UNEP Executive Director addresses the 6th International Convention on Environment and Development
Havana, Cuba, 4 July 2007 - Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear colleagues,
I have been given 35 minutes to address you this morning on the issue of environment and development and the linkage to climate change. I have also been asked to address the question of what the latest developments in the United Nations and the multilateral system may imply for the work of UNEP.
However let me begin by thanking the Cuban authorities, my friends and colleagues here in the Ministry of Science Technology and Environment, and also the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for having made it possible for me to join you for this quite unique gathering.
It is a gathering that Cuba organizes regularly and it is certainly growing in terms of interest and popularity. Indeed this is one of the reasons why I was interested in coming to Cuba personally. To learn at first hand this linkage between environmental sustainability, economic development and social justice that is a key concern of Cuba's public policy.
As mentioned in your very kind and generous introduction, I am the son of a farmer and I grew up on a farm in Brazil before spending an important part of my life working in the field of rural development.
As the years passed I increasingly became convinced that if we talk about development- and development particularly for those who are not in the cities, who live in the rural areas and who are often the poorest in terms of modern access to services and resources- then understanding the role of environment in development is a foundation for achieving sustainable development.
I began my life professionally as an economist and as regional planner. In India and Pakistan I worked both with an NGO and then later with a government department.
It was in these roles that I first began to see with my very own eyes that if we failed to understand how poor rural communities are dependent on managing their environmental resources- not simply from a survival point of view but from a livelihood and development point of view- then all our efforts at bringing resources into the rural economy would on many occasions be wasted and sometimes would in fact undermine the very minimum of reliance that people have on these resources.
So in many ways, this is my headline for my address here today-managing the environmental dimension of sustainable development in the 21st century.
Let me begin by characterizing environmental thinking from the last century to this new one.
In the 20th Century, the environment and environmentalism was often associated with combating the negative out-comes of development. It was about pollution, it was about cleaning up something that had been left behind by industrialization or by unplanned agricultural development and it evolved into a kind of licensing and authorizing process of issuing permits and making fines on people who were not following regulations.
It was also about establishing protected areas. Society had not yet fully grasped an understanding of biodiversity, so instead we resorted to protecting some parts of the world from the 'blind' development which did not recognize the true costs of ecosystem and biodiversity loss.
Environment in the 20th Century was also about protecting specific ecosystems and locations be it a river basin, a wetland or a forest.
Ladies and gentlemen, we were struggling to try and bring the beginnings of a modern scientific understanding of ecology, biology and natural sciences to the basic challenge of managing development.
However, the focus is rapidly shifting as are the debates in Cuba, Latin America and the world at large. We no longer have the privilege of trying to save environmental assets on a local level, one by one, because we are today confronted with an environmental change phenomenon that is of a completely different quality and magnitude.
We have moved from the local degradation of natural resources to compromising the long term functionality of entire systems. Society, informed by modern ecological science, is only just opening its eyes to these connections and linking action, cause and effect.
There have been visionaries who, over the past century, have made these connections and gained insight into natural systems. But society in general is only just beginning to appreciate the wide ranging and systemic environmental change and the consequences that we are now facing in the 21st century.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached a point at which human beings are beginning to affect the entire climate system, the hydrological cycle and the nutrient cycle that in turn is affecting the productivity of soils to mention just 3 examples of systemic change.
We are also now affecting entire ecosystems in which the survival of species is threatened by human encroachment, over exploitation or simply lack of habitat.
Indeed we are facing an extinction crisis in terms of species on the planet which is unprecedented in history of nature as we know it today. Read the full speech in PDF format.