The hard climb continues

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Third Pole, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The politics of Rio+20 – as in similar global conferences – has worked at two levels. First, and very visible, were the country blocs that negotiated its draft political declaration and worked to protect what they think are their national interests. The result was a document with the lowest common denominator, so low as to lose most of its teeth.

Second, and not so visible, were the sectoral interest groups that sought to include their agenda in the declaration. They have had mixed success. The biggest gain has been the pledge to protect mountain ecosystems.

At the country level were two key blocs, developed and developing nations, though with serious differences within each group. Here, the resolution floundered on basic issues. Poorer countries wanted money to help them move towards a more sustainable development path. Richer countries pointed out that there is a global recession, the euro zone is in a tizzy, and committed nothing. 

Poorer countries wanted concessional access to patented green technologies. Richer countries said they could not interfere with intellectual property rights. Richer countries wanted the world to move to national accounting systems where they consider the cost of using air, water, soil and minerals. Poorer countries watered that down because they feared this would open the door to trade protectionism.

The result was a declaration that made many of the right noises, left out some crucial ones, but did not go into specifics in any case. Sustainable development goals, for example, will now have to be negotiated at the UN headquarters over the next two and a half years. And one of the crucial things left out was women’s reproductive rights. Some countries led by religious orthodoxies got that thrown out at the last moment, much to the chagrin of the rest of the world. Another crucial missing piece is a commitment to protect life in international waters. Some countries got that thrown out on the technicality that it was being discussed in another UN forum.

Among the welcome noises, the resolution talks of the need to involve civil society and businesses in sustainable development without getting into specifics. It does the same with the green economy, the matter of upgrading the UN Environment Programme, food and water security, and a long list of other areas: energy, tourism, transport, urbanisation, health, population, employment, disaster risk reduction, climate change, protecting forests and biodiversity, combating desertification, land degradation and drought, protecting mountain ecosystems and sound management of chemicals and waste. It also talks of the need for sustainable consumption and production, the need to regulate mining more effectively, the need to improve education and gender equity and the need to develop a set of sustainable development goals.

These are the areas over which international agencies and NGOs have been lobbying for months and years. For example, the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has been working for more than two years to “get some paragraphs on protecting mountain ecosystems into this text”, as an ICIMOD insider put it. David Molden, the head of ICIMOD, told me he was satisfied with the paragraphs, though he would have been happier with a stronger statement.

The section now reads: “We recognise that the benefits derived from mountain regions are essential for sustainable development. Mountain ecosystems play a crucial role in providing water resources to a large portion of the world’s population; fragile mountain ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, deforestation and forest degradation, land use change, land degradation, and natural disasters; and mountain glaciers around the world are retreating and getting thinner with increasing impacts on the environment and human wellbeing.

“We further recognise that mountains are often home to communities, including indigenous peoples and local communities, who have developed sustainable uses of mountain resources. They are, however, often marginalised, and we therefore stress that continued effort will be required to address poverty, food security and nutrition, social exclusion and environmental degradation in these areas. We invite states to strengthen cooperative action with effective involvement and sharing of experience of all relevant stakeholders, by strengthening existing arrangements, agreements, and centres of excellence for sustainable mountain development, as well as exploring new arrangements and agreements, as appropriate.

“We call for greater efforts toward the conservation of mountain ecosystems, including their biodiversity. We encourage states to adopt a long-term vision and holistic approaches, including through incorporating mountain-specific policies into national sustainable development strategies which could include, inter alia, poverty reduction plans and programmes in mountain areas, particularly in developing countries. In this regard, we call for international support for sustainable mountain development in developing countries.”

To someone not used to the way international aid works, this may seem like a set of platitudes. But the inclusion of this section increases the chances of international and national development organisations, think-tanks, NGOs and governments to obtain funding for sustainable development in mountain areas. They can now show potential donor governments a pledge by the heads of these governments and thus increase their chances of getting funding. That is the way international aid programmes are often decided, and the absence of such a detailed pledge to help mountain ecosystems and people in the 1992 Earth Summit resolution has hampered work in comparison to, say, coastal areas.

The Rio+20 conference has rightly disappointed most observers because it pushes decisions back by years, when neither poor people nor a stressed planet has time. But, in the words of celebrated sustainability champion Gro Harlem Brundtland, it has kept the door open for some constructive work.