last week that he was prepared to work anew with nongovernmental activists and environmental organizations on issues such as climate change and poverty alleviation- and that he would help persuade others in the energy industry to join in such an effort. "It has to be a win-win situation for everybody," Sir John said. "It's a pity that people always revert to regulation and taxation as the prescriptive way of getting things done."

Late last week, Carol Bellamy, Unicef's executive director, turned up at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, to reinforce the notion that what's needed to effectively tackle the deteriorating global human environment is "building a sustained partnership between the private sector, civil society and governments." In this age of interdependence, Bellamy said, "no one can be let off the hook." Wise, timely words. Is anybody listening? And is anybody about to act?

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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