Issue of November, 18, 2003
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Dialogues
Sustainable Development an Uphill Climb
By Katiana Murillo

For the first time since the Johannesburg Summit, also known as Rio+10, the environment ministers from Latin America and the Caribbean are meeting this month for five days in Panama to evaluate the region's progress in sustainable development.

SAN JOSE, (Tierramérica).- "Without mechanisms for technical and financial cooperation, sustainable development in Latin America and the Caribbean is an uphill climb," Costa Rica's environment and energy minister, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

Rodríguez and his colleagues from throughout the region are meeting Nov. 20-25 in Panama to assess environmental policies for the first time since the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg, South Africa last year.

The challenges are enormous in a region where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, more than 300 million hectares of land are degraded, and less than one percent of gross domestic product is invested in sustainable development.

At the Johannesburg summit, the ministers presented the Latin American and Caribbean Initiative for Sustainable Development (ILAC), which calls for a 10-percent increase in the use of renewable energy sources in the region and fomenting technologies to improve water quality.

- TIERRAMERICA: Has the region made progress in environmental terms since Johannesburg? - RODRIGUEZ: Johannesburg was complicated. The agreements were very general and the goals a bit idealistic, given that they were not based on clear commitments for cooperation between the (developing) South and the (industrialized) North. Without mechanisms for financing, implementation and monitoring, the task is an uphill climb. In the regional context, there is a similar situation. Now there is greater political will, but it is not enough. If this will is not supported by a process of technical and financial cooperation, the will is going to fade and the environmental issue will not be a priority.

- What are the main challenges for the environment ministries in Latin America? - The biggest challenge is to see how, in the regional context, we implement the commitments made in Johannesburg, how we ensure follow-up and continuity of the agreements from Rio (1992 Earth Summit) and how we create new mechanisms for technical and financial cooperation. Another challenge is how to tackle key issues like water, climate change, biodiversity, and governance as fundamental axis of this effort.

- According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), income disparity in Latin America is greater than in any other region. How can sustainable use of natural resources be achieved when access to them is so unequal? - In many countries, improving the economy is not linked to improving human development. Social investment is long term and, if it is to be productive, there must be congruent policies, but there aren't. For example, deforestation in the region is not promoted by ranchers, loggers or peasant farmers, but by governments through their development policies. There are short-term decisions to give land to peasant farmers in order to keep a political promise, without realizing that it is condemning the people to poverty because often the land is not agriculturally productive.

- What should be done? - We must make an effort to identify policies that promote sustainable activities, with clear objectives that are verifiable over time. A great deal of political maturity is lacking throughout this process. Social and political stability have to be coordinated if environmental policy is going to work.

- Is there sufficient regional leadership to influence difficult global decisions, like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which aims to curb climate change and increase the use of clean energy? - On key issues like climate change and biodiversity the region has had a uniform and positive position. There will be differences among us, and those must be resolved internally, but the region has matured a great deal from the political-environmental perspective.

* Katiana Murillo is a Tierramérica contributor.

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