Rewards from Rio: A year later

IT WAS absurd of Maurice Strong, secretary-general of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), to have billed last year's conference, popularly known as the Earth Summit, as "the last chance to save the world". Part of his motivation was to hype up the event so that the world's politicians would be forced to take it seriously. In addition, however, there was a certain excitement about the event, a glimmer of optimism that some of the world's pressing environmental problems would be discussed and dealt with in the context of development.

A year later, both the excitement and the optimism have evaporated, and we are left with the mundane realities of attempting to give meaning to the fragile texts so painstakingly hammered out in Brazil. Life is being slowly breathed into the Commission for Sustainable Development, for example, as recommended at Rio. Now comes the real battle: to ensure it is not dexterously reduced by governments into just another inconsequential committee or yet another device for telling the South how to live, but becomes a body that exerts pressure for sustainable development policies in both the North and the South -- particularly the North, given its unsustainable lifestyles.

The new US administration has reversed the stand of its predecessor and agreed to sign the international convention designed to protect biological diversity. But it has also added its own interpretation to certain clauses, which is tantamount to saying "We abide by the agreement, as long as we can interpret it as we want." Also on offer from the US administration is "the environmental vice president", Al Gore. The publicity generated by Rio may have helped, in a small way, to make Gore's politically suspect environmentalism more respectable.

The conference also agreed on Agenda 21 -- the number refers to the 21st century -- which is an extensive "wish list" of generalisations on a range of activities, from agriculture to industry. It, too, has not been forgotten, but its actual impact has been virtually zero. Only a handful of people in the world have read it, though reference to its existence gets an obligatory mention in almost all speeches made from UN podiums.

Obligatory mention, however, is more than the Rio Declaration receives. The document has been consigned to the dusty pile of forgotten charters, declarations and resolutions.

Part of the struggle at Rio was not to improve the world, but to avoid the damage of prescriptions that were worse than the illness -- as in the proposed forest convention, which would have obliterated any hope of local control over forest resources and made them subject to a remote and ill-informed international authority. But there have been moves in the ensuing year by Northern countries favouring a convention to win back ground lost at Rio, and if pressure continues to be applied, it will be difficult for Southern governments to hold out, especially when many among them also fear local level participation in forest management.

The post-Rio position on finance is even more depressing. Strong himself defined money as the measure of the conference. It is not that the South sees money as the solution to its problems, but that promise of finance became a touchstone at the Summit -- in the absence of any other concrete measures -- of the North's good faith in the changes it was seeking and promising to help implement.

Since Rio, however, several countries have cut aid; some have taken money earmarked for development and reallocated it to environment, in direct contradiction to the basic concept of Rio; and others have shifted resources to East Europe, not out of concern for incorporating environmental issues into development thinking, but in a self-interested attempt to avert the possibility that any trouble in the region will spill into the western half of the continent.

The record on the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which has emerged as the main financing mechanism after UNCED, is even more dire. The World Bank-dominated fund was rushed into existence by industrialised countries in order to pre-empt calls from developing countries for an independent Green Fund; to add injury to insult, the year since Rio has seen not only minor changes in the administration of the fund as demanded by the South, but also a serious lack of money. So much for saving the world.

The crucially important area of trade and environment was kept off the Rio agenda, but it is now slowly forcing its way into the deliberations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Developing countries will have to be vigilant, because there is a danger that environmental concerns could be martialled as a barrier against Southern exports. Nevertheless, the issue is far too important not to be addressed.

The best that can be said is that the balance sheet is not entirely negative. But the benefits are rather intangible and stem largely from the political awareness that came from the Rio process, particularly the realisation that much high-flown environmental rhetoric concealed political and economic self-interest about the environment that previously had not been fully exposed.

The South is wiser now about the Northern agenda, whether implemented by Northern governments or non-government organisations. And the year since Rio has made it clear, if it was ever in doubt, that though the conference probably gave a boost -- thanks, for once, to the media -- to public awareness about environmental issues, the development prong of the carefully named UN Conference on Environment and Development still has to be fought for.