Africa has responded to the challenges posed to sustainable development by committing to and establishing policies for creating an enabling environment at the regional, sub-regional, national and local levels that support sustained economic growth, environmental integrity, efforts for peace, stability and security, democracy and good governance, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development and gender equality. Although much remains to be done to make this policy objective a reality, Africa (both governments and its people) are committed to and share the Brundtland Commission’s vision for a future that is more prosperous, more just and more secure (WCED 1987).

Good as these activities are in sustaining household livelihoods in the short run, if poorly managed they may have detrimental impacts on environmental resources. The indiscriminate felling of trees for agricultural expansion and timber products has laid watersheds bare, threatening the water catchment functions of forested watersheds. Pressure on water resources for various uses including domestic, livestock and industrial use, among others, has increased due to more extensive economic activities and population congestion in river basins, causing water allocation and use conflicts.

Box 3: The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN)
The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment was established in 1985 to strengthen cooperation between African governments on economic, technical and scientific activities to halt the degradation of Africa’s environment and satisfy the food and energy needs of its people. It is mandated to:
  • Provide information and advocacy for environmental protection in Africa.
  • Ensure that the basic (material) human needs are met adequately and in a sustainable manner.
  • Ensure socioeconomic development is realized at all levels.
  • Ensure that agricultural activities and practices meet the food security needs of the region.

    The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment:
  • Provides continent-wide leadership on environmental issues.
  • Promotes awareness and consensus on global and regional environmental issues, especially those relating to international conventions on biodiversity, desertification and climate change.
  • Develops common positions to guide African representatives in negotiations for legally binding international environmental agreements.
  • Promotes African participation in international dialogue on global issues of crucial importance to Africa.
  • Reviews and monitors environmental programmes at the regional, sub- regional and national levels.
  • Promotes the ratification by African countries of multilateral environmental agreements relevant to the region.
  • Builds African capacity in the field of environmental management.
  • Gives strategic guidance in the implementation of Multilateral Environment Agreements.
  • Since 2000, AMCEN has also initiated environmental assessment and reporting to keep the regional environment under review in order to provide early warning on emerging environmental issues.

    Source: UNEP, undated

    Across Africa, there has been a rich and varied response to these challenges at multiple levels, from the regional to the community level. Governments, non-governmental organizations, community groups, scientists and other experts have all been important contributors to developing policy and defining practical responses to implement such policies. Since the Brundtland Commission put forward its vision for sustainable development in 1987, there have been other key policy responses which reinforce its messages and which seek to make sustainable development a reality. Landmarks on this trajectory of responses include:

    • The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 with its broad policy consensus reflected in the Rio Declaration and a defined programme of action in Agenda 21;
    • The WSSD and its Johannesburg Plan of Implementation;
    • The globally agreed time-bound development goals and targets in the MDGs;
    • The creation of the AU to succeed the Organization of African Unity (OAU);
    • The NEPAD-EAP; and
    • The AU’s Africa Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ACCNNR).

    Through these policy initiatives, African governments have taken a comprehensive approach to the issue of sustainable development. They have emphasized the following, as well as the links between these aspects:

    • An explicit recognition that the environment is integral to sustainable development. In particular there is an increasing shift to seeing the environment as an opportunity for development rather than a constraint;
    • A renewed determination to harness the opportunities the environment provides for economic growth and human well-being;
    • A commitment to building a more just future based on the recognition that inequity (at multiple levels, including global trade relations and gender) and poverty are important drivers in unsustainable environmental management and are at the core of the growing vulnerability of Africa’s people;
    • An acceptance that an integrated approach to environmental management is the basis for sustainable development. Such an approach requires understanding the relationship between different aspects of the environment and developing a holistic approach to management, as well as acknowledging the linkages between environment and other areas of human activity, such as trade, science and technology;
    • A resolve to build partnerships and promote collaboration, at multiple levels, to address and find solutions to the challenges of sustainable development. This includes not only political collaboration, but also building partnerships in science and technology, capacity-building, trade, human and financial resources;
    • An acknowledgment that strengthening national institutions and empowering people is key to effective and sustainable resource management, human development, eradicating poverty, and creating a more equitable society and in addition is consistent with human rights;
    • A commitment to enhance human capacity, including scientific and technological capability, so as to be more able to respond to the environmental and development challenges effectively;
    • An appreciation of the importance of linking policy objectives to clear implementation plans and objectives and a growing commitment to do this; and
    • A desire to build and sustain societies based on peace and cooperation, to rid the region of conflict.

    Multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), at the global, regional and sub-regional levels, are an important response to these broad policy positions. They seek to take the challenges identified in policies on board and provide for practical responses. Multilateral environmental agreements may establish clear rules or suggest managerial frameworks to resolve problems. African countries are party to at least 30 conventions at the global level, dealing with various aspects of environmental management, and related areas, such as trade, that impact directly on environmental sustainability.

    Most African countries have signed the three international conventions adopted at the UNCED in 1992 – the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) – as well as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Other MEAs to which African countries are party include those dealing with international trade in endangered species, the management of migratory species, hazardous waste management, cultural heritage, ozone depletion, biosafety, invasive alien species and forest management. Also of critical importance are agreements reached in the trade area, especially the World Trade Organization (WTO) and related agreements on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), and sanitary and phytosanitary provisions. Several agreements in agriculture, such as the International Convention for Protection of Plants, have important implications for biodiversity and the sharing of benefits arising from its use. Human rights and development agreements adhered to set the framework for addressing these environmental issues. Additionally, Africa has a growing number of regional and sub-regional MEAs which promote collaboration by establishing an agreed approach to a given issue, which in turn sets the basis for harmonized and coordinated national law. Foremost among these is the ACCNNR adopted by the AU in 2003. This policy and legal approach is reinforced through the establishment of regional and sub-regional organizations. Many sub-regional organizations have spearheaded the development of environmental management policy and law at the sub-region level. In critical areas of sub-regional concern, there have been important multilateral agreements; these include cooperation in the management of shared river basins, wildlife and forests.

    These policy and legal initiatives have been complemented by the development of institutions at the regional and sub-regional levels. The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) is one such initiative which increases opportunities for the development of collaborative approaches to environmental management. Box 3 provides more information about AMCEN. Crucial too is the strengthening and reorganization of the African Union. Its Constitutive Act provided for the establishment of a specialized technical committee on natural resources and the environment. The Pan-African Parliament, established in 2004, has a permanent standing Committee on Rural Economy, Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environment. In 2005, the AU launched the Economic, Social and Cultural Council of the AU (ECOSOCC) to facilitate and promote civil society participation in the affairs of the AU. See Box 7.