At the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development the whole world mobilized around the construction of a new vision on development based on the then-recent concept of sustainability. This body of thought was captured – or so people believed – from several distinct perspectives in a number of agreements that were signed such as Agenda 21, the two Conventions on Biodiversity (CBD) and the UNCCC. The year 1992 marked a clear globalization of environmental issues and an expansion of ongoing local efforts towards sustainability. Very different understandings of sustainability have today become opposed and in contradiction.
Since then, at least in Latin America, that body of thought was represented in constitutional and legal texts that included increased environmental standards and sustainability as a target until a few years ago when Ecuador adopted the “rights of nature” – maximum expression of the importance of the subject. It was also represented in a body of institutions created since then that endowed governments with ministries and secretaries responsible for environmental issues. Finally, it was also represented in the development plans of States.
Gradually, citizen participation in the debate grew. However, participation in decisions that had an actual impact on the environment lagged behind though one could observe a modernization of the government structure to engage with the environment as an issue. Alongside such efforts, the economy as an engine of development continued its own dynamic and there were almost no efforts to put limits on it with the bare exception of required environmental impact assessments in some specific activities.
Nevertheless, a growing awareness of rights and environmentalism from a local to global movement confronted the continued lack of compliance with the commitments made in Rio 92 and called for a coherence of economic policies with such commitments. What this movement perhaps failed to notice is that the model was actually quite coherent and the limits were already embedded in the very concept of sustainability that came to impregnate discourse in multilateral banks, governments, companies and citizenry. We believe this is not an issue of small nuances but an issue of conception about economic and political models. It is a question of power. Nature, in spite of many efforts, continues to be considered an infinite space from where resources can be extracted, and such resources can be the object of monopolistic appropriation. What matters is to have an ample offer for the potential market, a place in the big auction. When discussing resource scarcity, it is only to better ponder the economic value of such resources.
A new book, Environment: deterioration or solution. Rio +20, offers some approaches to the emerging agenda and the challenges it poses. *
*This book, published by Editorial Aurora, is only available in Spanish.
Margarita Florez is Executive Director at the Colombian-based organization Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad.