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Initiatives for Earth's people

Published by Newsweek on 2000-04-01

Not long after the first Earth Day sparked widespread awareness of global environmental degradation, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India addressed the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. The leader of the developing world's largest industrializing democracy startled her audience by declaring that "poverty was the greatest polluter."

Far more than the detritus of industrialization, she said, it was poor people in developing countries who contributed to ecological destruction through everyday practices such as firewood burning. The poor weren't being malevolent toward the environment, Indira Gandhi said, they were simply living off the cheapest resources they could find. On that same journey to Sweden almost three decades ago, she added: "Galloping poverty is a global challenge, not just one for developing nations. Everything is interconnected these days--the rich and the poor, the environment and the economy."

Wise words worth recalling and reflecting on. Last week, as preparations accelerated globally for the observance on April 22 of Earth Day's 30th anniversary, the global environment--both ecological and human--seemed in worse shape than when the late Indian prime minister spoke at the Stockholm conference. More than 2 billion people--one-third of the world's population--now live under the so-called "poverty line," earning less than the equivalent of $1 a day. Another 2 billion people--roughly what the world's population was at the start of the 20th century--live only marginally better.

Their poverty continues to adversely affect the natural environment, especially in West Africa and parts of Asia, where firewood gathering has resulted in vast deforestation. The Washington-based World Resources Institute estimates that just one-fifth of the world's original forest cover remains intact in relatively undisturbed forest--what the institute's head, Jonathan Lash, calls "frontier forest." Lash also says that, like forests, more than half of the world's coral reefs--some of which "rival tropical rainforests in the amount of biodiversity they contain"--are at risk from human encroachment.

Such encroachment, along with industrial activity, makes for an alarming environmental situation. Whatever the scientific debate about climate change, places such as Beijing, New Delhi, Lagos and Mexico City have become environmental nightmares on account of accelerating industrial and vehicular pollution. Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, cited a study showing that by 2020, China would spend 30 percent of its gross national product to treat illnesses caused by spewage from outdated coal-based industries--hundreds of billions of dollars diverted from China's ambitious economic development agenda for its 1.2 billion mostly poor people.

"Developing countries sometimes have a hard time backing out of economic mistakes," Pope told Newsweek. "Coal plants--the legacy of Mao Xedong's economics--may generate local employment, but the longterm consequences in terms of health are profound. The developing world--the Global South, as it's known these days--needs to be smarter than the rich countries of the industrialized North about longterm investments for economic growth. Why? Because they cannot afford the vast expenditures involved in cleaning up the mess generated by inefficient technologies. They need relevant technology from the North."

The question of relevant technology for economic development came up last week in Havana at the first-ever summit of the Group of 77 (G77), the organization representing the world's 133 poor countries. Leaders of those countries chided their counterparts in rich countries for trying to impose Western standards of environmental regulation--regulation they said that would inhibit much-needed economic growth. It was outmoded Western technological imports that contributed to developing nations' environmental decline, these leaders said, but where was the more sophisticated Western technology that they could afford?

Complicating the picture is the status dozens of expensively negotiated global treaties such as Agenda 21--approved by world leaders at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro--that could ameliorate environmental deterioration in the long run. Virtually all these treaties are gathering dust on diplomatic shelves. Why? Because there aren't any authoritative international entities to implement and enforce those treaties. Global commerce has the World Trade Organization, controversial though it is. The environment has no comparable monitoring mechanism.

Another problem concerning both the natural and human environment is that there are simply too many voices out there competing for attention and financial resources. The United Nations alone has some 54 agencies and commissions focusing on "sustainable development." Then there's the World Bank. And the various regional development banks. The European Union has its humanitarian and development bureau. There's the "rich man's club," the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And each of the OECD's 29 members--the donor countries which channel about $40 billion annually to poor countries--has its own bilateral development and environmental agencies.

Moreover, resource transfers from the industrialized countries to the developing countries are in significant decline. Last year's aid figure of $40 billion was half of the figure a dozen years ago. "The disappearance of the Soviet Union and the end of East-West tensions clearly led to a reduction in aid levels," says Steven W. Sinding of Columbia University, "and globalization and the diminishing role of government have led to a conclusion in many Western capitals that trade and open, global economic competition ought to be the basis for economic development in poor countries rather than aid. The substitution of market forces for government-managed economies has also had a dramatic effect on attitudes toward foreign aid. So the aid business, as such, is in trouble."

What now? The Millennium Summit--scheduled at U.N. Headquarters in New York in September--offers a timely opportunity for international environmental and developmental organizations for consolidation of their agendas. President Clinton and other world leaders who are expected to participate have a unique opportunity to demonstrate a very high level of political leadership, not merely enunciation of good intentions. Some are bound to call for the creation of yet another global bureaucracy. A more practical step would be to empower a couple of existing entities with additional wherewithal and institutional muscle, perhaps joining them in a strengthened alliance in the twinned cause of the environment and development. Why not call this new effort "The Indira Gandhi Initiative for Earth's People"?

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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