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Latin American Environment Ministers See Little Progress - 2001-10-24

Latin American and Caribbean Environment Ministers are meeting in Rio de Janeiro to produce recommendations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development next year in Johannesburg. Many participants say there has been little progress in achieving commitments made nearly decade ago at the Rio Earth Summit.

Representatives from around the world met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the "Earth Summit", and agreed on actions to help stop environmental degradation and promote sustainable economic development. These commitments were contained in a document called "Agenda 21". But during the past nine-years, only some of the measures were carried out. Many nations established environmental secretariats, launched environmental education campaigns, and introduced laws aimed at preserving the environment. But other pledges went unfulfilled.

Industrial nations at the Earth Summit promised to set aside a small portion of their Gross Domestic Product to fund sustainable development programs in developing countries. But the industrialized nations failed to reach the target set: seven-tenths of one percent of GDP. According to U.N. figures, the average has been just two-tenths of a percent of GDP.

The head of the U.N. Environment Program, Klaus Toepfer, says this has resulted in a shortfall of development aid. "The situation right now on a global level, on an annual basis, for official development aid is something like $57 billion, per year on the global level for all different uses, not just for the environment. That is the overall figure," says Mr. Toepfer. "The recommendation in Rio was to come up to $125 billion, so you have a nearly $50 billion [shortfall], on a global level for all different uses."

The needs are critical. The U.N. Environment Program, which has organized this week's meeting in Rio, says environmental degradation and biodiversity loss continue. The agency says land degradation directly affects the livelihood of almost one-billion-people on the planet while deforestation around the world costs about $42 billion a year.

Sara Larrain, who heads the Chilean non-governmental organization Programa Chile Sustentable, says these figures indicate little progress has been made since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. She says there has been no substantive improvement in environmental conditions. The indicators show, she says, that deforestation and degradation of the marine biomass continue, along with pollution and deteriorating urban conditions. Ms. Larrain says all this is having a negative impact on natural resources, upon which the economies of Latin America depend.

The Latin American and Caribbean participants at this conference in Rio say their cash-strapped nations cannot come up with the necessary funds to reverse some of these environmental trends. As in 1992, they are looking to the industrial nations to come up with much of the money to help preserve the environment.

One proposal being discussed at this meeting is that rich nations cancel part of the foreign debt owed by poorer countries, in return for spending on environmental and sustainable development programs. Klaus Toepfer says these debt-for-nature swaps should be adopted by industrial nations. "One of the ideas is to swap debt for debt - environmental debts from the developed countries in the developing countries, and financial debt on the other," he says. "So debt-for-nature - do not cancel, but make it clear that the debt is not repaid to the donors, but used in the countries for environmental projects. That is what we call debt-for-nature swaps."

This debt-for-nature swap may be part of an action plan that regional Environment Ministers will propose for next year's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. The ministers, who end their meeting Wednesday in Rio, are hopeful that at Johannesburg the world's nations will start to comply with the commitments made in 1992 at the first Earth Summit.