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Will Rio Summit Produce Results? - 2001-10-27

Latin American and Caribbean countries, meeting in Rio de Janeiro, have adopted a set of principles aimed at helping to preserve the environment and achieve sustainable economic development. But despite the good intentions, achieving the stated objectives seems almost as remote now as in 1992 following the Rio Earth Summit when the world's nations agreed on a common environmental agenda.

Delegates attending the U.N. sponsored conference in Rio this week staked out a common Latin American position on the issues of the environment and sustainable development.

This joint set of principles and recommendations will be presented at next year's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg - a meeting that is being held 10 years after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

One of the main points of the document is the need for urgent action to reverse global warming, deforestation, and land degradation. This is especially critical for Latin America and the Caribbean, which accounts for just 15 percent of the earth's surface yet has the greatest amount of biodiversity on the planet.

The delegates meeting in Rio called on all nations to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on global warming - an appeal aimed especially at the United States which withdrew from the accord earlier this year. The participants also urged industrial nations to honor commitments made at the 1992 Earth Summit to set aside more money for funding environmental and sustainable development projects.

During the conference, Brazil proposed including so-called "debt-for-nature swaps" in the final document. Under this proposal, rich countries cancel part of the debt owed by developing nations in exchange for investments in environmental and sustainable development programs. This could yield huge investments given that Latin America and the Caribbean's foreign debt is estimated at over $700 billion.

Yet in the end, the debt-for-nature proposal was not included in the final document. Even though it was Brazil's proposal, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Lafer told reporters at the conclusion of the meeting that the idea needs to be further refined.

"This 'debt-for-nature-swap' is an idea that is being discussed, and it's passing through several phases. There's a problem of establishing a clean mechanism, and it is also linked to the Kyoto Protocol, which is passing through its own difficulties. So, for now, that's all I can say about this idea," he said.

However, a top official at the U.N. Development Program, Michael Gucovsky, says the debt-for-nature swap was just one of the ideas proposed at the just-concluded conference.

"Debt-for-nature has a tremendous additional potential for mobilizing literally billions of dollars, and we expect to be very actively involved, that is, the UNDP, in promoting debt-for-nature swaps," he explained. "There are [also] tremendous opportunities involving the private sector in the investments that they make to integrate environmental issues into their investment decisions. There is tremendous scope and opportunity for the non-governmental foundation world, which spends some $50 billion a year now, if not more, to expand this, and to get them more involved. But the heart of all this is human development, it has to be from the bottom up. This is why we are stressing very much the issue of making globalization inclusive."

This notion of a more inclusive globalization was raised by Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso during the Rio meeting, when he called for the adoption of what he termed "sustainable globalization." By this, Mr. Cardoso means a stronger partnership between developed and developing countries.

Yet, these calls have been made before, most notably nearly ten years ago at the Rio Earth Summit. Former planning and agriculture minister of the Caribbean island nation of Dominica, Atherton Martin, says the 1992 conference was about building partnerships - yet the results were paltry.

"What was Rio about? It was about trying to build a consensus around what was wrong, and trying to get on paper what was right. It is where over 100 governments of the world said: 'this is what we think needs to be done,' and they said in 1992 governments by themselves cannot fix this problem. We need partnerships between civil society, the private commercial for-profit-sector, and governments," said Mr. Martin. " That was said and written down in 1992. Did that partnership develop, did it evolve? In a few cases, yes, but in too few cases."

The concern is that the same thing will happen again, this time in Johannesburg: countries will pledge their good intentions, but there will be little follow through. It is something those who met in Rio this past week vow they are determined to prevent.