A new report released by the United Nations, the World Bank and a private environmental group calls for fundamental changes in how decisions are made concerning the use and care of the world's natural resources. The report says the changes could help to reduce environmental problems and global poverty.
The systems that support life on earth are under great strain. One out of every six people depends on fish for protein; yet 75 percent of the world's fisheries are over fished or fished to their biological limit. Some 350 million people are directly dependent on forests for their survival at the same time that global forest cover is declining.
These issues are at the heart of the study, the 10th in a series of environmental reports published jointly by the United Nations, the World Bank and the Washington-based World Resources Institute, a private environmental research group.
Jonathan Lash, the Institute's president, says the new report is about strengthening what he calls "environmental democracy" around the world. "Who gets to play a role? Who has information? Who has power to influence those decisions? When there is a proposal to log a forest, do the people whose livelihoods depend on that forest have a chance to have some say in what happens? When a new mine is proposed, do the local villages have a chance to participate in the decision of about where the roads should be built, what kind of conditions should be imposed to protect the environment, whether the spoils can be discharged into the local river," he says.
The study also looks at the progress made since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 11 years ago toward improving citizen access to environmental information, decision-making and environmental justice. All nine countries studied - Chile, Hungary, Italy, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Thailand, Uganda and the United States - have strong laws proving access to information. But their implementation is weak and, according to the new report, much remains to be done.
Even so, more than 500,000 people in Thailand used the Official Information Act in its first three years of existence. In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act continues to grow, with 2 million requests made in 1999.
Jonathan Lash says one of the most striking trends over the last decade has been the globalization of communications and civil society. By the mid-1990s one million NGOs were operating in India; 210,000 in Brazil and 96,000 in the Philippines. "There are now tens of thousands of non-governmental organizations who have access to the internet and the capacity to become part of a network that communicates very rapidly about environmental problems. It means that their voices are amplified in a very significant way and their opportunity to obtain information is hugely enhanced," he says. "The consequence is that the entire process by which problems are identified and changed because there are so many more voices who are capable of expressing views on these decisions." Jonathan Lash says citizens, governments and businesses are more aware than ever before of what needs to be done and are taking action to implement change. "So, the choice of a U.S. consumer or a German consumer to ask the place where they buy lumber or furniture, where does this wood come from and is it sustainably harvested, can cause enormous changes globally. That is a very significant addition to the progress of the implementation of official rights of [trade] participation."
The report says poor communities are particularly vulnerable and less likely to have control over resources on which they depend. But, Jonathan Lash says, they are more willing to engage their governments on decisions that bear directly on health and well being.
When poor people have a seat at the table, he says, they are more likely to resolve environmental problems and social injustice. He gives an example of a South African tribe that lost their ancestral rights to harvest mussels when the coastal area was turned into a nature reserve. "The issue was resolved when they were included as equal partners in the management of the reserve. They worked out a sustainable harvest arrangement and not only became part of the park, but became part of the mechanism for protecting the park, simply continuing doing what they had done for hundreds of years," he says. "It is a classic story of inclusion and a successful resolution of a dispute." World Resources Institute President Jonathan Lash says the challenge for environmental movements around the world is to promote effective, well managed and self-sufficient groups that can stem the terrible tide of global poverty and environmental degradation.