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Rio +20: The Earth Summit Débâcle continued

Rio +20: The Earth Summit Débâcle continued

This month sees the 20th anniversary of the UN Conference on Environment and Development. Rio +20 is expected to be the largest event in the history of the United Nations.

20 years ago, “sustainable development” was supposed to save the world. The UN has now added the “green economy” into the mix. But neither of these address the problems and both increase the role of markets and the power of institutions such as the World Bank.

Rio +20 should really be called Stockholm +40, after the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, that was held in Stockholm. The United Nations Environment Programme was proposed in Stockholm and created shortly afterwards. UNEP’s mission is supposed to be,

To provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.

These days, UNEP’s mission involves creating market mechanisms to support the “green economy”. For UN-REDD and the UNEP, REDD is a key part of the “green economy”. In a recent Policy Brief, “REDD+ and a Green Economy“, UNEP explains that it hopes to leverage REDD, “to generate additional investments in a Green Economy”. There’s even a diagram:

REDD and the Green Economy

So REDD investments are to contribute to the green economy and the green economy will reduce the risks of investing in REDD. But neither the diagram nor the Policy Brief gives details about exactly how this is supposed to happen. Instead, it seems to be based on the wishful thinking of the UNEP experts.

UNEP’s Policy Brief tells us that,

“Essentially REDD+, is an investment focusing on retaining or enhancing natural capital, and provides an opportunity to enable countries to move towards realizing green development.”

The Policy Brief suggests that investing US$40 billion for “afforestation and forest conservation and paying forest and paying forest landholders and users to conserve forests and improve forest management”, could contribute 20% more value added than business as usual. (No time period for the US$40 billion is given, but the report states that “currently investment in forests are [sic] about US$70 million dollars”.)

It’s as if nothing has happened in the seven years since Kevin Conrad and the Coalition for Rainforest Nations presented the idea of REDD to the UN in Montreal. Since then there has been a great deal of discussion about REDD, but comparatively little investment in REDD projects. The complexity of REDD has become apparent to even the most enthusiastic REDD proponents.

Since then there has been a global economic crisis (which has not gone away – if anything it looks like it may well get much worse, sooner rather than later).

UNEP explains that REDD investments,

will need to espouse both valuation – internalizing the costs of externalities and pricing goods with missing markets; and technology transfer – in making natural resource sectors more efficient; in monitoring, reporting and verification activities; and in valuing and monetizing ecosystem goods and services.

Again, there’s no explanation of how any of this might happen, or what the implications are of “monetizing ecosystem goods” for local communities and their relationship with the forests. There is no mention of regulations The “green economy” just does away with the economic crisis and somehow creates investors who will not look for the highest possible return in the shortest period of time.

It’s difficult to know which planet UNEP’s experts were thinking of when they wrote the Policy Brief. They refer to countries with recognisable names, such as Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the similarity with anything on planet earth ends there.

There is no mention in UNEP’s report of the ongoing deforestation in Indonesia, or the continued expansion of oil palm plantations, coal mines, oil and gas exploration and pulpwood plantations. Norway’s environment minister, Bård Vegar Solhjell, has acknowledged that the moratorium is not enough to reduce Indonesia’s emissions or to stop deforestation. And the achievements of UN-REDD in Indonesia are minimal (to put it politely).

Neither does UNEP make any mention of the sales of billions of dollars worth of state assets in DR Congo. Last year, UK Member of Parliament Eric Joyce released a series of documents that,

“appear to show a systematic pattern of underselling Congolese mining assets to off-shore ’shell’ companies incorporated almost exclusivelyin the British Virgin Islands (BVI), the ultimate beneficial owners of which are often unknown, with the result that the Congolese people do not benefit from the vast mineral wealth in their country.”

But this isn’t what either the UNEP Policy Brief or the Rio +20 meeting is about. Neither is interested in raising awkward questions. Both are about continuing the illusion that “we” all want the same things and can work together for “The Future We Want”. After the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, The Ecologist magazine produced an issue titled “Whose Common Future?”. The editorial summarises very well what happened in Rio in 1992. It is reproduced here as a reminder of what Rio +20 is about.

The Earth Summit Débâcle

The Ecologist Vol. 22, No. 4, July/August 1992

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the self-styled Earth Summit, finished where it began. After ten days of press conferences, tree-planting ceremonies and behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, the diplomats went home to their various other assignments and the politicians to their next round of international talks. Rio gave way to the Munich conference and the more familiar territory of GATT, G-7 power politics and interest rates.

For the major players, the Summit was a phenomenal success. The World Bank emerged in control of an expanded Global Environmental Facility, a prize that it had worked for two years to achieve. The US go the biodiversity convention that it sought simply by not signing the convention on offer. The corporate sector, which throughout the UNCED process enjoyed special access to the secretariat, was confirmed as the key actor in the “battle to save the planet”. Free-market environmentalism – the philosophy that transnational corporations brought the Rio through the Business Council on Sustainable Development – has become the order of the day, uniting Southern and Northern leaders alike. For many environmental groups, too, the Summit was a success: credibility has been achieved (some even having seats on government delegations) and their concerns are no longer marginalized. They are now recognized as major players themselves.

The Summit, in fact, went according to plan: indeed the outcome was inevitable form the start. Unwilling to question the desirability of economic growth, the market economy or the development process itself, UNCED never had a chance of addressing the real problems of “environment and development”. Its secretariat provided delegates with materials for a convention on biodiversity but not on free-trade; on forests but not on logging; on climate but not on automobiles. Agenda 21 – the Summit’s “action plan” – featured clauses on “enabling the poor to achieve sustainable livelihoods” but none on enabling the rich to do so; a section on women but none on men. By such deliberate evasion of the central issues which economic expansion poses for human societies, UNCED condemned itself to irrelevance even before the first preparatory meeting got under way.

The best that can be said for the Earth Summit is that it made visible the vested interests standing in the way of the moral economies which local people, who daily face the consequences of environmental degradation, are seeking to re-establish. The spectacle of the great and the good at UNCED casting about for “solutions” that will keep their power and standards of living intact has confirmed the scepticism of those whose fate and livelihoods were being determined. The demands from many grassroots groups around the world are not for more “management” – a fashionable word at Rio – but for agrarian reform, local control over resources, and power to veto developments and to run their own affairs. For them, the question is not how their environment should be managed – they have the experience of the past as their guide – but who will manage it and in whose interest. They reject UNCED’s rhetoric of a world where all humanity is united by a common interest in survival, and in which conflicts of race, class, gender and culture are characterized as of secondary importance to humanity’s supposedly common goal. Although they acknowledge that a peasant in Bihar shares the same planet as a corporate executive, they view the suggestion that the two share a common future as farcical. Instead, they ask, “Whose common future is to be sustained?” Their struggle is not to win greater power for the market or the state, but to reinstate their communities as sources of social and political authority. This special issue of The Ecologist is an attempt to desribe the background to that struggle.

PHOTO Credit: All Voices.

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  1. Oh yeah, the people at UNEP have clearly put a lot of thought and effort into that diagram! Brilliant.

    There are some good people in UNEP and good people in UN-REDD, but no-one seems to be facing up to the reality that, in the absence of proper governance and transparency, the real interface between REDD and national economies is that REDD is simply another source of funds to be sucked in to fuel non-sustainable development and large-scale graft. Everything that has happened in, say, Guyana, Indonesia and PNG so far is a perfect example of this. What the diagram makers in UNEP forgot to include are huge black boxes in the path of both the green and red arrows, which are full of corruption, vested interest, lack of competence, and overt political manipulation and self propagation. This is why so little money has actually found its way into REDD projects, exactly as some people predicted years ago. It is these issues that UNEP should be tackling, not simply helping to create an environmental markets version of the financial sector deregulation catastrophe.

    The problem is that it is precisely this kind of nonsense that discredits an agency that is badly needed. Perhaps Rio+20 will see UNEP got rid of altogether, the same way that Rio ’92 accompanied the dismantling of the UN Centre for Transnational Corporations, and the corporate agenda instead being handed over to the Business Council for Sustainable Development. (Can anyone these days say that name and keep a straight face? Twenty years on, where is the ‘sustainable’?).

  2. I wonder how many people of the 7.1 billon which currently exist know of Rio+20 or 40???? And of those who do know how many understand a green economy? This is the essence of the future, irrespective of this and that programme it is the philosophy which counts….as expressed to some degree in the following section of the last paragraph

    …..’The demands from many grassroots groups around the world are not for more “management” – a fashionable word at Rio – but for agrarian reform, local control over resources, and power to veto developments and to run their own affairs. For them, the question is not how their environment should be managed – they have the experience of the past as their guide – but who will manage it and in whose interest”

    This is precisely but in a more pragmatic manner I am attempting to readdress in my own initiative which is to benefit us all and the 100 million other species who inhabit our planet…oh and our all our futures.

    Thank you for considering these views.

  3. I have written something here on sustainable development for one of the daily newspapers in PNG. I hope it is worthwhile for your reading. The article has been published by the newspaper today (9th June, 2012).

    [Sustainable development is a myth in PNG]

    [By Nalau Bingeding]
    [Sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The concept consists of the social, economic and environment pillars. These three pillars of sustainable development are mutually inclusive, meaning that one of the pillars cannot be attained without the other two or the other two cannot be attained without the other one. Sustainable development is viewed as a process that should lead to future sustainability, and the concept should always endeavor to achieve future social, economic and environmental goals of development. In order to attain sustainable development, there must be trade-offs between the social, economic and environmental goals of development.
    PNG is blessed with abundant natural resources from the land, forests, rivers and the seas. Nevertheless, much of the rural population is shackled in poverty. The country’s social indicators of development are poor, which have been revealed in various donor partner reports. The average life expectancy is low, infant mortality rate is high, adult literacy rate is low, and the list goes on.
    The question that should be asked is, why? Why are our people shackled in poverty when we have more than 10 large scale mines, several oil fields, large production forests that cover some 14 million hectares, 140 thousand hectares of oil palm plantations, abundant stocks of tuna in the sea, and so on?
    A recent report by the National Research Institute revealed that some billions of kina have been paid by the Porgera Joint Venture to the Enga Provincial Government, the National Government, and customary landowners of Porgera after 20 years of operation. Yet, the social and environmental indicators of development in the Porgera area after 20 years of mining are far from reality.
    The Porgera mine has attained one of the 3 goals of development, the economic goal (money); it has made enough money and paid it to the relevant beneficiaries. However, the social and environmental goals of the Porgera mine have not been adequately delivered by the customary landowners, the Enga Provincial Government and the National Government. Consequently, sustainable development has not been attained in Porgera because not all the 3 goals of development have been attained.
    The Misima Gold Mine is a classic example of the sustainable development myth in PNG. The mine has been closed for some years now and a degraded landscape is all the Misima people have to show for. Where are the social, economic and environmental sustainabilities? Do the future generations of Misima have some wealth fund to sustain the economy of their island into the future? Are there continuous social services on the island after the closure of the mine? What has been done to rectify all the environmental degradation on the island after the mine closure?
    PNG is variously described as “an island of gold floating on a sea of oil”, but there is very little to show for after 36 years of independence and extensive natural resource exploitation. With REDD+ and carbon trade looming in the distance, the country is now ready to tap into this huge wealth potential through the use of its vast forest resources. Soon PNG will be described as “an island of carbon floating on a sea of greenhouse gases”, but only time will tell whether or not REDD+ and carbon trade have brought sustainable development to PNG.
    What happens on land affects what happens in the air and the sea, therefore land resources are of paramount importance to sustainable development in PNG. The report of Phil Shearman and others (2008) showed that PNG has been deforesting and degrading some 3 million hectares of its forests over a 30 year period. We have deforested and degraded forests and land through mining, logging, subsistence gardening, oil palm plantations and wild fires, and released huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
    Although Shearman and others have identified the drivers of deforestation and degradation of forests, the targets and indicators of environmental sustainability in PNG are non-existent. The PNG Forest Authority adopted the ITTO target and indicators of sustainable forest management and the Department of Environment and Conservation adopted the Convention on Biodiversity, just to name a few. But what are the targets and indicators for these tools of environmental sustainability and what has been achieve in terms of environmental sustainability in the last 36 years?
    PNG is yet to develop its own model for sustainable development, although different development sectors and programs have advocated for sustainable development for years. Policies and strategies have been developed and implemented over the years, but these development tools have failed to deliver sustainable development in PNG. Many of the developmental sectors and programs have focused on the economic pillar (creation of wealth) of sustainable development rather than the need to place the human being at the center of development and attempt to deliver the social, economic and environmental goods and services.
    Sustainable development is a complex issue that needs an integrated and holistic approach. Sustainable development cannot be attained using a single policy, strategy or development program through a single development sector, but needs the input of all sectors of development. Sustainable development cannot be delivered using a political agenda because politicians and bureaucrats come and go but developmental issues will remain.
    PNG needs to develop policy mixes that should attempt to address sustainable development, and this can be achieved if there are trade-offs between the social, economic and environmental goals of development. Targets and indicators of sustainable development will have to be developed for each development sector through an integrated and holistic approach and then simultaneously implemented through several programs. The targets and indicators of sustainable development will have to be reached through general consensus and will have to be realistic so that they can be attained.
    Sustainable development has evaded PNG over the years because we have not endeavored to address the issue through an integrated and holistic approach. Most of the policies and strategies to date have not achieved sustainable development because they were either driven by some political agenda or had the ultimate aim of creating wealth that would simply disappear into thin air at Waigani.
    Unless and until we take an integrated and holistic approach on sustainable development in PNG, we will be going around in circles and the concept will just be a myth.]
    [Nalau Bingeding is a Research Fellow in the Economics and Land Research Program at the National Research Institute.]

  4. The definition of sustainable development I like starts “the wise use, conservation and regeneration of resources…..”. This presupposes that resources are able to be regenerated. Thus, they must be renewable. It also underlines the point that resource use and regeneration must be in balance before conservation (sustinability) is the net outcome.
    We are currently utterly unsustainable as a global society, principally as a result of the lifestyles enjoyed by those currently using a grossly disproportionate share of the resources available, but increasingly assisted by the rest who are struggling to get their share of the proceeds of technological despoliation of the planet. It’s not a pretty picture! Anyway I just have to ask for some alternative strategies for turning the Titanic around from all the eople who delight in slagging off REDD. Gunna monkey wrench the Pantagon? Treesit the forests in the Congo? Tell APP they are really naughty and should just bloody well do the right thing? Let’s have some answers gurus, if there is nothing but perversion and greed in efforts to involve corporates in conservation, what is your alternative.

  5. Dear Mark Jackson,

    It never fails to surprise me how intelligent people can continually blinker themselves to the ‘solutions’ that they state they are seeking. Those who ‘delight in slagging REDD off’ are constantly putting forward solutions – the same solutions for the past 20 years in fact, as can be seen from this line in the Ecologist editorial:

    “The demands from many grassroots groups around the world are not for more “management” – a fashionable word at Rio – but for agrarian reform, local control over resources, and power to veto developments and to run their own affairs.”

    The problem with this solution is that it does not increase economic growth or draw more of the worlds resources into the the control of multi-national corporations. REDD as currently constructed has no real solution, but if we really want to stop the destruction of the rainforests and the rest of the planets natural ecosystems, we could start with giving rights for resource control back to the local communities who inhabit them, and enforcing those rights against APP and the rest of the multi-nationals. Unless human rights become more powerful than economics, there is no real solution.