Another future is possible

Dean Tony La Viña

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The Rio+20 was a disappointment but a true reflection of the state of the world. The point is not just to interpret the world but to change it

Dean Tony La Viña is an international environmental lawyer and expert. He is a veteran negotiator for the Philippines in many environmental conferences. This is part of a series of reflections he will share on the outcomes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil last week and what it means to the Philippines and the world.

Dean Tony La ViñaIn Rio de Janiero, Brazil on June 22, the last day of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, representatives of 188 governments (practically all countries) approved the outcome document of the conference entitled “The Future We Want”.

The official conference, also known as the Rio +20 Conference, because it was convened on the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit held also in the same city, was attended by heads of states and other high level officials and was preceded by months of negotiations over the outcome document.

The question now is – does “The Future We Want” meet our expectations? Does it advance sustainable development globally and in the countries where it is needed most, the poorest and less developed countries? Will it lead to more effective environmental protection and more sustainable economic systems? Does it improve global, regional and national environmental governance? And most of all, is the future outlined in the outcome document what we – as a global community of states, peoples, communities and citizens – really want.

On first glance, “The Future We Want” seems to be on the right track by reaffirming principles and agreements from the Earth Summit. These include:

  • Renewing the commitment to sustainable development, and to ensure the promotion of economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations.
  • Recognizing that eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development.
  • Acknowledging the need to further mainstream sustainable development at all levels integrating economic, social and environmental aspects and recognizing their interlinkages, so as to achieve sustainable development in all its dimensions.
  • Putting people at the center of sustainable development and commiting to strive for a world which is just, equitable and inclusive
  • Reiterating the importance of freedom, peace and security, respect for all human rights, including the right to development and the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food, the rule of law, gender equality and women’s empowerment and the overall commitment to just and democratic societies for development.
  • Understanding the role of democracy, good governance and the rule of law, at the national and international levels, as an enabling environment and as essential for sustainable development, including the need for institutions at all levels that are effective, transparent, accountable and democratic.
  • Underscoring that sustainable development requires concrete and urgent action and can only be achieved with a broad alliance of people, governments, civil society and private sector, all working together to secure the future we want for present and future generations.
  • Reaffirming all the principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, including, inter alia, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, as set out in Principle 7 of the Rio Declaration.
  • Noting the importance of the three Rio Conventions to advancing sustainable development and urging all Parties to fully implement their commitments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

Reaffirming these principles and agreements are welcome. The challenge however, as those of us who have worked in this field in the last 20 years know, is implementation.The truth is that while we have been fairly successful in policy development, both globally and in many countries, we have not been so successful on the ground.

We have a global ecosystem, that according to a recent article in the scientific journal Nature, approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence.

The article “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere” written by by UC Berkely biologist Anthony Barnosky and other scientists conclude that “Humans have already changed the biosphere substantially, so much so that some argue for recognizing the time in which we live as a new geologic epoch, the “Anthropocene.”

Comparison of the present extent of planetary change with that characterizing past global-scale state shifts, and the enormous global forcings we continue to exert, suggests that another global-scale state shift is highly plausible within decades to centuries, if it has not already been initiated.” They also conclude that it is necessary to address root causes of how humans are forcing biological changes.

Unfortunately, “The Future We Want” fails short, far short, of what is necessary to avoid this radical state of shift and to reverse ecological degradation.

While there was some progress, like a recognition of the right to food and an agreement for technological assessments to be institutionalized (as noted by a progressive international organization ETC) and while there was some advance in mainstreaming access to information, public participation and environmental justice (this effort was led by The Access Initiative (TAI), convened by the World Resources Institute globally and the Thailand Environmental Institute in our region (the Ateneo School of Government is part of TAI), this was too little compared to the need.

No agreed targets

No sustainable development targets were agreed to in Rio. Countries settled on business as usual, on the least common denominator rather than the maximum agreement possible.

Among others, governments failed to adopt concrete sustainable development goals – clear, measurable and verifiable – which the Philippine delegations other delegations supported.

For this reason, as described by the Associated Press, the Rio +20 Conference was an “unhappy environmental summit” with everyone equally unhappy with the results.

To me, the outcome of Rio +20 did not come as a surprise. The truth is that there is genuine disagreement out there on how to achieve sustainable development. This is the reason why we are making little progress on climate change and other global environmental issues. In fact, some would argue that unless we find a global consensus again, as we did in 1992, there is no point in even trying to come up with a blueprint for the future.

‘Green economy’

The “green economy” debate, for example, saw developed countries against each other and against developing countries, developing countries against other poor countries, the private sector versus social justice activists, environmental advocates against each other and against development and human rights campaigners, and development advocates against each other with conflicting development paradigms.

On my part, I am clear where I stand on the “green economy”. I have always been a human rights and environmental lawyer and advocate. While I have always loved forests and seas because of my early and childhood experiences in Mindanao, my introduction to environmental law came about because it was the body of law that could be resorted to in defending the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, the first clients I had as a lawyer and to whom I owe where I am now as an environmental expert.

Their rights are primordial in my work. Similarly, I always pay attention to the voice of critical stakeholders like women, youth, artists and local governments. People and nature are intertwined; both must always be protected, never sacrificed, not for any goal. Because of this, I reject all forms of commoditization of nature and people for economic goals as well as all political violence even for a worthy goal like social justice because war always destroys nature and people.

While where I stand is clear, it is also imperative for me to reach out to those who have different views on how to implement sustainable development and to learn from them. That is why I am open to the idea of using market based approaches and other economic incentives in implementing sustainable development while insisting always in safeguards that are designed to keep nature whole and valued in it’s totality.

Sustainable utilization of nature must also be accompanied by equitable mechanisms of sharing revenue and other benefits with indigenous people’s, local communities and society in general.That is why I am willing to ally with progressive companies and especially social entrepreneurs that introduce new ideas to achieve sustainable development.

As for the Philippines, as articulated by NEDA Director General Arsenio Balisacan during his speech in Rio, we are practical enough to acknowledge that “the Outcome Document is the minimum that can be agreed upon by consensus among all the world’s stakeholders.”

With all its limitations, the document “serves as a framework for individual actions and collective efforts to achieve sustainable development toward the creation of a better future for the next generations.”  

Secretary Balisacan observed that the Philippines has made progress in mainstreaming sustainable development in the country, especially through Philippine Agenda 21 and the establishment of Philippine Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD).

However, he also admitted that “much more needs to be done, especially in enhancing and sustaining the integrity of ecosystems that support the country’s platform for economic growth and social development.” He observed that we are vulnerable to natural hazards and the impacts of climate change and thus we put importance on “strengthening institutional capacities for climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction and management to improve the resiliency of its ecosystems, communities and people.”

Finally, according to Balisacan, the Philippines believes that the attainment of sustainable development can be best ensured by the participation of all stakeholders in decision-making and implementation and monitoring while strengthening the capacities of communities and local chief executives.

The Rio +20 was a disappointment but it is a true reflection of the state of the world. In that sense, we have a truthful result.

The point however, to paraphrase  a great philosopher, is not just to interpret the world but to change it. Another future is possible but it can only happen if we realize that, like it or not, we share this planet – its home for all of us – developed and developing countries, rich and poor, indigenous peoples and migrants, corporations and communities, indeed of all citizens of the world regardless of age, race, gender, and religion. –

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