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Good intentions are not enough

30 June 2012

1992 Earth Summit participants sign the Earth Pledge for a secure and hospitable home for present and future generations. Photo by: UN

Jose Ignacio García, SJ

“Good intentions are not enough” is precisely the title of an article (reprinted in ESSCNews) written by our colleague, Peter Walpole, SJ as he was returning from the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 and held in Rio de Janeiro, also known as the Earth Summit. Peter participated 20 years after in Rio+20 held last 20 to 22 June 2012. Shortly before leaving for Rio+20, Peter shared with me some of the texts he wrote on his return from the Earth Summit: an article published in the magazine Intersect (September 1992), another article published in The Manila Chronicle (June 1992 ) entitled “What is not said in the UNCED,” and the notes of a presentation held for teachers and members of NGOs in Mindanao (August 1992).

It is very helpful to read texts like these because we can recognize situations very similar to the present. Transcribing a paragraph from his speech to teachers: “If we were to judge Rio as an event held in Brazil, our responses may be very negative. However, if we understand Rio as part of an international process giving us new structures by which to strengthen government adn local response to environmental needs, the process of dialogue that Rio initiated is much more promising. The success of Rio will be judged in terms of a process of initiating international concern. It depends upon the committed involvement of people working together all the way to the barangay and city level. Therefore, if we want to view Rio as a possible success, we must first acknowledge that a start has been made; second, that we put our hope in this; third, that we commit ourselves to its success.”

This text seems to have been written just a few days ago. If the content of the agreement of Rio+20 is disappointing because of its total lack of ambition, we must recognize the wisdom of having put back on track the multilateral system, UN’s own way of doing things, after the great failure of Copenhagen that left the multilateral system weakened. Secondly, Rio+20 reminded us that the challenges we face, poverty and environment, are so huge that we cannot give up. On the contrary, the minimum consensus at Rio+20 is a step for hope, for even that shared basis was not fully met. And finally, Rio+20 confirmed that the future requires local commitment, apart from the concrete action of citizens, associations, local governments, national ones and regional groups. But we have to accept that we are still far from a global governance.

What was achieved in Rio ‘92 was an “institutional framework” for the constitution of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, the Global Environment Facility was restructured, and the Protocols on Climate Change and Biodiversity were enacted. They are still alive and it’s the current system’s architecture. As Peter Walpole commented then: “Everybody hoped but nobody truly expected UNCED would be a turning point in international efforts to sustain the global environment. Still, UNCED was able to sustain various institutional commitments to protect the environment.” Perhaps we might be a little more optimistic today in view of these 20 years. The general awareness of these issues grew and we have a better legal framework, although insufficient.

Also, 20 years ago, NGOs organized their parallel meeting, and like this time, they took charge of reminding negotiators of topics that were not discussed in their agenda. These issues in 1992, collected by NGOs and summarized by Peter, were: “they took no stand on the means for war, refugees, and nuclear armaments, concerns which first brought them to consider environment. Governments remained silent with regard to the equal devastation the overconsumption in society, corruption in government, and growth of transnationals.” The recommendation by Rio+20 for companies to include in their annual reports a section on sustainability does not seem to be a serious constraint to the increased growth, extent, and intensity of action of multinational corporations.

Concluding with a final paragraph from Peter Walpole, perhaps we have not advanced much in 20 years but the challenges remain before us and because of these, all our commitment is so important, and also that of governments: “The Earth Summit was not as comprehensive as had been hoped. Many issues were not discussed and those that were written up in texts were weak. The achievements reached were more in the moral realm, that is, in sustaining the moral commitment of governments to the environment issue.”

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